Fischer Dance in Retro
When I think about the South Bend we hope to build, certain activities are happening. Small businesses are opening, artists are pushing the line, old spaces are being re-imagined, neighbors are caring for one another, and relative outsiders are experiencing the city in fresh, perspective-shifting ways.
It is easy to think this city is far off — until we take a closer look at Hannah Fischer and her namesake dance crew, Fischer Dance.
Hannah Fischer is what South Bend hopes to be.
Hannah was 18 years old and only two years into dancing when she boarded a plane for Pretoria, South Africa to join her first dance company. "I was the baby," she joked. Young and under-prepared, she joined 40 other dancers for an 11 month stint – 3 months of training in South Africa, 8 months of touring the United States.
This group was religiously-affiliated and evangelical, creating performing arts that focused on addressing tough issues facing youth including sexual assault, self-harm, and when parents divorce. On the technical side, this time afforded Hannah the opportunity to grow necessary skills in beginning level ballet, modern, and jazz. And on the conceptual side, this time introduced her to a new, more focused mission behind dance.
She recalls the director saying, "We are offering this show to help people have an experience and answer how you move forward, how you move forward through pain, and afterwards there will be people they can talk with.” This would be her first experience with pre-show exercises and post-show conversations – but definitely not her last.
Despite her desire to continue, Hannah's time with the dance company ended after the 8-month tour when her father said, "you have to go to college." That college: St. Mary's in South Bend, Indiana.
St. Mary's does not offer a dance major, so Hannah crafted a self-designed major in women’s studies, digital media, and dance with a double-major in humanistic studies. On paper this would have been a constraint to her dance aspirations. Instead, she leveraged South Bend's proximity to larger cities to gain the exposure she needed:
Since it was a minor program I was going to Chicago, to Columbia for a weekend to get training with someone from Minneapolis, or in the summer I went to Saint Louis for an intensive. So I was going out of college to get more training because it was very important for me. I couldn’t get enough. I still can’t get enough.
This time at St. Mary's culminated in Hannah's first production with Patrick Quigley, a South Bend-based musician and her now long-time collaborator. The two were part of River Park Art Collective, a group comprising Fischer, Quigley, Michelle and Nat Fitzgerald to name a few, who gathered weekly to discuss art and community.
The show, titled Caught, was percussive (Patrick did not play piano yet), 50 minutes long, with dance scenes complemented by film:
I somehow got a job as a video assistant, because I took a video art class. [The show] used film projection, all pre-recorded, or film I had treated. Some of it was 16mm that I had sewn into, that I had captured digitally and layered over ... I like slept in the basement of the library at St. Mary's for a semester
The newly-formed duo would go on to remount the show at LangLab where, despite the Lab having hosted a number of larger music acts, they captured the largest audience record to that date.
After her time at St. Mary's, Hannah moved to Saint Louis for a teaching position with Leverage Dance Theater. As is common in artistic circles, her time teaching provided the financial and space resources needed to continue pursuing more creative endeavors.
And what were those creative endeavors? Her first site-specific shows. Hannah worked closely with Director Diana Barrios to develop work in semi-public spaces and experimented with audience movement or travel throughout the shows.
We really shifted into non-proscenium spaces. I think that’s a trend in contemporary dance right now, and I think its probably the future of the form. Part of that has to do with the content of the work. We talk about after the shows that the space does impact the work. If you’re making it in a studio – I love working in a studio, it’s safer for my body – but when it comes to making artistic work it cannot be made in a vacuum. It’s a different quality of work.
Beyond creating stunning visuals and memorable experiences, site-specific and audience movement were two more tools that would prove invaluable for Hannah's eventual return to South Bend and formation of Fischer Dance.
It is hard to get into a traditional theater in South Bend. Combine that obstacle with a Midwestern population that, to no fault of their own, is thinking "what is modern dance?" and Hannah's return home was far from inevitable success.
She started how most things start: small. She started gathering a a couple people for what would become movement labs. Not long after returning, she convinced LangLab to host another show. Fischer Dance was not yet conceived, so this show was billed as 'Hannah Fischer presents' and took place on the East end of the Lab, the present day location of Zen Cafe and original home of Purple Porch Co-op.
Multiple shows, though small, sold out. That led to doing the show at Clay High School, a festival in Saint Louis, and eventually at the Birdsell Mansion.
This environment of organic space-activation and willful collaboration is what makes South Bend such a welcoming home for creatives. It was around this time that I was introduced to Hannah, when she (along with Myles and Nalani) orchestrated a nostalgia-inducing takeover of the East Bank J.C. Lauber building for a series of Works in Project events culminating in Fischer Dance's Mercy/Shelter. Hannah's recollection of a moment with Birdsell Project founder Nalani Stolz perfectly captures this time:
I remember distinctly Nalani and I sitting in the ballroom, she showed up and we ate Cambodian Thai and hung up the lights together. I didn’t have a lighting designer at the time, and that show is not documented from the Birdsell. At the time I didn’t have the money or know to spend the money on someone to document it. We were just a bunch of young kids trying to make art. There’s nothing else I want to do with my time or be good at.
And she's good at it. Her incredible eye for re-imagining old or empty spaces in South Bend have turned people previously uninterested in dance, myself included, into ardent supporters. One of Fischer Dance's more recent works, in collaboration with filmmaker Alyssa Neece and Patrick Quigley, immortalizes the company's penchant for site-specific work in a series of short films titled Holding Space:
And now, a new season. For Hannah, this new season is graduate school in Utah. For Fischer Dance, this marks a re-branding as New Industry under the artistic directorship of Chloe Ilene, a longtime company member.
Though the re-branded company (launching July 27th) led by Chloe will no doubt produce a new style of modern dance work (that is already surfacing on Instagram) Hannah is confident in their future because she believes the bar has been raised:
My goal is that I am raising South Bend. What I’ve done for the past 4 years is that I’ve gotten better, as a choreographer, and I think that I have. I think you look at my early work, Patrick and I have both gotten a lot better with our work. My dancers have gotten stronger, I’ve had the same dancers for about 3 years now. They’ve gotten stronger, we’ve gotten stronger, and the bar has been raised somewhere whether it’s about compensation for the people you’re working with or getting a lighting designer, whatever it is, at some point the production bar has been raised
Are you willing to shape your commitment to your form? To me, that’s the question. You can’t get really close without totally committing. People can get really close and make good work, but there is that edge you have to go over. I ran past it.
Holding Space premiered a few months ago in a series of screenings at the former Lasalle Body Shop. We expected excellence, and received much more. I was overcome. As we walked out and across Colfax towards East Race liquors, I pulled up Facebook and typed: "few things make me more proud of South Bend than Hannah Fischer." I have many reasons to be proud of our city – but the fact is that most pale in comparison to Hannah and her crew, Fischer Dance.