Bare Bait Dance presents Wonder Women at the Open Space in UM’s PARTV Bldg, 005 Fri., Mar. 30, Sat., Mar. 31, Fri., Apr. 6 and Sat., Apr. 7, at 8 PM, and Sun., Apr. 8, at 6 PM.
At the start of a recent rehearsal for Wonder Women, Bare Bait Dance co-director Kelly Bouma plugged her phone into the theater’s sound system to play the performance’s soundtrack. What came out instead was “Let it Go,” from Frozen. The dancers laughed and started singing along, almost instantly jumping into a part of the performance that synced pretty impressively with the Disney music.
“It’s just the last song I’d played,” Bouma chuckled, unembarrassed — she has an almost-3-year-old at home obsessed with Elsa.
It was a moment that encapsulated the dance company’s spirit. But more than that, it was a moment that revealed a lot about how their Wonder Women show came about in the first place. Bare Bait’s founder and other co-director, Joy French, is a mom as well — with a 9-month-old son — and like Bouma she is constantly struggling to find a balance when it comes to her art, profession, livelihood and personal life.
The pair sat down to plan the dance company’s seventh season last spring, just as the approaching theatrical release of Wonder Woman was causing buzz around the world for being the first blockbuster starring a female superhero.
“We came up with a title first, and then I worked backward,” says French, who directed and choreographed the original dance work. “I just kept returning to the question: What does it mean to be female and to be a superhero?”
Back at rehearsal, “Let it Go” was scrapped for the actual soundtrack, and the dancers got down to business. The company, which consists of members Codi Briscoe, Kaitlin Kinsley, Tara MacFarland and Jessica Shontz, as well as guest apprentice and high schooler Maeve Fahey, begins with what you might expect from a dance show called Wonder Women: superhero and comic book imagery, powerful, athletic choreography and even some killer moves involving a trampoline that echo the thrilling fight choreography from the film.
Soon, though, things get more complicated. Comic-style punches and leaps begin blending with movement associated with domestic activities. Then there’s a section that includes an invisible woman — a dancer who is acknowledged by the others but not physically present — a reference to both the classic female superhero and a common feeling that women working behind the scenes feel as they move through life.
“It’s a playful show,” French says. “It’s lighthearted and uplifting. We are not trying to start a new discussion. I just wanted to see females on stage and powerful, and highlighting the beauty of that. Too often we play the secondary characters to the male leads, or understate our femininity.”
In another section of the work, French and Bouma have a duet — their first since they began working together at Bare Bait. In it, the two compete to “have it all,” moving through a semi-improvised 10-minute piece in which they are doing everything from making dinner and putting on makeup to taking care of their children and folding laundry. In the background, Jeopardy! plays on television — a symbol of the women’s advanced education and their always-present professional and intellectual goals, even when they’re fully engaged in domesticity.
“We landed on this idea of just how many tasks a woman can do at once, and physicalizing that,” French says. “A feminist discussion of superheroes is not new, but on the live performance level, we wanted to reflect back on the women in the audience and the men sitting next to them: recognizing all the things she does. We can do it all, but how does it feel? We wanted to be playful about that, and highlight the beauty of that.”
The idea of the multitasking superwoman is really not just about individuals, though, as both French and Bouma stressed. It’s also the story of Bare Bait Dance. French (who was literally out of breath from multitasking during her interview) looks back on the dance company that she created seven years ago and sees a lot of similarities between the work she does as a woman and the work she does at Bare Bait. The company is, in many ways, her first child. It’s also her ongoing passion, her career, and a responsibility that can sometimes feel like a burden.
Just as the two women in the duet manage to floss while vacuuming and blowing kids’ noses, French and Bouma juggle everything at Bare Bait: performing on stage, planning the season, office work and ticketing. The “impossible task” of being a working mom mirrors the “impossible task” of running a dance company on a shoestring budget in a small city where even the most popular genres of fine art struggle to survive.
“I think part of finding the balance is being inspired by the women we work with, and by the audience, and by our patrons” French says. “It’s very poignant for both of us. We want to give something to the community without taking too much from us. And it’s one thing to feel inspired in the studio and another to feel inspired in the office.”
What they’ve accomplished is creating a dance company that is growing in both scope and recognition. Its eighth season will include, for the first time, a visit from two prominent New York City dancers, an independently curated dance film festival and a move to transform the organization into an official 501(c)(3) non-profit with a board.
Wonder Women is, they both say, a celebration more than anything else, both of the successes of the superhero women in our lives and of the dance company that is putting it on and performing it.
“This piece is a celebration because we feel proud of ourselves, being pregnant and having kids while having the company,” Bouma says. “But it’s also to recognize all of the things that women do behind the scenes and bring them to light. I think there’s an upswell of recognizing and honoring women — without creating competition between women, and while avoiding clichés about women. This is a close look at how we want to present ourselves as women and as a dance company made up of women.”