Chloe Gray’s Fun Girl dance company blends quirky movement with thoughtful activism in “Girlfriend”
On June 22 at Riverside Arts Center, I had the pleasure of attending the first show presented by Fun Girl, a new Ypsilanti-based contemporary dance company created and run by Artistic Director Chloe Gray. The company offers paid rehearsals and performances to their dancers, as well as apprenticeships, and acts as a platform for technically based dancers to explore quirky movement while applying thoughtful activism.
Artistic Director Chloe Gray’s credentials are extensive, with her training beginning at the age of 6 with the Toledo Ballet and continuing at the Toledo School for the Arts throughout her high school years. She graduated from Eastern Michigan University where she double majored in Dance Performance and Women’s and Gender Studies, and her choreography and dancing have been featured in performance opportunities through Kristi Faulkner Dance (Detroit), ARTLAB J Dance (Detroit), Koresh Dance Company (Philadelphia), and Side Street Art Studio (Chicago).
“I always thought that I was going to wait until I was older to start my own company,” says Gray. “My plan was to graduate from college, move to a big city to dance, and then eventually come back to Ypsi to plant some roots. Through careful consideration and after falling in love with a Michigander, I decided to stay in Ypsi and go for it. We have to create in places and spaces where the art we want to see does not exist. If we all take off to big cities, how will art exist in our community?”
The show, entitled Girlfriend, featured four original pieces choreographed by Gray and performed by Fun Girl, as well as four pieces that were chosen through the Ypsi Dance Swap organized by Gray in January, in which choreographers from across the state could submit their work to be performed in a show at Riverside Arts Center. Several of the choreographer’s pieces would then be chosen by a jury to be presented at Fun Girl’s Girlfriend recital in June.
“The Ypsi Dance Swap allows choreographers to showcase their work and foster a community of dance," Gray says. "We hope that by placing dance in locations and spaces where it is typically not as accessible, we will create an appreciation for movement.” The Ypsi Dance Swap sold out in three days and was highly successful in bringing together dancers and choreographers to celebrate their love and appreciation of dance.
“Fun Girl is unique in that we are often breaking the rules," Gray says. "In terms of my directing style, I pride myself in meeting dancers with empathy. This is not a talent that I have always had and it is taking a lot of work. I believe dance is founded on systems of abuse -- and treating dancers as if they are movement robots rather than people. I have taken the time to love each of my dancers for the people that they are. I allow that love and the dancer’s individual personalities to shine through in the movement I create for them. It’s time to throw out some of the rules. I don’t care if my dancers are tattooed or wear their nose ring on stage. They are humans and I want to see humans dancing. ... I find that a lot of professional companies create work that is so serious. I want to create work that makes people giggle. I love glitter, music from the 80s and being the most authentic I can be on stage.”
The first piece presented at Girlfriend was “Obsessed,” performed by Fun Girl. Set to “I Love You, Always Forever” by Donna Lewis, it began quietly as the dancers slowly came to life and traced their own path across the stage. At one point, four dancers laid flat on their backs and shook and trembled on the ground, their bodies pulsing with energy. After every 8-count, a dancer would suddenly relax their body and lay still, displaying a mastery of tension and release. The piece reminded me of those early moments when you’re falling in love with someone and the excitement and nervousness that accompanies it.
“My choreography and movement is charged by current events and learning not to take myself so seriously,” says Gray. “One of the most inspiring choreographers I ever got to work with was Erik Abbott-Main of Boy Friday. Getting to watch a professional choreographer throw their version of weird out on a stage was really inspiring for me. I think it was a turning point when I realized that I was allowed to create fun.”
The next Girlfriend piece, “Untitled,” was choreographed by guest artist Abigayle Cryderman. It was the first work presented from the Ypsi Dance Swap and featured three dancers performing interlocking acrobatics set to a hip-hop beat. It contrasted nicely from the first piece and kept your attention throughout.
It was followed by a solo choreographed by Natalia de Miguel Annoni and powerfully danced by Chloe Gray herself. As she danced to the classic song “Danke Schoen,” Gray exuded pure happiness and joy as she glided across the floor, perfectly encapsulating what it looks and feels like to be deeply in love.
