At the end of Bare Bait’s latest production, some 26 dancers take part in a sprawling piece called Family, filling the Westside Theatre.
It’s “Views from Grandma’s Porch,” a 2012 evening piece created by founder Joy French, based on the time she spent at her relative’s home in Eureka, Kansas. She wanted to tell stories about rural life through contemporary modern dance.
Twelve years and a full season later, French revised the play. It’s a different work now, working with a different movement vocabulary. But she still tells stories through work about modern life here, often with doses of humour.
“I was joking because I want the audience to laugh and cry too,” French said. She wants the audience to be able to clearly see the “sincere sincerity” while leaving room for collective laughter. “I think that’s what makes work accessible.”
“Family” is Replay’s closing piece, as the company delves into a rare creative path for dance companies. The three-week production includes 14 original pieces, all in French (with two collaborators). Each evening, it will seat 14 people, with a costume change.
The performers for this show include 32 dancers, including current company members and returning alumni, some from out of town.
Fun, calm and theatrical
French said she “wouldn’t get into the quality of the acting” or even the music. Sometimes the program’s name or topic comes first, fueling inspiration and ideas through its openness.
“It creates my own physical vocabulary, because it’s so mysterious,” she said.
In a segment on their 2015 show, Happiness with Hoover, she played the late Helen Gurley Brown, a longtime writer and editor at Cosmopolitan. The entire show revolved around references to femininity in an earlier era of pop culture.
“We can only start extracting pages from catalogs and advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s,” she said. She enlisted the sound designer, Al Parker, to carve out the sound of Brown’s advice to single women, which crescendos as the piece progresses. In another room, the dancers hug each other like paper dolls.
They talked about “how a lot of the advice that came in at the time didn’t allow for a full, three-dimensional woman.”
She said that while it is fun to address and critique these ideas, it is also fun to embody the glamor that Brown has cultivated.
Part of the show deals with the ‘world big and small’ of rural communities and their interdependence. Half of the dancers are dressed in costumes and the other half are dressed as farmers. A piece from their 2018 show “Wonder Women” calls out for trampolines.
The words “contemporary modern dance” may sound intimidating, but Bare Bait’s work is meant to be accessible. Longtime collaborator Kelly Puma said the term evokes an abstract movement that can be very nebulous.
She creates stories through movement, theater and text in a way that is fun, smart and technically challenging.
Jessica Schontz joined the company for its second season. She graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance and was looking for opportunities. Schontz stays with them until Pestilence and returns as a reaper.
French’s work is collaborative, she said, so it requires both physical and creative interaction: “She plays to the strengths of all her dancers but has, as an outside eye, the ability to say ‘This moment is really powerful’ or ‘This moment isn’t it feasible, let’s try something different. ‘” “”
A piece directed by Puma and a French choreographer that begins with five dancers in the corner of the stage. A projector projects their silhouettes onto the two-level screen at the back of the stage. A scribbled drone flew over the PA. Combined with the blouses and skirts from the 1950s, it reminds us of a Hitchcock movie.
They slowly rise to a standing position and speed up the sound. It is not settled. It was the sound of Beatlemania, a crowd screaming in anticipation. Suddenly, the classic rock and roll music starts playing and the dancers start performing period-appropriate moves.
In another work, Puma, “Perspective” from the 2019 show, “Dance | Words | Dance,” she portrays a high-achieving professional mom, reaping accomplishments while her fellow dancers lift her high. She wears a completely straight face that is upside down and shows how she can float.
Their early 2020 show, “Here Be Dragons”, whose title refers in part to mapping and the possibility of future obstacles, included a piece they called “Dragon Arms”. Intricate French arm movements are choreographed for the five dancers, which somewhat unexpectedly forces them to move each half of their bodies at different timings.
French said the movements convey “the power they can summon around them from a place most magical and fantastical”.
In one of their 2016 show acts, “All About Moon”, eight dancers are paired as a duo symbolizing Earth and its satellite, in a synchronous orbit. They wear blue and white coats, provided by Ashley Jeannine, who dug up their cellars from the original suits and made new coats for the company as well as for all the young men.
Schontz said the duo’s part was demanding. “You’re very connected to another person, and so you’re really there and you give that person your weight and your energy and give it back directly to them, so being involved in that partnership on stage at that time is really nice, but it takes a lot of effort to find that subtle middle ground.”
The company debuted in March 2012, stemming from an art residency at the Downtown Dance Collective. French, a fresh graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, is back in Missoula.
“My main task was to be able to continue working and formulating my own choreography,” she said.
She also saw the need for recent graduates to do an authentically local job in a small town with a high quality of life.
“I really think professional dancers should be able to have a home” not in dance centers like New York. While she sees the benefits of growth and the opportunities it presents, “I don’t think it’s the only place artists can live and work.”
She was largely a solo ship for the first four years, with the French paying the dancers what they could on principle. Around 2015, when she felt she was approaching burnout, Puma joined her to become the assistant director.
Puma worked with French while earning her master’s degree in theater at the University of Montana.
“I honestly believe Bare Bait dancing is the reason I live in Missoula,” she said. Puma attended the Season 2 program, How to Open a Closet, and thought, “This is the kind of company I want to be a part of. Puma is not a trained dancer, but they meet at this ‘magical intersection of theater and dance’.”
They have gone on to produce entire seasons in a variety of venues: DDC, the University of Montana’s basement open space at the PARTV Center. They took the parade downtown, to Elk’s and Union Hall. In 2017, French won the Artist Innovator Award from the Montana Arts Council.
In early 2022, Bare Bait reached an agreement to take over the management of the West Side Theatre, with Puma serving as the venue’s general manager. People know where to find them. They don’t have to go from one place to another or look for free places in other places’ schedules.
“I swelled what I could do,” said French.