The ensemble of Moonwater III
The ensemble of Moonwater III Credit: Courtesy Moonwater Dance Project

The low rumble of the double bass slides up and down with the rise and fall of a tumult of waves to begin the piece. The dancers’ movements manifest a calm sea, storms, and the ebb and flow of the tide. Water’s qualities take on a form that parallels the evolution and modulation of human relationshipswaves that are external as well as within oneself.

Moonwater Dance Project is an all-female-identifying Chicago-based contemporary dance company that was established in 2018. With a movement language that emulates water’s flowing and unpredictable nature, their next performance, Moonwater III, will be held June 18 and 19 at Fulton Street Collective.

The six-piece performance is Moonwater Dance Project’s first evening-length show with a consistent through line from beginning to end. The culmination of over a year of creation and evolution, it’s a play between unity and isolation, submerged in human relationships that parallel properties of water.

“Water is a source of life. It is also very destructive. It has so many different ways that it moves,” explains founder and artistic director Mackenzie King. Water flows throughout the choreographic and musical elements of the piece, integrating the founding image of the company into the dance. The performance progresses through an arc, like the passage of a storm. A dark, heavy swell of double bass, harp, and guitar accompanies the entire cast to begin the performance, moving into a dancer’s solo in the second piece. The dancers then rejoin to embody the choreographic concept of two ships in the night. Each section sees a modulation of intensity, and a rise and fall over the entire structure. The fifth is a duet that is charged with an emotional duel, and all the dancers amass again in the sixth section, in which the musical movement fades into naturalistic sounds such as insects, rain, and ocean waves.

King created and maintains an all-female-identifying dance company in part to address the privileges that male-presenting dancers are accorded in the dance world, due to their rarity relative to women. She explains that in dance, men are seen as less dispensable than their female counterparts, and their opinions are valued more. To counter that, the creative and personal agency of each of Moonwater’s dancers are what make the company. The objective is an environment that empowers dancers through pay and recognition of their artistry.

Moonwater actualizes an alternative to conventional roles of male and female dancers in the contemporary genre. King adds, “Very rarely do you see two women dancing together . . . and we try and change that. We take pride in the fact that we can lift each other, and we can partner with each other, and there is not a limit to what we can do because we are women.” Previously, its members have performed with companies such as Winifred Haun and Dancers, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, and CoCoDaCo Dance Project.

The June performance will follow the company’s May 21 performance, Common Ground, which included an excerpt of Moonwater III. Common Ground was held at the Rooted Space as part of a performance series the studio organized to celebrate the artists who rehearse and teach there. Moonwater III follows two of what King refers to as “rep shows,” which included pieces of repertory from outside choreographers. 

This new performance was choreographed completely within the company. King started working on Moonwater III in December of 2019, and started choreographing in January of 2020. The process was fully collaborativethe dancers all contributed movement material. There was also close communication between King and composer Jeff Schaller, who created a score for the ten-piece orchestra that will provide live accompaniment for the performance. Schaller studied music composition at Illinois State University with Carl Schimmel and Martha Horst, and is also a member of the Lakeview Orchestra. The contemporary classical style that guides the instruments in this piece—including harp, percussion, electric guitar, clarinet, and flute—provides emotive, elaborative soundscapes that recall the dynamics of elements of the natural world. 

Schaller would view videos from rehearsals, and he and King created a structure to inform his composition. By envisioning what each movement in this structure sounded like and what it represented, King and Schaller discovered intricate links between music and movement. Explains King, “He would say, at this point in the music, this is what I visualize, and he would give me an image of a wave crashing against a rock, or something like that. That would give me an image of the choreography as well, so it was very much a back-and-forth process.” 

Moonwater was in the midst of the creation process when the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the transition to online rehearsals. The company continued to rehearse virtually a few times a week, generating movement individually in their homes from tasks under King’s direction. 

The company met in person again in late June 2020, and rehearsed in person throughout July. In August, Moonwater filmed the piece.

Since then, King reflects, the piece changed a lot, largely because of the use of space in a live performance that is different from that of a filmed piece. Moonwater III will have the audience surrounding the performers on all sides. Altering and revising the piece to suit this format was a focus of Moonwater’s rehearsals after resuming in-person. 

Time has been good for the piece, King believes. “It’s given it a chance to mature, and now we can look at it with fresh eyes. It allowed us to dive deep into the content and develop it more.” 

Company member Abigail Stachnik observes that this is the first piece she has worked on over such a long period. “Feeling the way that the piece changes in your body over the course of a year, I feel more connected to it.”

Indeed, beyond the abstract depictions of torrents and waves, she said, “I feel very much like a human when I dance this piece.”

The company helps other emerging dancers connect with their authentic selves and humanity through their annual workshops. This July, the company will offer training through the Moonwater Intensive Series, at the Kenwood School of Ballet in Hyde Park; Dance in the Light Studio in Bradley (near Kankakee); and R&B Dance Center in Wilmette. Company members will each teach a day of a five-day workshop. In addition to immersion in techniques encompassing yoga, conditioning, ballet, contemporary, floorwork, and improvisation, Moonwater artists will also teach company repertoire, which features material from dance artists in NW Dance Project, L.A. Dance Project, Visceral Dance Chicago, CoCoDaCo Dance Project, and Peckish Rhodes Performing Arts Society. King plans for each intensive to end in a performance of Moonwater rep that the participants will dance. (The intensive, while open to the public, is intended for intermediate to advanced level students.)

Company member Celine Spinka leads several of the workshops. Her approach to teaching improvisation for Moonwater focuses on individual expression and empowerment—an ideal that permeates the fluid environment King aims to create for Moonwater Dance Project. Says Spinka, “This method of movement is you. It’s 100 percent you.”  v