multimedia storytelling with data and imagery

Rehearsing with Momentum Dance Collective

One year spent following Anchorage's most thoughtful and socially-engaged dance company.

Words and photos by Will Koeppen

In April 2014, Becky Kendall and I went out to lunch and talked art. Becky asked me to participate in Momentum Dance Collective​'s new project, IMPACT, and of course I said yes. I asked her if I could come to some of their rehearsals and take photos of their process.

"Oh! Sure!" she said, "How many rehearsals?"
"Well ... how many is too many? How about all of them them?"

I don't think she believed me, and the first time I stepped into the rehearsal space in June of that year, everyone was a little suprised because here there was a photographer but no actual show yet. By the end of that first rehearsal, I realized I didn't have a clue about dance photography. On the up side, the dancers quickly forgot there was a camera around. By the time I walked into my 40th rehearsal, I felt like I was getting pretty decent at capturing their spirit.

As a company, Momentum stays true to its name as a collective during their rehearsals. All the dancers participated in shaping, choreographing, and performing in each show. One of the most interesting things of that model was how they traded skills and complemented strengths. Momentum is diverse, and each dancer brought their own background with them to contribute to the group, both through their individual dancing and through group-led sessions. For example, each rehearsal warm-up was led by a different dancer, so one day it was zumba with Leticia, the next it was tumbling floorwork with Heather, then dancing to 80s songs with Beth, then hip hop moves with Irene, etc.

Momentum dancers warm up in the West High School dance studio.

Show choreography with Momentum was also a group effort. During rehearsals, dancers were often asked to come up with individual movements that would eventually be incorporated into the piece by the choreographer. For example, in one IMPACT work, dancers were asked to create a movement that relayed their personal idea of "home," which were then stiched together in sequence to create a piece.

A few months into the project, Becky asked me, "Aren't you getting bored coming to all these?" I tried not to take that as a hint, and instead I told her the truth: it was the best part of every week for me. I've always loved dance, and I've also always loved the idea of being backstage — a ghost, able to see what people are really like before and after the curtain closes.

It was a great opportunity for me to practice taking photos of people who are used to being photographed. After a while, I spent so much time around the dancers that it started to genuinely surprise me when I interacted with non-dancers, who were less comfortable being in front of a camera.

My year with Momentum also allowed me to see the strength, dedication, and resilience of a group of athletes with an aesthetic aim. Hip surgeries, foot problems, and knee issues all showed up at various times and had to be dealt with both individually and as a team. Even if they couldn't participate, dancers would often still come to rehearsal to watch, take in the choreography, offer constructive criticism, and do their best to continue to pitch in until they could dance again.

Becky Kendall, sick with a fever, bundled up on the floor so as to not miss a day.

It was amazing to see how much collective time and energy went into each show. Momentum hosted two 1.5-hour-long weeknight rehearsals and a 4-hour weekend rehearsal, meaning that each Momentum dancer spent ~315 hours in group rehearsal that season. IMPACT featured 14 dancers — a relatively small show by Momentum standards — and a minimum of ~4,400 person-hours in the studio to prepare for just 6 performances.

Six months into the project, I subjected myself to a porfolio review of the images I had of Momentum so far. One comment I took away from the review (graciously done by a group of photographer friends) was that the feelings of teamwork and camaraderie among the dancers were more interesting than photos of dancers doing cool things. I think that speaks to the deep sense of friendship and trust that permeates and exudes from this company. I feel lucky to have been included in their crew.