Just a few minutes before she leapt onto the Astroturf stage dressed as a bumblebee with bright red lipstick, Robin Cantrell, artistic director of Indelible Dance, was dressed in pre-show clothing–sweats, a shirt, some thick socks–and giving her audience members a quick PSA.
Besides welcoming everyone to Indelible Dance’s annual show, Cantrell explained to the audience that they could get up and get more drinks whenever they wanted, that they could stand up if the seats were too uncomfortable, or they could sit on the floor instead. She said that they could laugh if they found something funny, cry if they found something sad, clap or cheer if they felt moved to do so.
Then she disappeared behind a curtain and with the first few upbeat notes of Vivaldi’s Spring movement from “The Four Seasons,” Cantrell was fully transformed into a bumble bee, smiling, jumping, and twirling around the circular stage, “pollinating” the flowers with a pair of antennae sticking out of her short brown hair. The audience laughed; her happy energy was contagious.
“I think most of us spend most of the day sitting and looking at a flat screen. And so when you go to see a show and you pay money for it, it seems silly to do the exact same thing,” said Cantrell. “I want the audience to feel fully in something and that it’s a really exciting, enjoyable experience.”
After spending her beginning years as a performer dancing ballet, Cantrell decided to shed the pointe shoes and tutus–and the rigidity of the ballet technique–to delve into the world of modern and contemporary dance. She’s a teacher, a traveler, and a performer, but most of all she is a unique voice standing out in the New York City dance community.
“I remember being in kindergarten and telling everyone I was going to be a professional dancer, I was going to move to New York and I was going to marry Michael Jackson,” she said. “I’ll let you guess which two of those things happened.”
Originally from Minnesota, Cantrell, who is 35 years old, started dancing at the age of 2, attended a competition dance school throughout high school and then got her BFA in Ballet Performance from the University of Utah. After performing for the City Ballet of San Diego for a few years, she was “pretty bored of all the Swan Lake” and started taking modern dance classes.
Eventually Cantrell and a fellow dancer, Mira Cook, decided to put on a modern dance show in a coffee shop. Realizing modern dance and choreography was something she was passionate about, Cantrell moved to New York at her first job offer–which happened to be dancing for a company that did ballet to heavy metal.
Now, Cantrell dances for Battery Dance Company, a modern dance company of five dancers based in lower Manhattan that is largely funded by the state department.
Cantrell has the body of a dancer, thin but with the hidden muscle that comes from years of dance training, and a calm demeanor–results of the meditating and yoga she does regularly.
“She’s very rubbery,” said Cook, who has been dancing with Cantrell for 13 years. “She looks weightless, but not in a floating way. Some people have said that she looks like a puppet sometimes, like that her body moves itself without effort.”
Besides traveling, teaching, and performing with Battery Dance Company, Cantrell keeps her home life with her husband in Williamsburg as organized as possible so that she can be wildly creative when choreographing and coming up with ideas for shows.
“Usually I think of the whole show at once in the shower, the moment the previous show ends,” she said, making the creative process sound incredibly easy.
The ideas might come easily to Cantrell, but putting together a show requires the collaborative effort of her entire company. While the dancing and choreography is the most important part, Cantrell also puts a lot of energy into figuring out ways to connect with the audience. For example, she never has shows in a traditional theater, opting instead for a more interactive layout, where the audience is at the same level as the dancers.
“She has a very good eye for the big picture of what she wants,” said Cook. “Having known her for a while, I see her exploring ideas that I know are themes in her life. So I think it’s kind of personal, but she takes it to a really fantastical place.”
Her show this September, called “The City of Seasons” took a twist on a classical piece by the baroque composer Vivaldi, including a pas de deux done under the spray of a hose during Spring, dancers serving ice cream to the audience during Summer, a fight over sweaters during Fall, and chilly fog and falling snowflakes during Winter. The special effects created palpable season changes for the audience, making the dancing that much more powerful.
For Cantrell, keeping dance alive means creating a connection with the audience and making them feel comfortable at a dance show. She especially tries to connect with a younger audience, those who aren’t necessarily interested in attending a more traditional ballet or dance show.
“A show is for the audience, you can’t do it in a vacuum. It’s for them, it should be entertaining,” said Cantrell. “Whether that entertaining is making someone horrified or laugh or cry or fall in love, you have to illicit something.”
To see Robin Cantrell and Mira Cook dance, check out duetproject.com