The airy, light-filled space known as the Work Room isn’t merely a dance studio. For its founder Blake Beckham, it’s also a sanctuary.
“I couldn’t have made this work without the space that we have,” Beckham says as she and her dancers prepare for her latest show, “OneAnother,” which will have its world premiere on Aug. 4 at Emory’s Mary Gray Munroe Theater. The work is the first she’s been able to prepare in the Work Room, the innovative, shared studio space she founded for independent dancers and choreographers at the Wagon Works, a converted 1895 mill in East Point. “It’s a very uplifting place to be. It’s a productive place to be. It’s a space that’s free of distraction, free of conflict.”
A bank of windows all along one wall floods the quiet room with light, making the gray marley dance floors and white walls luminescent, resembling nothing so much as a huge, three-dimensional blank canvas.
“I remember the pain and frustration, how hard it was to hustle to pull together a show because you couldn’t find anywhere to go to even have one rehearsal,” Beckham says.
From the beginning, she says she wanted the studio to be a place not just for her, but for others experiencing that frustration. The Work Room opened its doors in 2015, and nine resident artists rent studio space at a radically low cost, giving them the time and freedom to explore and innovate with their work.
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“I’m not interested in working in isolation or just producing my work,” Beckham says. “I’m interested in being in dialogue, moving with people, creating opportunities for other people, celebrating all of these important voices.”
For her upcoming show at Emory, Beckham and a team of visual artists will convert the dark, windowless, black-box space into something that resembles her beloved Work Room.
For the show, Beckham is collaborating with her partner Malina Rodriguez, co-founder of their company the Lucky Penny, and with Atlanta visual artists Dana Haugaard and Jane Foley Garver. The space will be enveloped in walls stretched with white muslin fabric lit from behind to give the room a glowing “light box” effect. Audience members will be seated on two sides of the dance floor, with tinted mirrors installed along the walls, pitched at angles so every mirror offers new sightlines into the dance.
The new work for five female dancers (Beckham choreographs, but doesn’t usually appear in her own work) is all about various forms of mirroring, doubling and pairing. “There’s always an aspect of tension because five people never make perfect pairs,” Beckham says.
She says it’s an intimate piece in the way it focuses on how the dancers touch and interact, and viewers may recognize aspects of their own relationships in the piece’s fleeting encounters and constantly changing, often troubled couplings and uncouplings.
Pieces like “OneAnother,” which bring in collaborators from across the arts, have been the hallmark of Beckham’s work. Beckham grew up in Miami and fell in love with dance from the moment her mom first took her to baby ballet. It wasn’t until she got to Emory and began studying contemporary dance under faculty members Lori Teague, Anna Leo and Sally Radell that she began to consider dance as a career. “They just supported me and encouraged me and helped me find my voice,” she says. Beckham was among the first students to complete the then-newly established dance major, graduating in 2001.
Since then, Beckham has made her mark on the Atlanta scene with her pieces, many of them monumental in scale. Her 2011 work “PLOT” had audience members following dancers to various artistically transformed spots at the Goat Farm Arts Center. Her 2012 piece “Threshold” had dancers performing in a life-size, two-story house made entirely out of cardboard designed by architectural firm Scogin and Elam. Her 2014 piece “Dearly Departures” involved a hand-built split-flap display board, the sort that was once used in train stations and airports to list arrival and departure times.
Working with a community of collaborators will always be a part of her work, Beckham says, but she senses that her future endeavors will likely be on a smaller scale as she seeks ways to bring work to audiences more often. And she says, in the end, it isn’t really about her own work, but helping other dance artists to overcome the frustration of not having the space and time to create.
“There’s still a need, still a desire for people to come join this community,” says Beckham, adding that there’s already a long waiting list of artists eager to use the fully booked Work Room. “The biggest challenge for the Work Room right now is that I don’t have two of them.”