When Atlanta dancer/choreographer Blake Beckham decided she wanted to create a performance in a two-story cardboard house, the fact that she had no idea how to make it happen wasn't much of a deterrent.
Beckham, along with Dance Truck founder Malina Rodriguez, started fledgling dance organization the Lucky Penny in 2011. And though their organization doesn't have an office (or a staff, or funding, or a budget) the pair has displayed an amazing talent for making elaborate visions a reality.
Last summer, Beckham and Rodriguez created the ambitious, site-specific dance performance PLOT at the Goat Farm. It involved an industrial-size swing set and contributions from a huge team of volunteers, technicians, and visual artists. This summer, from Aug. 16-19, the Lucky Penny will present Threshold, a dance production exploring the nature of home and dwelling spaces inside a handmade two-story cardboard house.
"I just became fascinated with what cardboard can do and how gorgeous it is," Beckham says of the impetus behind Threshold. "There's so much that's interesting about a house that's made out of cardboard. Cardboard boxes are the ultimate symbols of transience, leaving, moving, packing. They contradict what we think of as home: stable, foundational, permanent."
But Beckham and Rodriguez knew that building a house structurally sound enough to accommodate dancers on two stories would require a level of expertise they didn't have. As they asked around about who could advise them, the names of Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam kept coming up. Scogin and Elam have led one of the world's most renowned and innovative architectural firms for 30 years. They hold chairs at major universities, design buildings around the world, and were recently fêted at the White House with the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Architecture in July. The architects are perhaps most well known in Atlanta for their avant-garde design of the Buckhead Branch Library. The deconstructivist, ship-like building was the subject of debate when it opened in 1989 and when it was threatened with demolition in 2008.
Encouraged by a dancer-friend who worked as an assistant at the firm, Beckham and Rodriguez scheduled a brief meeting with the husband-and-wife duo. "I really thought they would just give us a bit of advice and say, 'Here's the phone number of a friend of a friend with an intern who can get you started,'" Beckham says.
But something completely different happened at the meeting. "We just sort of fell in love with them and fell in love with the idea," Scogin says. "We could just tell from talking with them how dedicated they were and what really special people they are. It was also obvious they were extremely creative and hardworking." The meeting quickly shifted from the Lucky Penny making a pitch for advice to a brainstorming session about how Scogin and Elam could design the house for them.
"There was this challenge of trying to do something in cardboard, building a house where people could get up on a second floor," Scogin says. "We couldn't turn them down." The pair began sketching out ideas and eventually devoted some of the firm's resources to the project: 17 Georgia Tech School of Architecture interns, a project manager, and the innovative, forward-thinking conceptual design of the firm's principals themselves. Over the next three months, the architectural team worked out of Scogin and Elam's downtown office, making drawings, renderings, models, and revisions based on the artists' ideas.
Though the architects donated their conceptual know-how, the building and funding of the project would be the responsibility of Beckham and Rodriguez. They turned to Kickstarter with a $10,000 fundraising goal, which they not only surpassed, but also received an additional $4,500 matching grant from a donor in Boston. Packaging supply company MeadWestvaco came on as a sponsor and donated the paperboard for the house's floor. DramaTech, Georgia Tech's student theater organization, donated the performance space, allowing Beckham and Rodriguez a five-week residency period to build the house.
As with PLOT, Beckham and Rodriguez gathered a huge community of friends, technicians, artists, and volunteers to help realize the project. "People are just fascinated with the material," Beckham says. "When they see it happening it's really empowering because it does seem impossible. It's glue and cardboard and it's 19 feet in the air."
For the design, the architects were interested in dramatizing the experience of crossing a threshold. Audience members will enter the set through an abstract fireplace, a sculpture by Atlanta artist Karley Sullivan, and cross the cardboard set to the seating area. "It's the idea of the house as a physical representation of how people move through life and relationships, how they move through space and move from inside to outside," Scogin says. "It kind of looks like a house, but it's not exactly that. It's pulled apart and separated. The fireplace is made out of the furniture. Things are transformed."
Construction proved far more challenging than Beckham and Rodriguez had anticipated. Scogin and Elam occasionally checked in, but the execution of the design was completely in the Lucky Penny's hands. That meant a lot of late nights, heavy lifting, and problem solving.
"Anything you know about building is thrown out the window when you start working with cardboard," Rodriguez says. The special Hexacomb cardboard (thick sheets with a honeycomb-corrugated interior) required to make the house structurally sound was far heavier than they'd imagined. A small central room designed to turn during the performance weighs more than 800 pounds and takes three people to push it. Cutting the cardboard requires a special saw. There's special glue and glue guns for applying it. And each layer of cardboard must be stuck together and left to dry completely before another layer can be added: Six layers are needed for the house's load-bearing walls and second story floors. In the end, 50,000 square feet of paper products will go into the house.
"The biggest challenge has been endurance," Beckham says. "For a dance performance, you typically can expect to work like crazy the week before a show. This is five weeks, and we've been doing a 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. schedule for all of it. And that was coming off an intense planning period. We were exhausted the first day here. Keeping up the pace is hard. And then we'll have to deliver for the performance."
Threshold will involve a trio of one male and two female dancers (Alex Abarca, Alisa Mittin, and Claire Molla) in an abstract performance riffing on the theme of house and home. "I'm interested in the contradictions of interior and exterior space," Beckham says. "Your home is a space where you feel nurtured and protected and guarded, but because you feel safe you can expose things you wouldn't show to the world. For me it's mostly a state of vulnerability. I want the audience to feel that they're peering in on a private space, that there is something exposed."
Beckham says she's tried to capture a sense of intimacy and vulnerability in the movement, utilizing a dance language full of gesture, eye contact, proximity, and touch. "I think people will relate to the emotional states that are present in the piece. It does include this abstract dance language, but I think there'll be something familiar about the way the dancers address each other and the emotional states that they create." The dance is set to an original score by Atlanta-based DJ Santiago Paramo, who will perform the soundscape live on an electronic setup and a piano in a first-story room.
In all, more than 100 contributors will take part in creating Threshold. In its first two weeks alone, the project logged more than 500 volunteer hours. "PLOT seemed like the biggest, most challenging, most epic production ever for us as artists," Rodriguez says. "But that was so easy. It doesn't even compare. Every level has gotten really amped up. ... The thing that blows my mind most is that Mack and Merrill believed in us and took this chance on us. And the volunteers and MeadWestvaco and the Kickstarter contributors. They all want us to accomplish this."
"I don't feel like this is even my idea anymore," Beckham says. "So many people have become invested in us and believed in us. I feel like this is Atlanta's cardboard house."