Crystal Wellman's contemporary dance performance takes on a dark side 

The Human Experience

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John Sease

When Crystal Wellman, a professional dancer and choreographer, debuted her contemporary dance performance Light Lines last July, she didn't anticipate that the project would evolve into a larger two-part production. Nearly one year later, Wellman's initial concept has developed a darker antithesis performance, ABYSS, which debuts at Woolfe Street Playhouse this Sat. Aug. 4.

Wellman is the founder of the Unbound Ballet Project, a community she created to explore new artistic avenues while simultaneously providing her fellow dancers with an opportunity to work in the off season. "After Spoleto, there's a lull in the arts scene and in the dance scene in general here, so I'm trying to do my part to create work for us and entertainment for Charleston," she says. Wellman constructs and plans all aspects of the performances — including this Saturday's ABYSS — and relies on friends and fellow dance lovers from the Charleston community for assistance.

To fully understand ABYSS, we have to take a look back at Light Lines. Wellman's debut Charleston performance began as an endeavour to capture a particular aesthetic quality of the now closed yoga studio, Reverb, where she also worked as a yoga instructor. When she saw the mosaic of light that filtered through the large windows, her concept took shape. She says, "I walked into Reverb and thought, 'Oh, this is it.' The box was very porous. The way it took in the sunlight and the sunset. You could see the light across the walls in different shades of color, and it kind of moved back and forth. It was very beautiful. It just grew from there. It wasn't a complicated inspiration."

What started purely as a celebration of the aesthetic in Light Lines has transformed into an impassioned follow-up performance. Wellman gathered inspiration for the show from the past year's experiences. "As I grew the piece, it became more about what me and the dancers were going through at the time and playing with different aspects of being a human." ABYSS became a representation of the darker side of the human experience — the side born from internal struggle. "We all have those ebbs and flows," says Crystal, "and this is definitely inspired by those darker spaces within us." In the years to come, Wellman hopes to juxtapose the two in one complete performance. ABYSS will be considered the first act, with Light Lines following up as a denouement. Together, the two acts serve as a kind of yin and yang, representative of the light and the dark forces that coexist within us all.

With the closing of Reverb earlier this year, Wellman was forced to find a new venue in which to perform ABYSS. She's found the perfect setting in the dark, interior warehouse of the Woolfe Street Playhouse. The warehouse is a small, intimate venue with a seating capacity for around 75 audience members. As with Light Lines, ABYSS will be performed in an open-concept space where dancers and viewers meet without barriers or separation. There's no wing space, so the audience will be able to see the performers the entire time.

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Every detail is choreographed — down to where the dancers will change costumes. The intention is to allow the audience to feel that they are interacting directly with the performance. "If you were to go to an art gallery and view an art installment, that's the feeling I want this to have," says Wellman. "Every single thing is planned from the time the audience walks in until the time they leave. You're on a ride, basically, having a full experience." Contrary to Light Lines, the music will be heavier and will incorporate voices — one of the eight dancers is an opera singer from Bolivia.

Charleston's dance community was given a preview of ABYSS during a fundraiser held on June 29. They performed two pas de deux, or a dance for two people, one with two women and one between a man and a woman. "Those were about the times in your life where you feel like you know someone really well, but then you figure out that you don't know them at all," says Wellman. "When you see a side of someone that is completely different from what you expected from that person."


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