Interview with Shannon Humphreys and Chris Engles: “Fledge”

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Shannon Humphreys & Chris Engles: Fledge
Choreographer/dancer: Shannon Humphreys & community (below)
Videography/editing: Chris Engles
Music: Jason Jordan

This spring and summer the Lamont Gallery featured the Being & Feeling (Alone, Together) exhibition which explored embodiment, emotion, and being: how we make our way through the world, full of feeling, as solitary individuals and together with others.

In an effort to collaborate with artists in other disciplines, we reached out to local dancers and choreographers and asked them to create a piece in response to the themes of the exhibition and to the general state of things in the world. You can view the complete collection of dance videos on our Vimeo page.

Fledge was created by Shannon Humphreys and Chris Engles in collaboration with a community of people who submitted movement or movement instructions electronically. Shannon collected, learned, structured and performed the material they sent, and it forms the basis of the choreography in the film.

Inspired by Kwame Alexander’s “If Trees Can Keep Dancing So Can I”: A Community Poem To Cope In Crisis, and a call for short dance/choreography/movement pieces for Moving Together, filmmaker Chris Engles and dancer/choreographer Shannon Humphreys collaborated with their social media community to create this short dance/movement film.

 

Humphreys-6View Fledge by Shannon Humphreys & Chris Engles here

Q: It’s exciting to know Fledge was built collaboratively, with a community of dancers and creatives each sharing inspired pieces of movement and ideas. What were the steps involved in weaving together these disparate inspirations in order to arrive at this cohesive beautiful piece of work filled with story?

A: (Shannon Humphreys): Because we got the call for art about ten days before the submission date, we were working against a pretty tight deadline. As a choreographer, generating material is time consuming and if you force it, that often shows. However, I have had a long career as an interpreter of the movement, story and ideas of others so I decided to use that skill here. In addition, we were in the middle of the pandemic, with all my friends and fellow artists trying to work through the challenges of physical isolation. Within 24 hours I had come up with this concept of casting a wide net out to the creative community online to generate the material.

My instructions were intentionally very broad in every area except quantity—I requested each person send me five actions—so that it would be a light load for all the participants. I needed to keep the bar low because the turnaround was quick—I needed to have the materials asap so we could begin building the structure. Once I started receiving the material (and it was very disparate) my first step was to learn and interpret all the actions. The material fell into a few buckets: written instructions for actions that I was meant to interpret and perform, individual disconnected movements or gestures, and fully choreographed short phrases. I started by learning all the pieces, and once I became familiar with the materials I could mix them together, arrange and rearrange the order, change the level or speed or dynamics—all the while ruminating on how to include and interpret some of the more obscure and poetic instructions I had received. The time constraint meant that we needed to begin filming while I was still in this stage of playing. We went to a few locations over two days and Chris filmed me as I tried out different ways to perform the movements. Once Chris pulled all the footage out of his camera, we began to see some themes emerge. We made a decision to use Jason Jordan’s music (a piece Chris commissioned for Finding Heaven Under Our Feet: Making Modern Dance, but never used) and that cemented the somber mood and helped drive the story. Chris made the decision to strip out all the color, both to add weight to the melancholy, and also to smooth out the discontinuity in the light and color in the footage from different locations on different days.

 

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Q: In deciding on a name for this film, how did you arrive at Fledge? What do you hope to impart on the audience as they experience this work?

A: (SH): We actually began with a working title of Alone Together, but to be honest I felt from the beginning that it was a little bit flat. The very first community submission I got included the instruction “feeding birds out of your hand and watching them fly,” and I think that is when I began seeing and incorporating bird imagery into the work. The threads of isolation and freedom, enclosed and expansive space weave through the story along with the birds, so the idea of leaving the nest was a logical progression of the ideas that were coming together. When we were discussing the name, Chris asked me why not “Fledgling,” and I said fledgling is a noun—a thing that I would be seen to be representing. If we call it that, the film would be about me. “Fledge” is a verb—an action—it’s moving.

 

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Q: A filming location seems to be a critical component in a story’s narrative, imbuing nuances that expand one’s experience and understanding. Where was Fledge filmed? Why were these locations chosen?

A: (SH): Constraints are a theme in the making of Fledge, and that includes the locations available to us for filming. Chris and I have been sheltering in his house in Woods Hole, MA since both our employers transitioned us to remote work in March, and the stay at home order was still in effect when we filmed this in May. We wanted to film in a natural setting, but we needed to choose locations that were nearby, and still accessible to the public. Chris grew up in Falmouth, so he is very familiar with the area—he chose Beebe Woods, which is on conservation land around Highfield Hall and Gardens, because we wanted trees (bird theme), and he knew it would be open to the public for mental health walks. I was immediately drawn to the tree with the hole through it, and asked Chris if he could use the hole as a frame to confine the view of me. It was tough for him to manage the light and focus, but he just adapted as I piled more constraints onto the project.

