Life in a Brooklyn-Based Modern Dance Company

October 19, 2010

“I think we all knew it was going to happen,� says Donnell Turner, in reference to founding everything smaller—a Brooklyn-based modern dance company—with Jessica Jolly and David Schmidt. The three members, who all hail from North Carolina, met as dance majors at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The Company

After graduation—Donnell and David graduated in 2001, Jessica in 2002—the three moved to NYC: David came first and a year later, Jessica and Donnell followed. Thanks to a combination of persistence and dedication, everything smaller was soon performing throughout the NYC dance circuit as opportunities arose more frequently.


Their biggest challenge: The company doesn’t support them financially. David maintains a full-time job as an accountant, while Donnell teaches Pilates and works nights at a restaurant. Jessica is a nanny. For them, though, the vastness of dance in NYC makes it worth the hardships.


Jessica appreciates the sense of camaraderie between dancers in the city. She feels that everybody in New York struggles to balance making a living with the pursuit of his or her dreams. “It’s all about creating your own opportunity; what you put into it, you get back,� she says. “There is much more of a return here than in the South, because there are more people who are interested in what you’re doing. I didn’t see immediate results with our company, but the fact that [more] people are starting to [book] us is satisfying.� David also admits to feeling more vulnerable in New York than in the South, but he is satisfied with his growth as an artist. “Showing our work to an audience that sees so much dance, so much art in general, I feel like we are accomplishing something,� he explains.

checked in with the group once a month for three months this past spring to report on what it’s really like to be in a young

modern company in NYC.


The trio premiered a new work, I’ll Build Me a Boat, which they began working on in November 2004, in New Jersey for the SWEAT Modern Performance Series. The piece was performed the following weekend at the Elizabeth Pape Memorial Dance Concert, held at what is now known as Dance New Amsterdam (formerly Dance Space Center), a downtown NYC studio where they take class. The group was also honored with the 2004 Elizabeth Pape Scholarship Fund, which provided them with the financial backing to hire a composer, purchase props and buy fabric for costumes. The three had applied for the scholarship before but were not chosen.


I’ll Build Me a Boat
was based on the adjustments made in their lives when they moved to NYC. “Should you just throw yourself into change and take whatever comes with it, the good and the bad, or should you test it out a bit?� Jessica asks. The title refers to the idea of “keeping afloat in life,� David explains. Many of the props used involve water—a nod to the beach where Jessica had a conversation that inspired the creation of the piece. The group playfully incorporates a metal tub of water filled with toy sailboats; they splash one another and dunk David’s head into a basin.


For three days in the beginning of April, the trio was in residence at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT, teaching master classes, holding an open rehearsal and performing, while enjoying the serene environment and catching up on each other’s personal lives. They taught advanced, intermediate and beginner classes. The beginner class, which had the largest turnout, included athletes and non-dance majors. “It was really gratifying,� says Donnell. “By the end of class [the students] were saying ‘we loved your music, we loved your movement.’ We saw them open up.�


Each group member was thrilled to see one another in a new light. They had never taught as a company before, and ended up splitting the teaching duties. “I saw where we could go, I saw that it is possible for us to do this: we can have a company and we can perform and we can teach, and the time that we are putting into this is worth it,� says Jessica.


When they returned to the city, the group began preparing for a performance in the Dixon Place Body Blend series on April 27. About two weeks prior to the show they found out that the space was considerably smaller than they expected (18 by 13 feet), so plans to show I’ll Build Me a Boat quickly changed. Not only wasn’t there enough room for all the props, but “understandably, they didn’t want water on the floor, either,� says Donnell. During this time, David also underwent an MRI for a neck injury and was told he needed to begin physical therapy.


The group rose to the occasion by choreographing, in just five rehearsals, I’m Not on Fire, which they call a duet and a half, because David’s part is minimal and designed specifically not to aggravate his neck. The Body Blend series uniquely mixes two forms of art together. The group turned to a friend, composer Michael Wall (who also wrote the music for I’ll Build Me a Boat), for a score. Wall attended one rehearsal, composed the score and performed the piano live (along with a taped recording of Elliott Smith’s music) on the evening of the performance. Wall knew what the dancers were going to do, but the dancers didn’t know what the music would be like.


The company also experimented with nudity in I’m Not on Fire. The night of the first rehearsal, David had a very specific dream about nudity. He says, “The duet and the nudity in the dream were related somehow, but I could not pinpoint the exact reason. I guess you could say it started out as a gut feeling.� The piece begins with David, nude with a tape recorder strapped to his chest, upstage right while Donnell and Jessica perform a duet downstage. David spends the duration of the duet getting dressed. “The duet and I have no direct connection,� he explains. “It’s as if the audience were watching two separate dances onstage simultaneously.� David feels that his nude scene shows the audience vulnerability, honesty, intimacy and imperfection, while the duet explores vulnerability and imperfection as a feeling through movement.


At the end of April, the group declined an invitation to perform in their home state of North Carolina in June, because it was too big of a financial commitment. “I think we jumped the gun and got excited about it,� says Donnell, adding, “We need to start getting financially compensated, at least for our travel. It is so thrilling to be invited somewhere or just to be invited to do a show, but we have come to a point where we need to be a little choosy. This is our work after all.�



The company performed I’m Not on Fire (accompanied by Amanda Butterfield) at the opening of a new performance and rehearsal space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on May 6 in a show called, “Studio AIR’s Show.� The weekend after, it performed the humorous Bobby Can’t Dance in a benefit concert for Triskelion Arts, a rehearsal and performance venue also in Williamsburg, where they regularly rehearse. At presstime, “everything smaller� was eager to host an evening of its own work and had applied to perform at Joyce SoHo with dancer Gina Kohler, whom Donnell has known since college.