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Dance, as a whole, has the misfortune of being perceived as a niche market. Ballet can feel antiquated. Casting lists still get posted to a corkboard outside the studio. Instructors hold to the techniques of old innovators such as Lester Horton or Martha Graham. But on the other end of the spectrum, contemporary dance, much like contemporary visual art, can be easily dismissed by the general public as “weird,” “confusing,” or worse: “I could do that.”
Local dancer and choreographer Madeline Maxine Gorman—profiled in Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2023—pushes back against that narrative, explaining that contemporary art isn’t about “getting it.” At its best, contemporary work reflects aspects of daily life and forces audiences to consider what they might otherwise ignore. In this way, Gorman, a queer, disabled, neurodivergent Gen Z performer who founded the D.C.-based contemporary dance company GRIDLOCK in 2018, is currently focusing her work on technology.
Everything from GRIDLOCK Dance’s organizational structure to its program notes reflects modern life and modern technology. The company schedules rehearsal via color-coded Google calendars; Gorman organizes her choreography ideas in a Drive file—“a little bit more eco-friendly,” she says. Wherever company artists’ names are listed, their pronouns are, too.
At the same time, the company boldly explores technology’s downsides. On March 10, part of the annual Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival, GRIDLOCK presents Veritas, a multimedia dance performance about searching for truth within American mass media, political rhetoric, and misinformation—and the technology that fuels and distorts each of those areas.
City Paper spoke with Gorman ahead of Friday’s show to discuss modern dance, technology’s role in the artform, and how it factors into Veritas. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: Some people think modern dance emphasizes beauty and expression while contemporary dance emphasizes the ideas behind the dance. What do you think when applied to your own choreography, work, and company?
Madeline Maxine Gorman: That’s such a lovely definition. I think it’s why, for me, that’s my favorite part of choreography. Sometimes I feel like that makes me sound like a bad choreographer, but a lot of the time, in my own personal creative process, if somebody is doing something with their right leg and their left leg is better, I’ll say, “We’ll just switch sides. I don’t care.” It’s so much more about what am I trying to say and how does this movement serve as a function of that as opposed to how can this movement end up telling a story.
It’s all about the story, and the movement is the mechanism for that…I ask, what is the big idea we’re trying to tackle or explore through this work? And then the movement somehow is less important. I don’t know if that makes sense or sounds bad, but that’s why I like to classify it as contemporary, because, for me, it’s less important what exactly each movement is and the technique of the movement so much as what the movement is able to convey to audiences.
WCP: How do you communicate to your dancers what that idea is?
Gorman: I typically will think of whatever the idea is, and sometimes it’ll be a big broad idea, like Veritas—of how are we navigating the online world? How are we able to understand what’s true and what’s not? How can we bring that into a performance? And sometimes it’s a really small idea … I’ll start collecting pieces of a song lyric that makes me think about something, or I’ll save an image of a painting that makes me feel how I want the piece to feel. I just start pulling all this stuff together, and I’ll even write down different visual ideas, super abstract, like a chain of people or something like that. All this random stuff gets added [to a Google Drive folder]. And then, by the time I come to rehearsal, I’ve got my folder of stuff, which seems disconnected, but it’s connected in that it’s all my percolating ideas. I bring a little bit of movement, and I bring all these ideas to the rehearsal, and then we really start to play with the ideas.
Sometimes I’ll say, “Tweak the phrase, and keep in mind this painting that’s in the folder and this word that I wrote from a song, and go play with it and see how that informs your movement.” So the beginning of the process is super exploratory, and we create a ton of material in the beginning. Then, with all that information, we start to figure out how it tells the story we want.
WCP: In Veritas, audience members are able to interact and collaborate digitally with each other during the performance. How? Why?
Gorman: The audience members get prompted to text into the performance. They’re sent questions during the actual performance, and then their responses are displayed digitally and anonymously throughout the space. It’s a really interesting opportunity to reflect on technology’s role in our lives.
One of the things I was really interested in with Veritas was bringing the actual feeling of overstimulation and distraction into a performance space, which is typically not where we would experience that, right? When we go to the theater, we turn off our phones, we put it in our pocket, we sit down, and then we get immersed in that world. I was really curious what would happen and how would a performance feel if we kept the world with us—if that was part of the performance.
One of the other fun things is that everybody leaves their phone ringer on. And so throughout the performance we’re hearing all of the dings and notifications and little bloops. All of people’s phones going off becomes a pretty integral part of the sound score. And that leads to a really interesting discussion at the end about the power of anonymous communication and distraction and staying in the present moment. I think there’s often this narrative around like “technology, bad; grass, good.” And sometimes, it’s not that simple.
[When we premiered this,] an audience member came up to me and said, “This performance, the dancing was beautiful, but I was so distracted, and my phone was going off, and there was this, and there was that.” They were distressed when they got out of the show and, at one point, they just turned their phone off [to] watch the dancing. I was like, “Let’s unpack that.”
WCP: It sounds fascinating. Sometimes it’s helpful for people to go into a performance with a guiding question or idea. Is there something that comes to mind that our readers can carry into Veritas?
Gorman: Such a great question… As you’re sitting in this performance, you can think about how this may or may not be similar to how you navigate in life, how you move through the world. “Veritas” is Latin for truth. It’s sort of an opportunity for us to consider how quickly we might believe something to be true or how quickly we are to trust.
Also a big piece of [Veritas] is how does this affect people differently? We don’t all have the same privileges walking through the world and navigating the world, and some of us have more luxuries. That’s something else to think about when you’re watching the show. Overall, just thinking about what is true, what is not true, and am I confident I can tell the difference?
GRIDLOCK Dance: Veritas starts at 8 p.m. on March 10 at ATLAS Performing Arts Center as part of the Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival, which runs through March 26. atlasarts.org. $27.