We were driving out of the Highfield grounds when I noticed Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork sculpture, A Passing Fancy. It looks like a giant nest—and although we had not yet named the work, I think the ideas around sheltering in our home during the pandemic and the bird theme came together in that moment. Chris filmed me as I explored and responded to the winding spaces created by the sculpture. Finally, after having thoroughly captured confined space, we felt we needed the contrast of an empty beach with the expanse of the ocean as a backdrop. Woods Hole residents’ private beach, Nobska, fit the bill. The gulls were a bonus.

 

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Q: For Chris, why the shift from public broadcasting to an arts focus in film and photography? Can you share with us what you’re currently working on?

A: (Chris Engles): Actually it was really a shift from art to radio, then back to art. Traditionally there’s been a ton of national & local public radio content produced in Boston, which was fortunate for me, because just as I was getting out of Berklee College of Music, where I studied music production, recording studios around town were starting to fold—everyone was convinced they could make records at home with the arrival of digital audio. So public radio was a great opportunity to use sound in creative/interesting/fun ways and get the bills paid. But I was always dabbling in some sort of creative musical endeavor on the side. As time and technology marched on, those explorations naturally bled into the video realm. When technology made it possible to cut video on a desktop computer—we’re talking 1994-95—I started booking time at BVFV (Boston Film and Video Foundation) around the corner from Berklee to go in and mess around with VHS and Hi-8 footage. So it was really more of a tectonic shift back to art, that was in motion from 1995 to 2006.

As for current work, I was in the process of exploring a film project in Italy when the pandemic hit, so that’s obviously off the table for the foreseeable future. While we’re working remotely from Cape Cod, another idea I’m thinking about is a short film about the Wampanoag tribe in Mashpee, and their efforts to reclaim their language after 150 years of dormancy.

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Q: For Shannon, you shared in your bio that you also work with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard – a biomedical research community. What are the intersections you’ve witnessed within the fields of science and art?  How does one discipline inform the other?  How do you think we can amplify the necessity of artistic disciplines and experiences across our communities?

A: (SH): To be clear, although I have worked in administration supporting scientists for the last sixteen years, I do not have a background in science. My career in nonprofit administration led me from arts organizations to mission-driven scientific institutions, first Harvard Medical School, and then the Broad Institute. When we talk about the intersection of science and art in the context of the Broad Institute’s artist residency program, we talk about art and science as different ways that humans tackle unanswered questions, and try to understand our place in the universe. This feels right to me. The curious mindset that continues to explore the world, ask questions, look for connections, solve problems, keep learning, keep making—that is the mindset an artistic practice develops, in my opinion. It is certainly the mindset I aspire to.

 

Artist Bios:

Chris Engles spent over a decade in public broadcasting as a technical director for such programs as NPR’s Cartalk, PRI’s The World and NPR’s Living on Earth. In the mid 1990’s he transitioned to narrative and documentary film work.  His first feature length effort, This Town, premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2002 and was an official selection of the New York International Independent Film Festival. Since then Chris has gone on to make several short form video profiles of such noted artists as painters John Murray and Sean Flood, as well as his talented neighbors at the Brickbottom Artist Building in Somerville MA. In 2017 he premiered his feature length documentary film Finding Heaven Under Our Feet:Making Modern Dance at the Somerville Theater.

Shannon Humphreys grew up dancing in Orlando, FL, received a BA (Hons) in Dance from the University of Surrey in Guildford, England and has performed on the east coast with theater groups, opera companies, and with regional ballet and modern dance companies including Orlando Ballet (then Southern Ballet Theatre), Demetrius Klein & Dancers and Voci Dance. She performed in the work of Jody Weber from 1999 to 2019, and was a founding member of Weber Dance. She has also performed as a guest artist with Peter DiMuro’s Public Displays of Motion, and at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston in work by Trisha Brown, Heidi Latsky and Faye Driscoll. In addition to venues in the Boston area, Shannon’s choreography has been performed in England, Germany and Orlando (including The Land of Fog and Whistles at the Orlando International Fringe Festival). She serves on the Boards of Directors of Weber Dance, as well as the Brickbottom Artists Association, and coordinates the artist-in-residence program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Community Collaborators for Fledge:
Brian Crabtree, Caitlin Klinger, Chris Mesarch, Ellen Young, Jody Weber, Kristy Kuhn, Donnelly with Kevin, Keelyn, Lydia and Pumpkin Donnelly, Maggie Husak, Zimora Aswat, Becca Rozell with Brady, Aya and Mikko Murray.

Collaborators were asked to provide five movements with the following instructions:

  • Movement can be dance or not
  • You may make up something new, or give me a piece of some choreography that you made previously
  • Your five movements may or may not take inspiration from any or a combination of these words: being, feeling, alone, together, blue

Interview Conducted by Aimee Towey-Landry
Aimee Towey-Landry joined the Lamont Gallery in the winter of 2018 as the interim Gallery Manager and in 2019 she became a gallery attendant. She has over six years of experience in arts administration from her positions as Registrar and Exhibitions Coordinator at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Florida and Special Projects Coordinator at the Tampa Museum of Art in Tampa, Florida. She is currently working with a team of professionals to build a non-profit that serves the homeless and the housing vulnerable populations of greater Concord. She also volunteers at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

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