GREAT BARRINGTON — On a recent afternoon, choreographer Olga Dunn and dancer Ava Girard are in their rehearsal space at the back of Saint James Place, putting together the pieces for an upcoming one-woman dance performance. As the late-day sun slanted in from the tall windows, they work on a slightly unusual piece — one set not to music, but to the poem “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Lameris.
Dunn has an idea about the piece’s final motion, a flourishing point of the finger to an unseen stranger, with the cheerful, almost throwaway line “I like your hat.” Dunn steps from along the wall into the space, and suggests that maybe there should be another gesture there. Maybe a smile of greeting and a wave before that finger point. Girard gives it a try.
Over the weeks this is how the show has emerged, to become what will be the Olga Dunn Dance Company’s first cautious, scaled-down reappearance before a live audience next month in what will most likely be the first indoor dance performance in the Berkshires in over a year. Unlike its regular company shows, Girard will dance alone the six pieces — actually seven if you count a preview of a piece for later this year — in a departure from usual practice. Dunn describes all of this as “excitingly new.”
“What I love about working with Ava, is a lot of time when you work with a performer you visualize something and ask for something and it rarely reproduces exactly as you hope,” Dunn said. “For most of what we’ve been working on for this show, Ava’s been miraculously able to dance what was in my mind. It’s been such a great thing.”
“Six by One” is scheduled to premiere at Saint James Place on May 15 at 7 p.m., though the details about what it will look like are still coming together. The performance space has a capacity of about 300, but current state regulations only allow for about 100. But Dunn said even that feels a little too much, and it is unclear how many more than the 30 or so already confirmed will be allowed. The audience will be masked, the first two rows will be kept empty, and while they are only planning one night, Dunn said they are “definitely thinking beyond one performance,” either through a film version online or additional dates later in the year.
For now, just getting out there is the point. “I think just reading about something happening live will make people feel better about where we are right now,” she said.
The program will last about 40 minutes, and includes four pieces choreographed by Dunn and three by Girard. They pull together a variety of dance styles, including ballet, jazz and modern, the kind of eclecticism Dunn said is a company signature. “I love to push the boundaries out and not limit to one style,” she said.
The music runs from Billie Holiday to modern percussion, and one piece set to Lameris’ poem that was written in 2016 but seems eerily prescient about the longing for the most basic friendly casual contact with strangers, which we’ve lost for all these months. The variety of music, costumes and styles is a way to maintain momentum through the show.
“When there is a solo performer you really want to make the audience feel they are going to different places with each piece,” Dunn said. “They don’t want to see the same character, feel the same energy, or hear the same music.”
Girard loves this turnover. “It helps make sure you aren’t repeating what you’ve done,” she said. “And with various styles, it helps to internalize different characters and qualities.”
The collaboration between Dunn and Girard is a cross-generational one, with a choreographer and artistic director with decades of experience and a young dancer just setting off. Dunn said coming together for a project like this is the result of “the pandemic and serendipity.”
“It just started out rehearsing together, and the rehearsals got longer and more productive and we started to see things juice out in completed form,” Dunn said. “We thought, 'This is ridiculous; we should be able to perform these.' But no one else was available, so we thought we could do a one-woman show.”
Girard is originally from New Hampshire and had already trained for years in ballet when she met Dunn in 2017 when she came for a summer intensive program. She had just moved to New York to continue her training and begin her career when the pandemic began. Since then, she’s spent a lot of time in the Berkshires, where she has family, keeping in shape and taking classes online.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” Girard said. “I’m so used to being in classes with other people and relying on them for inspiration and camaraderie. It’s very different to be training alone.”
She said working closely with Dunn has been “a good next step.”
“I was starting to launch a career, and the pandemic changed that,” Girard said. “Working with Ms. Dunn in this capacity, and to continue with my choreography, feels like a really nice continuation of that moment.”
So far, this time has been a chance for her to develop her own methodology to become a professional artist.
“One thing I want to develop is a process I can rely on,” Girard said. “Right now, I can get to a result I’m happy with, but don’t necessarily have the steps that I know work to get there. It’s trial and error, which is fun, but this is the next goal. And it’s good to perform where I can, and be forced to get up to performance standard.”
They say they are beginning to feel some nerves, especially being among the first to come back this way. Last December, the company released a series of dance performances online, which was a good way to keep engaged and reach an audience maybe a little further afield than the region. But now they are thinking about the reality of getting back in front of an audience.
“I’m worried about looking out and seeing all these masks,” Dunn said. “It’s like some science fiction movie. We’re trying to prepare ourselves, but it is not what we would prefer.”
A big part of the serendipity of their work together has come from the fact that Ava is at the point in her career that she could find time to take on a big project like this. The company’s other core members, about six, have been tied up with work, childcare, and just trying to get through the pandemic.
“It’s been devastating to be away for so long,” she said. “This was a whole year, a year when you have to have your own life.”
But Dunn said that there are performances planned for July.
“When we do start getting back together, it’s going to be like jumping into a cold pond,” she said. “And then hopefully we’ll warm up, with a lot of movement.”
For more information about the company and upcoming performances, visit www.olgadunndance.org.