Four members of Jane Franklin Dance are charging around an Arlington rehearsal room. They are waving sticks in the air. Plastic bags are tied to the end of each stick.
With a twist of a wrist or an extension of a leg, the dancers morph their sticks-and-bags into javelins, bird-catching nets, baseball bats or canes. The plastic noisily contributes to every move. "I was nervous to bring the sticks and bags out in front of the dancers," says Franklin after the rehearsal ends. "But we did it and we were all like little kids again."
Franklin, a choreographer and dancer, needn't have worried. Her core group of dancers has performed with her for several years and is used to her whimsical style. "I have always been interested in the humor, quirkiness and absurdity of everyday life," Franklin says. The bag dance, "Listen to Good Advice," was partly inspired by a "Dear Heloise" column that offered tips on how to neatly store a large supply of plastic bags. Franklin, a confessed plastic-bag accumulator herself, found the column funny as well as addressing something universal. "Bags are part of everyone's life," she says. "Sometimes sorting out your plastic bags and tidying them up makes you feel good." Franklin also liked how the sticks extend the line of the body, and the way the dancers moved because of air trapped in the plastic.
"Listen to Good Advice" is part of the series "Home Remedies: Backyard Dance and Art," which will be performed at Dance Place this weekend. In collaboration with visual artist Brece Honeycutt, Franklin has choreographed four works that take their starting point from what she calls "folklore wisdom." In one piece, "Basic 4," the performers speak measurements and words of recipes while moving. In another, "Drink Plenty of Water," most of the dancers stay in a diagonal line while another strikes out on his own. At the end of the work, the dancer who deviated from the line leads it. The piece, says Franklin, speaks to "finding your own path. Sometimes you might stand out a little but maybe everyone will end up following you."
Franklin knows a little something about striking out on your own. She grew up on a working farm in rural eastern Colorado where playmates were scarce. Dance became her steady companion, and she often enlisted her cats as partners. "I was quite shy growing up and had trouble expressing myself through words," says Franklin. "Dance was a chance to express myself through movement."
She majored in dance at the University of Colorado, but studying technique never interested her as much as creating pieces. "I had my own ideas," she says. "That's where my energy went." Franklin performed with other companies in Colorado and New York before returning to school in Ohio for her master's of fine arts in dance. She moved to Washington in 1990 for a teaching fellowship at George Mason University and never left. Franklin lives with her husband, a computer programmer, and two young children in Alexandria.
Washington appeals to the choreographer more than New York. "Dance there was a closed little thing," says Franklin. "I'm more interested in finding people who have never seen dance and making them excited about dance. That's my niche." In this vein, Franklin currently teaches a dance appreciation class for non-majors at George Mason and regularly travels around Virginia leading lecture-demonstrations at schools.
These days, Franklin teaches more than she performs. She met all the dancers in her company through teaching or socializing. "I don't like auditions," she says. "I like to meet them and build up a connection."
Franklin choreographs through improvisation, which means her dancers are tools of her imagination. "I don't work in a traditional dance vocabulary," she says. During rehearsals she often stands on the sidelines, throwing out words to her dancers. They interpret the words through movement and she watches the results, looking to find a narrative. She's currently working on the next installment of "Home Remedies," which Franklin hopes will be performed outdoors next spring.
Back in the drab rehearsal room, one of Franklin's dancers, Meris Brown, parades around the room in flip-flops, part of the costume used for the "Home Remedies" section "Stand Up Straight." Franklin says she loves the squishy sound of flip-flops, which will contrast nicely with the clunky combat boots another dancer will wear. "People have commented on the childlike quality of my dances," says Franklin with a half-smile. "And that's fine with me."
Jane Franklin Dance will perform at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE, on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15. 202-269-1600.
CAPTION: Jane Franklin rehearsing alone, above, and with daughter Hanna Leavy, 8, left. The choreographer likes "finding people who have never seen dance and making them excited about dance."