Au Builds Community from the Inside Out

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It’s a sweltering Sunday evening in July, and Au Collective has already been rehearsing for an hour. The oppressive summer heat that can make anyone feel languorous isn’t slowing the dancers down a bit. Instead, the mood is relaxed yet focused in on what artistic director Cheryl Delostrinos is teaching. After dividing the ensemble into two groups with separate phrases, Delostrinos layers the two sections together, crafting a continuous duet peppered with floor work, hip hop rhythms, the occasional arabesque. The vocabulary is varied, full-bodied, and the dancers seem to revel in its challenges. They help each other out, joking when they mess up. It’s apparent that they come from different training backgrounds—some rooted in hip hop, others with lush modern sensibility, some with lines indicating years of ballet training. Delostrinos has tapped into a sweet spot with the movement vocabulary: any stylistic differences are transformed into a seamless whole. Everyone looks good doing this choreography and there’s still room to show their individuality. And while it’s a bit unusual to see so many different aesthetics under the umbrella of one company, that’s kind of what Au is all about. The dancers are predominantly people of color, women, and queer people. Their website states the group’s mission is to “develop relatable and engaging art that reflects our multi-faceted family of dancers.” Through the process of making and performing their art, and empowering their family of dancers, they’re also building the larger dance community in which they themselves are a part. SeattleDances caught up with Au Collective last month as they prepared for their first evening length show, Gold&Skin, slated for September 10-12 at 12th Ave Arts.

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Au Collective in rehearsal
Photo by Randy Ford

Au Collective—taken from the symbol for the element Aurum, the main component in gold— began when friends and UW dance program grads Delostrinos, Fausto Rivera, Austin Nguyen, and Hallie Scott started talking about their lives in dance post-college. “We got into this conversation of what we wanted in dance, and we talked about putting people of color onstage. We talked about moving through space, dancing to the beat, and having fun onstage,” said Delostrinos. “For me,” says Nguyen, “it was really important to create something that was welcoming to diverse movements. Especially as I didn’t start out as a technically trained dancer.” Scott recalls talking about being inspired by female role models at UW and beyond. “We wanted to feature women in positions of power: directing and choreographing and producing and dancing.” After realizing that they’d all been feeling somewhat uncertain in their dance careers since graduating, they decided to band together and realize their goals as a collective.

 

As a collective, members are sharing the workload of producing, promoting, and creating Gold&Skin, as well as programming community outreach events. While everyone pitching in and helping out is sometimes a romaticized concept, Au Collective seems highly effective at delegating and mobilizing its members. “Everyone brings their own social capital and their own skill set,” says Scott. The group divides tasks: Delostrinos gives the main artistic direction, but others are in charge of PR, finances, scheduling, social media, and fundraising. All of the artists spoke about the uniquely supportive environment the collective provides, when they’re able to help with tasks outside of rehearsal, but especially when they’re not. “Even when my capacity has been very, very low to take on more work,” says dancer El Nyberg, “they still want me here regardless of what my capacity is outside of rehearsal. What I can bring is valuable enough to have me here.” Which isn’t to say that it’s sunshine and roses all the time. “It’s been really hard,” emphasized Scott. “This is really hard work. And it’s really messy, and it doesn’t go smoothly all the time. But the fact that we’re still friends at the end of the day is a huge testament to how much we actually believe in each other and believe in the project.”

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Au Collective in rehearsal
Photo by Hallie Scott

The bonds holding this group together were forged from shared experiences in the UW dance program. “UW is a huge school, but the dance department is actually really small,” says dancer Rebecca Smith. The program cultivated a tight knit, familial community. Particularly influential were faculty mentors and grad students (all of whom have ample professional performance experience— a requirement for the MFA program) who inspired and fostered them as individual artists. Delostrinos also cited Doug Varone, whom she trained with because of a connection instigated by a UW grad student, as choreographic mentor and role-model in community building. “There’re a lot of Doug Varone dancers in the UW program, and he showed me that having a supportive dance community is possible,” said Delostrinos. Though UW’s nurturing environment molded them as artists, it also contributed to the sense loss they felt upon graduating, when that community wasn’t a given anymore.

 

While the growing pains of establishing oneself in a new context are familiar to anyone who’s moved to a new place, the struggle of re-establishing themselves in the larger space of Seattle dance resonates deeply with all of Au’s dancers. Lorraine Lau, who graduated from UW four years ago and is reconnecting with a slightly younger UW cohort through Au Collective, said it took her “several years of working really hard at being visible—showing up for stuff and being the person who is working with choreographers you don’t really know about—to have enough clout to feel good about being there.” The contrast between that and her home with Au is enormous. “It’s such a different space. There isn’t a sense of competitiveness, there’s a mutual goal of everyone enjoying their work and thriving in their work. I feel different when I come to rehearsals here. It’s tangible.”

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Au Collective in rehearsal
Photo by Andrew Imanaka

Though their experiences at UW originally united them, the group’s common denominator now is their shared vision for the collective, which isn’t solely artistic. Most companies start with an artistic vision and work to realize it through choreography and performances. While Au has a distinct artistic voice, what sets them apart is their conviction to provide a community for each other and others who might need it. It’s a larger goal that transcends their work in rehearsal, and they all speak about it with same sense of urgency. “Yes, we’re going to put on this production,” says Delostrinos, “but it’s also really important for us to keep teaching in the community and keep showing work to the community. It’s really important for kids of color, and queer youth, and young women to watch our work, and see people that look like them onstage.” To this end, the group organized several workshops through Seattle Parks and Rec this summer, and also plans to host a free matinee on September 12 for students and their families. Randy Ford, an Au dancer who teaches at three different community centers, helped coordinate the workshops. Ford said he hoped kids interested in art in general, not specifically dance, would come. “I’m the only dance teacher [at the centers], so it’d be great for them to see other people I work with, and other performers doing what they want to do. Hopefully they can relate that to anything they want to do—just actually working and following your dreams.”

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Au Collective
Photo by Andrew Imanaka

Deeper still than their shared goals, artistic passion, and college experience, is the genuine friendship holding the collective together. They have barbecues, go swimming, laugh, sweat, and cry together. It may sound like a sitcom, but it’s the real deal. “We all know each other. We all love dancing together. [We thought] ‘Why don’t we try to get together and bring the rest of the community in?’” said Scott. So far, it’s working. Their Hatchfund campaign has already reached its target goal, and there’s still a week or so left to help them attain their stretch goal. Gold&Skin will be a pivotal moment for the group, where they’ll get to put all the pieces together onstage for the first time. Go to see the diversity of dancers, the full-bodied choreography, or just to be a part of the genuine community Au has created.

Tickets for Gold&Skin (September 10-12, at 12th Ave Arts) can be purchased here. Learn more about Au Collective at their website.