on the architecture of presence

When I was in kindergarten, I already knew I wanted to take ballet. We had finally moved into a community that had a ballet teacher. But I had heard the grownups talking: she was, in their estimation, not an option. She didn’t treat the children well. I begged my father: “I can handle it!” At some point, in dismay, he said “Oh Susie. Why don’t you take piano lessons? You can always play the piano when you are 30 but you cannot dance across your living room!” Fuel for the proverbial fire….

I realize I have been dancing, and making dances framed by the architecture of house and home, ever since then. I have always planned class and generated compositional ideas in the living room. At 25, in the summer between my two years in grad school, I gave myself class in the living room, daily. When I returned to University of Illinois in the fall, one of my peers who had had a professional ballet career, asked me where I’d been studying ballet – I had visibly progressed my technique! At 30, Don took photos of me dancing in our living room, and I framed one and gave it to my father for his birthday. (He was amused.) At 50, with the help of family, friends and colleagues, I produced a concert in my living room: Five Short Dances for Five Short Decades. I danced in front of our enormous 96-paned glass window; the audience of about 100 sat in the front yard. It was BYOC (chair) and we had 8 tables of cake/beer/wine spread around the yard for the party after the performance.

This fall I am headed into two projects – both on the core subject of presence and absence within the structure of a house but very different dances. The first is a re-envisioning of Threshold, a dance I started with the majors at TCU a year and half ago. I get to work with a lively group of women who ground the contemporary dance community in Tulsa. This project starts later this week – we are close! The dance is held together structurally with the floor plan of a house taped to the stage. Several short dances – poetic in nature (building on the challenge that defined my sabbatical project) – move the dance along in space and time.

The second will be a dance for film project – taking place in our home in Maine – with artists Alex Masi (Austin/ https://swngproductions.comand Kelly Todd (https://www.kellyashtontodd.com). It’s going to be a rich, multi-layered, interwoven-over-a-lifetime journey, one I’m looking forward to with great anticipation.

Isn’t the expression “taking place” an intriguing one…?!


Empty into the Night

Originally made in 2012, I entered the process of making Empty into the Night on faith, with a few ideas, and let the dance reveal itself over time: I did not see the real heart of the dance until I was well into it. I was gathering and culling and assembling, and actually began by following a fascination I had with an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum: Caravaggio – His followers in Rome. I was drawn to the paintings in this collection for the range of dark colors that defined them, both in the background and in the clothes the figures were wearing – and for the manner in which the light seemed to emanate from the subjects themselves. I asked Roma Flowers, SCCDance lighting designer and maker of magic, if we might use that challenge as a jumping off place in terms of color, tone and the architecture of the lighting design. I am grateful to Roma for the way the light holds this dance.

Original cast, 2012: Photo of a photo by Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Next was music. One of the SCCDance 2002 graduates, Sarie Mairs Slee, had used a work by the composer Eric Whitacre during a senior concert project. Whitacre is well-known for his choral works and 10 years later, I was still remembering a certain fullness. In his work Sleep, Whitacre fills the space and at the same time, often creates space through stilling time. Thus, it was through Whitacre’s music that I started to find the center of this dance, and use as a structure a ride along the continuum of simple to complex. I became interested in trying to get physical intricacies to loop back on themselves and eventually resolve, over and over, in a resonant body of quiet. When I started to recognize that cyclical action in the dance, I found myself transported back in time, once again – to Maine summers on one pond or another, listening to the loons call to each other across the night. Empty. Full. Empty. Full. Hence the pairing of Whitacre’s work with the unusual sounds of these birds.

Original cast: Photo of a photo by Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

The beginning, middle and end of this dance remain much the same as they were in the original version. The majority of this dance is built on some of the same movement ideas but in different configurations. I am happy to keep the final solo, made by Megan (Morgan) Taylor and danced by Ally Shives. The fall that we made this dance, Megan had just returned from a workshop at Bearnstow, Maine, and still had the songs of the loons within easy reach. My thanks to John Hopkins for orchestrating these calls into the night and to Susan Austin for re-imagining the costumes. And, I am grateful to this cast of women, now, in 2019, for handing this dance back to all of us with such grace.

