A decaying warehouse by the railroad tracks probably wouldn't strike most people as a prime spot for a dance performance. But as the sun sets, shadows lengthen, and the bricks and mortar start to take on a theatrical glow. An outrageously verdant crop of vines and weeds trembles in the breeze, a slow train rumbles by like some massive piece of stage machinery moving into place, and the artists of Dance Truck ready their latest creation PLOT, the fledgling arts organization's largest and most elaborate show yet.
"The passage of time is so present here," says choreographer Blake Beckham with a gesture that takes in the old warehouse, the graffiti, decaying machinery, the riot of Southern undergrowth in high summer, and above it all, the sunset and the Atlanta skyline. "There are these layers and layers of experiences of time."
Several sites at this complex of early 20th-century former-industrial buildings on the Westside will become the setting for PLOT, a performance examining themes of the life cycle from germination and growth to death, decay and return to cosmic dust. It will be an elaborate production, involving four dancers, several interior and exterior locations, a vintage truck, swings, hundreds of square feet of sod, multiple costumes, an elevated stage with an exposed root system underneath, 20 crew members, seven interns, props, art installations, light, sound and video.
It's an ambitious undertaking for any organization, but an especially challenging and significant one for Dance Truck. PLOT not only represents a number of firsts for the organization — its first full-length show, first production of a major work by a single choreographer, first ticketed event — but it also represents the culmination of the organization's philosophy.
Dance Truck formed in 2009 when union lighting technician Malina Rodriguez was contemplating ways to present dance at Le Flash, a one-night-only light-based art event in Castleberry Hill. Dance venues at the event were in short supply. Having unloaded equipment from so many trucks for shows around town, Rodriguez began to wonder why the back of an empty truck — itself evocative, dramatic, raised and fitted with a rolling door like a curtain — couldn't become a sort of mobile venue. Dance Truck was born, and became an immediate hit. Since its unveiling, Dance Truck has brought Rodriguez-curated programs of local dancers, choreographers, and performance artists to nearly every local festival, gallery, museum, street or parking lot that will accommodate the signature truck, from the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center and the Decatur Arts Festival to the streets of Little Five Points and protests at the Capitol in support of arts funding.
Fittingly, the mobile dance unit's mission is "Bringing dance to the people." Shows are free or, in PLOT's case, inexpensive. This philosophy is coupled with an artist-centered approach to production. At a time when dancers and choreographers often put up their own money for a show (and frequently find themselves in the red on closing night), Rodriguez insists that all artists be paid for their work and that even the most elaborate creative ideas be seen through to completion with minimal budgetary, promotional and practical concerns passed the artists' way.
"Through Dance Truck I want to provide every resource that the choreographer needs so that they have the time to make the work," says Rodriguez.
Sponsorship is key, and among the most generous sponsors of PLOT are Goat Farm owners, Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse, who have donated use of the property. Artistic creation is hardly new to the place: Harper and Melhouse are longtime friends to Atlanta's arts community. Artists have been living and creating on the Goat Farm for decades, with the past few years seeing a new flurry of activity and attention. "It feels like a discovery to me, but people have been making art here since the 1970s," says Beckham. "I approach it with a lot of respect and openness to everything that's been laid here for me."
PLOT will utilize three primary locations on the Goat Farm: the courtyard-like breezeway; the dovetail, an elevated gravel-covered area with views of the railroad tracks and skyline; and the interior basement-like space known as the Rodriguez Room (no relation Malina). "The breezeway is about growth, what's coming up from the surface, the life that's there," explains Beckham, who will perform her work with dancers Emily Christianson, Camille Jackson and Alissa Mittin in each location. "The dovetail is about digging, trying to break through the surface and the layers of soil. The Rodriguez Room is the root system, what's exposed once you've dug underneath."
A '76 International Harvester Scout filled with sod will lead the audience through the performance. "The truck is a character in the show," says Rodriguez of the solid, affably humming machine. "It's our tour guide through the experience so the audience will know when it's time to go on to the next location."
Rehearsals are occurring almost entirely at the Goat Farm, and the design is likewise taking cues from what's already there. "The point is to make a site-specific piece," says Beckham. "It would make no sense to go into a nice dance studio with a beautiful floor and then try to come out here. ... Part of our approach is letting the space speak in a naturalistic way."
When asked if Dance Truck's road ahead to PLOT's opening night is a scary one, Rodriguez answers that it's pure thrill. "When we started Dance Truck, we'd all gotten sick of working on shows and saying, 'That's good enough,'" she says. "The opportunity to hear an artist's idea and then just take it as far as we can is amazing. I feel lucky to get to do this. It's not scary. It's a challenge."