Olase Freeman: A life in movement

Olase Freeman (Photo: Nikki Carrara)
For Olase Freeman, an assistant professor of dance at Rhode Island College, the process of making dances has coincided with some intensely personal experiences of late, and has been taking some very curious turns.

On March 25 and 26, he will be presenting the result of his choreographic explorations as part of the Faculty/Alumni Concert, which will take place at 8 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Forman Theatre.

The concert will also feature the work of RIC adjunct faculty members Michael Bolger and Eva Marie Pacheco, both of Providence Ballet Dance Theatre, and Katie McNamara of Bald Soul dance company.

In addition, the program will include guest artist Kathy Smith, a modern dance instructor at Roger Williams University, as well as Ryan Huckaby ’09, the RIC Dance Company’s percussionist, presenting a body-percussion work.

Freeman, who is in his second year of teaching at Rhode Island College, has worked with several prominent dance companies, including Jane Comfort & Co. and Creach/Dance.

His choreography has been presented at The Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Movement Research at Judson Place, the Cunningham Studio and other venues. He has taught in Ireland, Brazil, Mexico and throughout the U.S.

“I tend to make the work from what’s happening in my life. It’s a very natural process of trying to work from the inside out,” Freeman said.

“Even though the work itself does not necessarily need to be read from that lens of autobiography, that’s for me the place of beginning.”

In December, Freeman became a father for the first time, but some months before he already began translating that experience into dance when over the summer he developed a new duet as part of a graduate program he is enrolled in at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

By an uncanny coincidence one dancer he was working with there was pregnant, so he had the opportunity to explore a unique aspect of his theme: he had to create a choreography that was flexible and open enough to accommodate a body that was changing on a daily basis.

It was a fortuitous coincidence as well, since Freeman intended to later use his then-pregnant wife, Katie McNamara, as his partner in the piece, and in the fall, the two performed the piece several times, including once in New York City, after which his wife took a break from dancing.

Freeman described his concerns in the duet, titled “Thirdness,” in this way: “It was basically about the experience my family was going through, the experience of having a little baby. In physical terms for me that meant when two people learn to be physically connected and dependent on each other, what happens when that third body shows up? How does that affect the kind of physical dependency that we’ve gotten used to?

“I tend to use weight transfer as a metaphor for that. Two centers of gravity that are meeting through a point of contact. Even though they have their own center going on, they have to pay attention to this interaction with this person through another center.”

Freeman, Katie McNamara (Photo: Nikki Carrara)
The approach Freeman uses here is called contact improvisation, which was started in the early 1970s by choreographer Steve Paxton. The form, in Freeman’s words, “really looks at that issue of weight sharing and how two people can communicate through touch in a lot of really interesting ways.”

For the March concert at the college, “Thirdness” will be undergoing a further evolution. It will become a trio when Kayin, the three-and-a-half month old son of Freeman and McNamara, will share the stage with his parents. And Freeman speculated that there may even be a cameo appearance by his mother, who may need to help hold the baby during certain movements.

While “Thirdness” is overtly autobiographical, Freeman also takes more subtle approaches, as in a companion piece he plans to include in the concert, a trio for three women built on movement themes from “Thirdness.”

Freeman noted, “Whereas the “Thirdness” trio is really explicitly autobiographical with a big “A,” this companion piece is autobiographical with a small “a” because it still comes out of that experience.

“You take the physical structures from “Thirdness” that we are very much entrenched in and the autobiography, and place them in a more abstracted realm, where you get to look at it as bodies in motion.”

One trend in contemporary dance involves the use of text to accompany movement, and the prominence of autobiographical elements in Freeman’s work might lead one to consider that spoken narrative would be a natural extension in this direction. But that is not the case.

A self-described “movement purist,” Freeman uses language not to explain or elaborate on the movement but to contribute to the dancers’ communication with each other.

He remarked, “The speaking isn’t about information or content that the audience needs in order to understand what’s going on. It’s more about the data that the performers need to create the community that’s going to make that moment happen.

“I tend to be more interested in text when it is something that the community of people on stage requires to complete a task, and that allows us on the outside to perceive them in a more natural state. This is how people, not just bodies, operate.”

A few years back, Freeman was dancing with Jane Comfort, who is a prominent practitioner of dance theatre, a form with a strong reliance on text. Recognizing Freeman’s propensities and strengths, she often had him to choreograph pure movement sections, so he acted as a kind of pure movement specialist within the context of dance theatre.

Another current running through Freeman’s work is hip-hop. For the Faculty/Alumni Concert he is performing a solo centering on the idea of what it is like to age inside of hip-hop. At 37, he finds himself around the same age as some of the founders of the form.

For Freeman, hip-hop has roots in his life experience. He was raised in California, and as he himself noted, hip-hop culture was not highly visible there, so Freeman had to seek it out, which actually gave it a deeper meaning for him.

What attracted Freeman to hip-hop was not the clothes, the commercialism, or standardized sets of movement. It was the opportunity for individualized expression within a specific community.

“My interest,” he noted, “is in how that aural landscape begins to affect our feeling inside of our bodies. I am not interested in what has become the codified set of hip-hop movements or qualities even.

“There are some things that are very specifically identifiably hip-hop – like jagged high-contrast changes. These things have been inside African American movement as long as there have been African Americans, and these certain characteristics tend to be recycled . . . and continually take new forms.”

Another element of hip-hop that interested Freeman was the idea of resistance in the face of social inequalities, which also figures into Freeman’s autobiography. His father was one of the founders of the Black Panther movement.

And that connects with a larger concern. “I am interested.” Freeman said, “in asking this question, specifically for black men inside of this country: ‘When and how do we heal ourselves from having embodied resistance for so long?’ I don’t mean that I have an answer for that but I know that I am interested in trying to find one.”

It is a difficult challenge that Freeman sets for himself. But if he finds his answer, it most likely will be expressed in some eloquently personalized movement structures.

General admission for the Faculty/Alumni Concert is $15, with discounts for groups, senior citizens and students. Call (401) 456-8144.