Catherine Sexton and Maryssa Buffano, 2019 cast
Angelica Piña and Michaela Butts, 2019 cast

Ally Shives, 2019 cast

and the new duet…

Three years ago, Blaise Ferrandino, friend and composer, wrote a sonata for cello and piano. It’s lovely for its quiet and for the way it gathers and releases. My plan is to choreograph all three parts and I am starting with the middle section – a meditation on trust.

Working these past three days with Hannah Requa and James Vargas has been pure pleasure. Both are members of Corpus Christi Ballet. They were quick to collaborate and problem solve the questions of shared weight and proximity. The dance is spatially tight. It’s intimate. These two dove in with passionate investment and we put together 5:36 minutes in the little time we had.

I am deeply grateful to Cristina Munro and Alex Trevino, directors of Corpus Christi Ballet, for the space and time to develop this work. There is no greater gift!

And grateful to these two for trusting process into being.

Balenciaga in Black

I am a fan of couture ball gowns, particularly those from the mid-twentieth century prior to the 60s. I find them intriguing as sculpture, and as one who composes dance, I am fascinated by the way designers see the possibilities of constructing these dresses for both the image they create on the human body and the manner in which they move. I am particularly enamored of Charles James’ work after seeing an exhibition at the Costume Institute in the Metropolitan Art Museum in NYC a few years ago, one that was stunning for the quantity and quality of the collection, and for the interactive nature of it (viewers were able to see a gown virtually disassembled and reassembled, in a stream of seaming flight). This particular collection caught my attention, too, for the colors of the gowns – many were in muted browns, greens, golds and burnt oranges. Not your typical color palette for such formal evening wear. While the colors I mentioned don’t show up in force in this link, it is still possible to get an idea of his genius here: https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/charles-james-beyond-fashion/images   

Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything in the permanent collection on line that quite approximates the gloriousness of that exhibition. You can, however, follow the Met on Instagram – and they’ve posted a few of those gorgeous gowns recently for viewers to enjoy. #metmuseum

Balenciaga in Black

In fact, I got on to this site today to post photos of the Balenciaga in Black exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum. #kimbellartmuseum For those who are living in Fort Worth/the metroplex, or visiting in the next three weeks, it is a must see!

I am fascinated with Balenciaga’s work too – for reasons I mentioned above – and more: this particular exhibition showcases many aspects of his work. I am drawn to the references he makes to traditional Spanish dress, and the accompanying exhibition of Francisco Goya’s work reinforces that connection to these particular designs. What really captured my attention was the play of “black on black” in this collection. In the spring, I am revisiting a work I made in fall, 2012: empty into the night. That work started with a challenge from the Renaissance painters: to create a dance in which it appeared the light was emanating from the dancers themselves. Of course this was in many ways more a challenge for lighting and costume designers of the work. But it did require a rather geometric choreographic construction. I am drawing parallels now because one of the ways I worked with the designers to achieve faceting, to create a dance that lived between shades and textures, was to create costumes made of several different fabrics, all variously sculpted browns. Now, through Balenciaga’s work, I am reminded of how easily and willingly simplicity can turn a corner into complexity, and still retain its underlying quiet.

To see this exhibition is to realize that Balenciaga made his way over a life time as both artist and craftsman, and continued to forefront his ability to design both inside and outside of culture at once.

In true Spanish fashion, there were many capes of varying sizes and styles in this exhibition. I was amused – traveling through the Goya exhibition – to see traditional Spanish wear both clothing subjects and fantasizing them!

