‘A Garden After Dark’ creates space for hidden heroes

Feb. 22, 2024, 9:58 p.m.

The Chocolate Heads Movement Band, an interdisciplinary dance and performance troupe, will be performing their first winter quarter show this Thursday at the Cantor Arts Center.  

The performance piece, titled “A Garden After Dark,” invites audience members to “perceive the magic hiding in plain sight” around them by creating an “imaginary garden” through dance and art installations. Chocolate Heads developed and first performed the piece last quarter as part of the project-based performance course DANCE 30: “Contemporary Choreography,” taught by Senior Lecturer in Theater and Performance Studies Aleta Hayes.  

'A Garden After Dark' creates space for hidden heroes
Courtesy of Julien Broussard.

Through a collaborative style of teaching, the Chocolate Heads Movement Band — which is open to students with any level of performing arts experience — works together to create choreography, writing, music and installations. Although most of the performers don’t have prior experience, Hayes said she helps them undergo a “transformation” by helping them reconnect to their breath and discover their natural style of movement. 

“I’m amazed at how the use of breath brings the dancers together physically,” said Chocolate Heads General Design Divisor Ryan Yu. He added that the troupe members are “very driven and committed to each other in an ensemble way” that Yu finds “beautiful.” 

'A Garden After Dark' creates space for hidden heroes
Courtesy of Julien Broussard.

“A Garden After Dark” was created in collaboration with Stanford’s head of groundskeepers Mary Nolan and horticulturist Gahl Shottan. Hayes said the piece is a revitalization of an “ongoing initiative of doing things with people who are working with space or with their bodies, and us being in collaboration with them.” Chocolate Heads dancers learned about Stanford’s natural landscape from Nolan and Shottan and incorporated aspects of it into their final piece.

For the troupe’s fall quarter performance, an installation with large and intricate replicas of trees and bushes lined the stage while being illuminated by bright colors. Three groundskeepers were included in the piece, where they delicately moved branches and shoveled the stage. Hayes said this draws attention to the “beauty of everyday movement and labor.”

Hayes said that “performance is endless” and that she wanted students to be in conversation with the sixteen acres of campus that are invisible to us by developing a “new world” in collaboration with her performers. “A Garden After Dark” is not just about performing, she added, but “participating in ongoing knowledge creation in collaboration with community members.” 

“[It is] heartening to see people engaging with a landscape you take care of on a daily basis,” Shottan said. 

'A Garden After Dark' creates space for hidden heroes
Courtesy of Julien Broussard.

 “A Garden After Dark” is part of a larger conversation about how to honor the beauty of work and heroes that are often hidden. Yu shared that the performance is “not just [about] artists, academics, professionals, or amateurs, but people who make this campus what it is.” While “A Garden After Dark” is performed on a set designed by students, he highlighted how Stanford’s campus is also a “set” that we don’t attribute to someone putting effort into. Whereas students tend to overlook laborers on campus, Yu said this performance places them in a spotlight where they can shine, blurring the boundary between “dancers” and “laborers” by portraying both as performers in a newly imagined world. 

According to Hayes, another key aspect of Chocolate Heads performances involves building a sense of community with audience members.“One of the most important things about Chocolate Heads is when we get out and do it together with the audience,” Hayes said. “Something else happens that is magic […] something about the nonverbal world where before anything is said, it’s already happening.”

This winter, Chocolate Heads is working in collaboration with visiting guest artist JoAnna Mendl Shaw, who is offering workshops that help students explore their choreography through an interspecies lens and seeks to “enhance our human capacity for multi-sensory awareness.” The troupe also invites students interested in performing or choreographing pieces to join the Chocolate Heads community and participate in the inaugural Young Choreographers Festival taking place next spring on April 19th and 20th.

'A Garden After Dark' creates space for hidden heroes
Courtesy of Julien Broussard.

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