Rare Birds: Erik Wagner Rediscovers Dimension with the Training Program

After a full year of teaching the LINES Ballet Training Program exclusively online, faculty member Erik Wagner stepped outside this spring to share space with students once again. Despite the decline of local COVID rates, LINES’ studios remained closed due to health ordinances. Erik, ready for a change, took to the outdoors to host a series of in-person sessions for Training Program students who were living locally in San Francisco. 

The classes were invigorating. Emerging from the constraints of solitary at-home enclosures and into open terrain and togetherness provided new, inspiring stimulation. From the series of outdoor classes emerged Rare Birds, a film aimed to document the classes and showcase the burgeoning individuality of its students. Below we share Rare Birds in its entirety, behind-the-scenes clips, and a Q&A with Erik about his learnings:

Rare Birds

Director of photography, choreography, and editing: Erik Wagner. Co-photography by Christina “Kitty” Linskey, and Aaron Smonovitch. Performed by 2020-21 LINES Ballet Training Program dancers.

Q&A with Erik Wagner

After a semester of working with these students virtually, what was it like to move together in-person? 

Exhilarating. The virtual classroom is flat, two dimensional experience, lacking space and connection. We spent the first few days acclimating to the new environment and each other. We executed tasks and games that focused on using space, shared proximity, and practicing response/reaction and decision making in a group dynamic; all the things that one can not practice in isolation. Beyond the physical practice, getting to know each other was an invigorating experience shared by all. 

Raw footage of Training Program dancers Bryn and Lily dancing bay-side. 

Watching the film, one of the many striking aspects is the expansive outdoor landscapes where you filmed. How did you choose your locations? 

The initial location, Golden Gate Park, was chosen because, as we emerged from the pandemic, the city made space available for group fitness classes there. But once the decision to make a film was made, I knew we had to take advantage of the beauty of San Francisco, showcasing a variety of landscapes from natural to urban. 

I looked for spaces large enough for a movement class, and also quiet, in respect to pedestrian traffic. It was important the dancers felt comfortable practicing, and not be overly concerned with an audience. We shot in seven different locations around the city, although only three made it into the final film.

Did you form a particular movement vocabulary for this process? 

The movement vocabulary was developed in a few different ways. The most striking way was by taking cues from the environment, listening and responding to what was present: water, wind, stone, architecture, etc. Improvisation made up a large portion of the movement vocabulary. Additionally, we created a few formalized choreographic phrases, taking turns contributing to their development. Everyone contributed to making the movement vocabulary.

Behind the scenes footage of Training Program dancers exploring movement prompts during a rehearsal at Golden Gate Park.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered, and the biggest surprise? 

The biggest challenge was editing the film down to 15 minutes. There was hours of footage, and I had to “kill my darlings.” 

The biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed the filmmaking process; cinematography, editing, directing. I had a great time and subsequently registered for a film production class at City College in the Fall. 

Erik Wagner experimenting with collaborators Christina “Kitty” Linskey and Aaron Smonovitch at a filming site.

How do you feel like this process will influence your work moving forward?

I would definitely like to work with film more, and I am reminded to get out of the way of the young artists; to speak less and observe more.

Interview by Katherine Disenhof