At a rehearsal in January for "Paradise," a new dance-theater collaboration between director Jon Ferguson and choreographer Helen Hatch, dancers moved around the space in awe of a recent snowfall.
One performer, Juliana Johnson, stretched her fingers out as if trying to touch the snowflakes as they gently fell from the sky. She shared a monologue about the specific wonder she felt in the winter, making her delivery with both words and movement. Then she turned to the group of other performers. "You know?" she said.
"Paradise" is a piece about happiness. It reflects on moments of connection with the world around us and with our fellow human beings. Coming on three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work explores what happens when humans allow themselves to be open to being completely present.
It's the first piece Ferguson has directed since returning to Minnesota, where he had been a prolific director and theater maker since the mid aughts, known for his highly physical style. Four years ago, he took a job with the Screenology Production Company and Film School in Bristol, England. Upon his return, Ferguson was keen to work with a cast of dancers rather than actors.
Working with Hatch has helped him think about things more physically. "Some people call me a physical theater director, but it's only because I work with people that are physical. I liked the way they can express things beyond words," he said. Dancers, he said "can slow time down."
Hatch has shown herself to be a choreographer willing to take risks. She often takes an intuitive approach to dance-making, discovering the work with the dancers as part of the process.
A former company member with the ballet company Minnesota Dance Theatre, Hatch has choreographed three major works in collaboration with Berit Ahlgren as part of their "Live at the Shed" series, which took place at an outdoor space in St. Paul. She's created works for the Cowles Center's "Merge" series, including one collaboration with Darrius Strong; has been commissioned for St. Paul Ballet, and has presented works with her own company. In March, she'll be sharing a retrospective of her choreographic works at the Cowles Center, her first full-length show at the venue.
Hatch first worked with Ferguson as a performer in "A Room With Closets," produced by Sparkle Theatricals. "There were so many different types of artists, and everybody was bringing something really different to the project," Hatch recalled. "I just like working in a different way than I was used to. It was really inspiring."
The journey for "Paradise" has taken unexpected twists and turns as the two artists' visions came together. At times, Ferguson and Hatch split the performers into small groups or pairs to come up with material that was later worked into the larger piece. One such vignette was created by Johnson and Javan Mngrezzo, who portray two people who encounter each other at a grocery store. In rehearsal, the performers incorporated a mix of clowning, dance and acting filled with whimsy and longing.
Ferguson directs the performers theatrically, while Hatch creates choreography for sections within the larger arc. Together, they deliberate the overall through-line in collaboration with the performers and musicians Seth Conover and Joseph Strachan. Visual designer Ashley Mary is also part of the creative team.
Meanwhile, the performers are invited to bring in source material related to the theme.
One early rehearsal made performer Johnson think of a poem by Rumi that begins: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing/ there is a field. I'll meet you there."
Johnson said the poem kept coming into her head during a discussion with the group. She brought it to the next rehearsal. "It felt resonant with all that energy being put in the pot for this piece," she said.
The process has drawn from other poets, as well, including Louis Jenkins and Raymond Carver. They discussed Michael Pollan's book about hallucinogenics, "How to Change Your Mind," and an article about how important awe is for mental health. "It's about being taken by surprise," Hatch said. "It's something I feel is at the crux of this work."
It's a challenge to live inundated with the weight of the world and technologies that take us out of the present moment. Ultimately, the collaborators aren't out to make a "how-to" for happiness.
"I just really want people to feel better," Ferguson said. "We wanted to make something that brought people forward a little bit."
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 pm. Sun., Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Av. S., Mpls., $25, southerntheater.org