How a Brooklyn-based Dance Company Pushes Boundaries with Every Beat
As I look back on the past few months with the current coronavirus pandemic happening throughout the world, I’m reflecting back on the many arts and culture events I used to attend. When you’re a creative, you tend to gravitate toward fellow innovators and soulful people who have the amazing knack for tapping into artistic expressions and connecting people by building a community that shares the same values. You can’t help but feel awed by them, especially when you get to know them on a personal level and see the path that they are journeying on to become the success that they are today.
For those of us who work in the arts and in non-profit settings, it’s not always about the money (although generous support for the arts is always appreciated), but rather the connections we make with others and the human emotion that we are able to evoke from those moments of community.
My friend and fellow creative, Amanda Spilinga, reached out to me in early October 2019, sharing the details of her upcoming production projects and an idea for doing a collaboration. We eventually met up for dinner and drinks at Rosie’s on a cold evening in late November 2019—a spacious, bustling restaurant serving authentic Mexican food and cocktails in the Lower East Side—and spoke freely about our different experiences as women-founders in the arts.
While bonding over tacos and tostones, we realized that in starting our own companies we both paint images of emotions and concepts about the human condition. We each strive to inspire people to tap into their creative potentials. I use graphics and words as my chosen mediums to explore ideas and share stories, while Amanda embodies her creativity and teaches others to express themselves through music and dance.
That’s how Amanda described her experiences as the executive and artistic director of her dance company, Alternative Synergy the Company (ASTC). She explained the intricate processes and challenges of managing a team of creatives while designing new choreography. Much like a freely written verse or improvisational piece, when you’re drafting the choreography, you don’t know what you’ll end up with because of the myriad possibilities of movement. When you’re working with a team of music producers, sound engineers, lighting designers, photographers, videographers, and dancers from different walks of life, abilities, age groups, dance styles, and storytelling voices, then those possibilities grow exponentially. It’s as much a logistical challenge as it is an aesthetic and creative feat.
Amanda and I met back in February 2016 at a house party hosted by one of my graduate school friends, Alex Shi, a multimedia creative who teaches Zumba, produces her own films, and shoots portrait and event photography. “You two should talk!” Alex said when she introduced us. Later that evening we danced in her living room and toasted cinnamon whiskey shots to the start of the Lunar New Year.
Amanda had immigrated to New York from Italy at a young age, and throughout her youth, she trained in ballet, jazz, modern, and contemporary dance. Over the years she met and collaborated with other dancers from different cultural backgrounds and varied dance disciplines ranging from ballet, jazz, ballroom, and street style. Amanda taught contemporary dance classes and also developed close-knit collaborations with an eclectic group of street-style performers. These contrasts and distinctions between dance genres stirred Amanda and her fellow dancers to fuse their sources of inspiration together to develop an altogether new experience of music and performance.
If New York City is an eclectic mixtape then its people and their stories and styles that move them need to reflect that synergy. So, in 2017, Amanda founded Alternative Synergy the Company (ASTC), a non-profit arts organization based in Brooklyn, NY.
ASTC is not your conventional dance company. Rather than stick to the fine lines and rules of tradition, ASTC lives up to its name by striving to teach, promote, and celebrate diversity in movement and storytelling across different cultures, techniques, generations, and genres. It’s all about finding the right balance, synthesizing energies, and momentums into a single vision of narrative.
In order to be groundbreaking, you have to be bold enough to break through boundaries. It’s in that zone of discomfort that one’s story and individual choreography bends and bounces in different beats and shapes. The fourth wall dissipates as soon as the audience connects and interacts with everyone that crosses the limelight. That’s exactly what ASTC does: they move you with each step they take as they share their personal struggles and passion for dance.
Since then the company has produced two sold-out productions in 2018, “The Debut” and “The Debut: Part II,” with more productions planned in the future. The company not only produces and performs their own pieces in their shows, but they pay it forward to the community by offering a variety of educational workshops and classes to people of all backgrounds, levels, and abilities throughout the year. Through sponsorships and a partnership with the Brooklyn Arts Council, ASTC continues to offer seasonal intensive dance education programs to aspiring dancers, including financial assistance and scholarships, thanks to revenue raised from their sold-out shows and tax-deductible donations from public supporters.
I had the pleasure of attending ASTC’s “Life Symphony: The Crossline,” their annual fundraising event in December 2019 at Bogart House in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The production featured an artistic showcase of ASTC’s signature performances and included new choreography crafted by dance students from both their Summer 2019 and Fall 2019 Intensives.
Sometimes, as a writer, you find that you don’t always have the words—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sounds may form at the tip of your tongue, but you end up feeling breathless and awed by the spectacle before you. Sometimes, you just have to absorb the ambiance and enjoy being in the moment with the performers and the audience.
“Life Symphony: The Crossline” opened with the fast-paced beats and energetic freestyle choreography of Michael Mashkov, a member of the ASTC Teen Team. I recalled the anecdotes that Amanda shared during our dinner about what it was like to teach young students, especially the few who fall on the autism spectrum and who need more support in mentorship: “You have to see this kid, the way he performs,” she said. “He has notebooks of the music and choreography steps he wants to use. It’s amazing seeing the amount of confidence that he exudes when he’s given the microphone after performing his piece. Everyone is just so amazed.” And believe me, they were. One of the hosts, Ladell Thomas, invited him to come back to the stage and Michael spoke confidently about how joyful and liberating it feels to perform freestyle.
The next piece, “This Is Us,” was just as much an engaging performance as it was an informative guide into the street aspect of the company. The male members and alumni of ASTC gave a brief overview of their original backgrounds, where they grew up, and the steps that move them. Xavier “Xeo” Velasquez impressed the audience with vogue, a highly stylized modern house dance from the 1980s. Ainsley Brundage showed us how litefeet looks like, which was developed in Harlem and the Bronx in the mid-2000s. Ladell “Mr. Ocean” Thomas roused us with the fluidity and robotic stops of popping from California. Afterward, James “Floats” Fable excited us with his flexing, which originated in Brooklyn. For novice dance audiences like myself, it was fascinating not only learning the terms but also watching the distinctive movements that define each specific type of street style dance.
It was also a treat to see Ladell Thomas perform “I Am Just…” which combines rhythmic beats and popping dance moves with witty, comedic banter. His facial expressions were dynamic and engaging as he spoke to the audience about how he mixes different art forms to tell a story or to communicate a wide range of emotions. Ladell proved that he is comfortable in the spotlight as a master at improvisational art: his charismatic smile and friendly personality warmed up the room as he confidently asked onlookers what they thought the piece might be about and teased them. All the while he performed robotic, almost pantomime-like motions to show sadness and anger, and then contrasted them with loose, flowing moves to exude feelings of happiness and optimism.
Meanwhile, special guest Brian Polite’s performance of “Funkanova” and Amanda’s partnership with Jeff Selby in a New Style Hustle version of “Your Song” enlivened the room even further as people in the audience felt energized by the undulating sway of music and moves influenced by soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues. The songs were fast-paced, but the dancers each carried rhythmic grace and suave expertise as they glided across the dance floor in a number of beautiful, romantic smooth sculptures of movement.
Some performances had totally different tones as each piece explored the differences between dark and light, between vulnerability and power. Amanda and fellow company member, Hara Zi, performed original choreography to accompany the lyrics of the song “Skin To Bone,” which they dedicated to Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park who passed away in 2007. “Skin To Bone” blends different art forms together: contemporary dance and ballet set to the rough edges of rock music. With two dancers clad in black and white mirroring each other’s movements as lights flickered fast-paced, the piece was a reflection of conflicts and contrasts that still somehow create parallels and balance. The tensions created between delicate poses and sharp movements in this edgy interpretive dance were a thrill to watch.