The second piece presented by Fun Girl was “Cancelled,” set to a medley of Beatles songs including “Let It Be,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Help!” and a cover of “As My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
“'Cancelled' has been in the works since our very first rehearsal as a company,” says Gray. “It explores internet -- Twitter -- gang mentality in political and feminist circles. Each section is dedicated to a different phase of the fourth wave from the perspective of activists. Bandwagon, impulsivity, loss of empathy, and communication.” 'Cancelled' sucked the life out of me. I purposefully choreographed that piece with tons of unison movement. To clean five, at times very different dancers, is a pain. I absolutely love how it turned out and also don’t want to see it again for at least another month.”
After a brief intermission, the show resumed with another piece by Fun Girl: “Wed,” a piece split into three sections and set to a Johnny Cash medley consisting of the songs “Ring of Fire,” “Hurt” (originally by Nine Inch Nails), and “I Walk the Line.” The first two sections of "Wed" were the first time I could fully feel that the choreography represented a queer perspective, and it was really interesting to hear familiar songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Hurt” presented through a queer lens.
“Make no mistake, Fun Girl is deliberately queer,” says Gray. “I don’t want to watch men and women fall in love on stage anymore. I haven’t for years ... and if I can’t see shows where queerness is present, then I’m going to create shows dedicated to it. There still aren’t enough of us represented in the dance community.”
The second part of "Wed," set to the song "Hurt," was intensely intimate, with the pair of dancers at one point lying on the ground facing each other, holding hands, and slowly cycling their legs toward each other.
“My favorite piece presented was the second section of 'Wed,' danced by Ali Calabrese and JoElla Fitzpatrick," Grays says. "I choreographed all of the work for my husband. The second section covers loving someone with mental illness and how we have learned to love and support one another through my BPD.”
The next piece was another pick from the Ypsi Dance Swap, this time a solo choreographed and danced by Elizabeth Bowen and entitled “I Refuse to Let Sadness Dictate My Posture.” This was one of the more emotional pieces for me, with Bowen beginning the piece crouched on the ground and slowly alternating between curled up, closed off protective poses and fully outstretched, wildly moving limbs, with her long hair whipping around her as an extension of her body.
It was followed by another pick from the Ypsi Dance Swap, a piece entitled “For the Silent Civilians,” choreographed and danced by Hannah LaBoyteaux. Set to an old fashioned and jazzy song, her movements provided a stark contrast, at times seeming like she was embodying the quiet desperation of people without power.
Last but not least was my favorite of the bunch, “To Make or Become Different” danced by Fun Girl and Guests. The piece was set to “Dreams” by The Cranberries and featured Chloe Gray front and center, leading the full pack of dancers she so carefully pulled together throughout the year. An excellent end to the show, Gray’s unique and quirky choreography style was on full display as the group grooved to the upbeat song. It was amazing to see how a small movement such as a quick flick of the hands could have so much impact, and soon the song and choreography exploded into an eruption of movement, with each dancer branching out before finally coming back together at the ending.
When asked if there was a particular interpretation or message she wished to convey through her choreography, Gray responded, “Whatever my audience takes from my work is welcome. One of my biggest goals is that queer women feel like they have some form of representation. I think if one person walks away feeling like they got to see themselves on stage I feel accomplished."
It’s been a busy year for Gray, who also simultaneously opened her first dance studio: Accelerate Dance Arts in Ypsilanti, which offers weekly dance classes for children of all ages as well as adults. As an instructor, Chloe is dedicated to creating safe spaces for young dancers to take risks and grow. Accelerate Dance Arts recently celebrated their first recital as a studio, and the fun continues into the summer with a Beach Party Dance Camp for ages 3-8, starting July 9th at Riverside Arts Center. This upcoming year, Accelerate Dance Arts will expand their offerings to include a performance company for children ages 6-10.
Fun Girl will return for its second season next September. When asked what’s in store for Fun Girl Season Two, Gray exclaims, “GLITTER AND VELVET!!! I am so excited for the future of this company! I have selected nine beautiful dancers to follow me into season two. All of my current dancers are returning with the exception of one, who has accepted a position in Colorado. We are so excited for Hannah! I want to create more art, and I’m really excited to get that started in September."
Allison Jones is a library technician at AADL.
More information about Fun Girl can be found at its website, fungirldance.com, or on Instagram. Information about youth and adult classes at Accelerate Dance Arts can be found at acceleratedancearts.com or on Instagram.