Finally, this is perhaps as close as I will get to being inside of one of these dresses! Still….all in all…pure pleasure to find inspiration – and delight – in this masterful work.

on Instagram

On Instagram

A new development in the life and adventures of sdr: an Instagram account. I am still chuckling at a post from Alex “I cannot believe I’m tagging you, SDR.” So – for those of you on Instagram –  susandouglasroberts

[Now I must go catch up…]


Under the pale moon

Pale Moon premiered in 2009 after I returned from a Fulbright residency in Taiwan. While there, a friend of mine mentioned that the Chinese character for expatriate was both poignant and complex, a combination of three characters: other country, floating, and child. This dance came from a motion-based investigation of place, and displacement, in the moving body. I imagine the performing in the company of the light of the moon.


I had the real pleasure this week of working with Marissa Sheffer to re-configure Laura’s solo, Pale Moon, for her. Actually, Laura and Marissa started the process in May and this was my first time to work with Marissa, who is now with METdance in Houston. And actually … this is the first time to make work with her after knowing her for almost five years: Marissa and I didn’t have the opportunity to work together choreographically when she was a student at TCU, so we are diving in now.

under the barre

Laura’s solo was developed in a distinct way, and is particular to her, and to the process. Marissa is coming into the details beautifully, and at the same time, clearly making it her own.

under the pale moon

The sun brings definition to Studio C every late afternoon and while this dance is designed to suggest moon light, I am always fascinated by the impact of the sun’s architecture. This quick moment of repose in the middle of the dance seems timeless in that framework.

in the light of the moon

As an aside, Marissa did the lighting design for the dance I made at TCU last spring, Threshold. She created a world apart for that work. She is a multifaceted artist.

So we are looking for a place to perform. Let me know if you have ideas.



wild geese in chase

Turn about is fair play?

Two days before I left Maine – in August – the geese that had been gliding on the estuary for the afternoon took flight. The sun was on its way to setting; I was surprised: they usually stay the night on the water. I was standing in the front yard; they flew directly at me as they were coming off the water, and then overhead. It felt a bit like I was the at the other end of the chase!

geese on blue

Return to Rwanda

Adam, John and I recently returned to Rwanda to speak in person with Godelieve, to jump start our conversation on how to focus the grant funds in support of SEVOTA, and the build of a sustainable relationship between the SEVOTA communities and TCU.

On our third day in conversation with her, Godelieve invited us to the SEVOTA Center that is part of her home in Rukoma (formerly Taba, Rwanda). There she had gathered scores of women from the Gitarama province. In this photograph, you can see that she had picked up a map of Rwanda in the meeting room, and was showing us the various provinces where SEVOTA centers are located. On the table, to the right, is the hand-blown glass globe that we presented to Godelieve in March of this year, as symbol of the TCU Global Innovator Award.

While we were there, in a speechlessly moving act, she acknowledged the award she had received from TCU, and presented it to the women present. As I watched the award travel around the room,  from one woman to the next, hand to hand, I realized I was witnessing a ritual claiming that had come from a genuinely collective authorship. It was a moving experience on the most profound of levels. The longer I am with Godelieve, the more I wonder at how I am so fortunate to have come to know her, and learn from her what it means to be a leader and active force in change.

GM map and globe

For more information on the project, go into “older posts” at the bottom of the page.

and now,

unexpectedly, Collette and I have the opportunity to set up the architecture of this work in a different way; in the way I originally imagined it: with a disappearing apex.


String structure Exchange

. . .potential for multiple experiences of the work.

EXCHANGE Choreography Festival

Collette and I are in Tulsa, OK this week to participate in the EXCHANGE Choreography Festival: More than Movement, produced by The Bell House (Rachel Bruce Johnson, Artistic Director; Alicia Chesser, Curator and Assistant Artistic Director.)



Berceuse is on at tomorrow at 6 pm:

Exchange Choreography Festival
July 26-28, 2018
Location: Tulsa PAC Liddy Doenges Theatre, Tulsa, OK 

110 E 2nd St, Tulsa, OK 74103

There will be a moderated dialogue and a discussion with the audience as part of the presentation.