“Bad Kingdom,” performed by students from the ASTC 2019 Summer Intensive (Ainsley Brundage, Gina Cancetty, James Fable, and Xavier Valasquez), also featured another founding company member, Alexandra Varga, who also works as ASTC’s assistant choreographer and director of development for the “Life Symphony” production. The energy felt similar to “Skin To Bone” in the way that tensions developed between the characters in the performance. The push-pull dynamic, stops and starts in the beat, and varying linear parallel formations between the male and female performers lent to another interpretive aesthetic discourse of conflict and mirroring. This suggested that the characters portrayed in the piece have more similarities than differences as they search for resolutions to their inner struggles.
The ASTC 2019 Fall Intensive class (Ainsley Brundage, Gina Cancetty, Jessical Palacios, and Xavier Velasquez) continued to create poetry in motion by combining elements of yoga, fluid movements, and dramatic pauses. The resulting choreography showcased a celebration of art appreciation by invoking within the audience feelings of leisure, comfort, and relief even on the darkest and coldest day in New York City. One can still find melody and harmony amid the melancholy of winter.
It was an absolute wonder to see two pieces that were originally featured in “ASTC: The Debut” be showcased again during “Life Symphony: The Crossline.” There were some nuanced changes in the revisited choreography of both “The Vessel” and “The Writer II,” but the emotional vibes that each piece evoked still resonated with audience members just as powerfully as they did in the full-length debut production.
Set to music composed by Good Things Records and Busy Beds, in “The Vessel” you can hear Hara recite the verses of her original poem, half in English and half in Greek, as she invokes the memory of the generations of women who came before her and paved the way for her empowerment. Four of the women performers in the company—Amanda, Alexandra, Gina, and Hara—strode across the floor in pointed heels, clad in black leotards, throughout the performance. The slow, gradual buildup of the piece paid tribute to women’s struggles to accept what it means to embrace their vulnerability and to feel entirely comfortable with themselves as people with creative souls. The rise in the tempo of the music and accompanying poetic verses paralleled the intensity of the dancers as they created lines and curves of movement that not only showed the softness of femininity but also the provocative strength and ferocity that women exude when they feel determined to pursue their own paths and go after their goals.
“The Writer II” was the final piece—a revisited choreography from their previous show, The Debut. This particular performance held a sweet spot for me because words are my medium. For most of us, words are how we first speak or write our ideas into existence. Letters literally have a shape—we can see the length of an “L” or the curve of an “O” just by exploring the countless fonts and calligraphy styles that are out there. Letters are also representative of sounds, which are the basic building blocks of our language. These sets of sounds that represent our shared values and cultural meaning form our languages, and music and dance are universal dialects that help us bring our personal stories to life.
We can wax poetic about the metaphysical concepts and philosophical foundations of how sounds and shapes arranged in linguistic patterns form our psychology as humans, but it’s even more exciting to see it in motion. The ASTC team figured out a way to showcase the internal struggles of a writer in the throes of a messy creative process, using a mix of downtempo and fast beats that were emphasized further by the blended synchrony and juxtapositions of choreography styles. To put it simply as ASTC describes their piece: “We are the creators of our own reality.”
At the end of the production, Amanda and the ASTC crew came together to announce and congratulate the winner of their Spring Intensive scholarship, Gina Cancetty. The dance scholarship was made possible by the proceeds from the show and the donations received from supporters.
At the time that this article is being written amid the global coronavirus pandemic, ASTC continues to stick to its mission of keeping the dance synergy flowing through their virtual workshops and online meetups with their students and community. If you are interested in finding out more information about how you can train with them, feel free to follow them on social media for announcements on upcoming events and classes. They welcome and encourage dancers and backgrounds of all ages and abilities. Here are some ways you can reach out and get connected:
Let’s Dance: ASTC Dance Classes
Support Arts Education: Donate anywhere from $5 to $5,000 (all tax-deductible)
For as long as you have a story to tell and a beat that keeps your heart pumping, you’re always welcome to join the dynamic energy of the ASTC family.