Monica Thomas is a dancer, choreographer, actor, and filmmaker currently living in Chicago, but she’s also a proud Fayetteville, Arkansas, native. During the first week of August, she returns to her home region to present three public programs both inside and outdoors at Crystal Bridges through dance and film. Her performances are part of the museum’s Performance Lab series.
Monica has been a close friend of mine since we were about eight years old, in third grade at the newly built Vandergriff Elementary in Fayetteville. Throughout elementary, middle, junior, and high school I, along with our other close friend, Anne, attended Monica’s dance recitals. We got to watch her blossom into a star performer with each passing year.
For ten years Monica, Anne, and I attended school together and were hanging out almost all of the time until we all moved away to different colleges. We had all excelled in school, but Monica was the outgoing performer, Anne was the logical analyst always in the highest math and science classes, and I was the reader/writer and lover of all high and low culture, no matter how strange. Now another ten years later, we have not lived in the same town since high school, but always are instantly back to our close friendship the minute we see each other. Monica has become a dancer in Chicago, Anne is now a doctor in San Francisco, and I have returned to my home region as an interpretation manager at Crystal Bridges.
It has been a privilege to host my friend at the museum where I work. I was able to chat with her in advance of her performance about the art she creates.
What are programs and projects are you doing while you’re at Crystal Bridges?
As far as public programs, we will be doing a live performance at Chihuly Saturday Night on August 5th. It will feature dancers from a community collaboration with the Arkansas Arts Academy as well as four professional dancers from Chicago. We will also have a showing of my films on Thursday evening especially for Artinfusion members, and a Gallery Talk on Sunday afternoon in the outdoor part of the Chihuly exhibition.
During the time we aren’t engaged in public programs or rehearsing for the Saturday night performance, we will be adapting choreography created in Chicago to spaces around the museum and creating dance films! Crystal Bridges is such a beautiful building and natural setting, I’m excited to be inspired by the space and just get to play!
How long have you been dancing?
I started taking dance lessons formally when I was 7, at a small studio in Fayetteville, but I remember being inspired by music even earlier than that. I would choreograph my own dances to pop songs in my bedroom.
What is it about dancing that kept you doing it as a profession?
In all honesty, I never planned to become a professional dancer. Growing up around Northwest Arkansas at the time I did, there weren’t many models of what it meant to be a professional artist. I went to a college that had a dance program because I wanted to continue dancing; and then I just enrolled in more and more dance and theater classes until I realized it was an option for me. And here I am!
What do you do in Chicago?
I would say I am a “freelance performing artist.” I teach dance at the Old Town School of Folk Music and in Chicago Public Schools through Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s in-school programs. I am also a commercial actor and perform in musicals at regional theaters. I have danced with Chicago modern dance companies. But my artistic practice is dance filmmaking; I produce, direct, and choreograph.
Talk about some of the projects you have worked on.
Recently, I helped produce the first annual Mana Contemporary Body + Camera Festival, co-produced by Chicago Dancemaker’s forum. We had over 200 submissions from around the world, which was very exciting for our new event!
My film Nature Body Light, shot last August, is in its final stages of production. We shot over two days with four dancers on a farm near Galena, IL. With this film, I was curious about the human form contrasted with natural forms, and I wanted to observe how changing lighting conditions could affect the mood of the piece. I also wanted to experiment with showing nude bodies in a desexualized way, something we don’t often see on film in our times.
How does it feel to be doing a performance at Crystal Bridges in your home region?
It is very exciting for me! I have seen a lot of local support for this project, which shows me that the community here is really thirsty for more art and specifically more dance. I love seeing that resources for arts are growing and I hope that this is the first of many collaborations in the Northwest Arkansas area.
Do you feel like more of a choreographer or a director than a dancer? One or two or all three? What’s the difference in the roles you have to play?
I wear all of these hats at different times. In my own work, I was a choreographer first. Then I became interested in making films and realized that filmmaking and dancemaking share many of the same principles; both are founded on manipulating space and time. Being a choreographer first definitely affects the way I work as a filmmaker; I am very collaborative, which I’m learning is sometimes unusual in the film world.
I am still a dancer in other people’s work and definitely still dance as part of my own creative process, but I find it difficult to perform in my own work. It is difficult for me to split my focus in this way—to be inside of the choreography as a performer and also outside of it as a choreographer/director at the same time.
What is your creative process like?
I do research to start the process, finding photographs, films, dances, articles, and dance/film concepts that inspire me. Then I take all this inspiration and make a sort of brain stew out of it. I steep myself in all of this source material and then see what emerges out of it.
My choreographic process is very collaborative. We devise the work together rather than me setting material on the dancers. I will give the dancers a short phrase of material that I choreographed and have them expand on it with their own improvisation, or I will present them with a concept and have them create phrases based on that idea. Then, once we have this base material, I will structure it, manipulate it, and refine it until we have the finished piece. I enjoy incorporating elements of humor or the unexpected; often my dancers will propose ideas as a joke or will make a mistake during rehearsal and then I will end up incorporating into the choreography.
With dance film, you have the added bonus of being able to choreograph the camera movement as well, essentially being able to choreograph the audience member into the piece. Unlike choreographing for live performance, as a dance filmmaker I get to more specifically curate what the audience sees and experiences.
What are some of the influences you’re drawing on in your work, specifically at Crystal Bridges?
I have always been very interested in art history, so this opportunity is very exciting to me. I am inspired by the setting of a museum in itself, and have been drawn to other art work that reflects the experience of visiting a museum: For example, Museum Watching, a series of photographs by Elliot Erwitt and the Sokurov film Russian Ark, filmed as a single take in the Russian Heritage Museum.
I am particularly interested in the James Turrell Skyspace, The Way of Color, at Crystal Bridges. I have been inspired by his work since seeing his exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York a few years back. I have been collaborating with an amazing costume designer, Vin Reed, and he is creating some exciting pieces, all white, that I think will respond well to the light. I’m excited to play!
Monica’s website is montomarts.org
Note, the Performance Lab series at the Crystal Bridges continues into the Fall Season performances by artists Marjani Forte and Victoria Marks.
Learn more about the program here
This program is made possible by Demara Titzer and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation.