Dancer brings soundpainting, mixed media performance to Austin


Shelby Fry

Award-winnig choreographer Andrea Ariel watches the conductor for her cue in rehearsal at the Off Center on Friday afternoon. Ariel will be performing her new show “The Bowie Project” this Thursday at the Stateside at the Paramount.

Like many young girls, Andrea Ariel was introduced to dance when her mother encouraged her to take classes. Ariel learned everything from ballet and tap dance to acrobatics and jazz. Now, she is the artistic director of the Andrea Ariel Dance Theatre in Austin and has been choreographing and teaching dance for more than 20 years. 

This Thursday, Ariel and her dance theater group perform at Stateside at the Paramount in a hybrid performance of live music, theater and dance. Ariel is collaborating with Austin-based David Bowie tribute band Super Creeps and the New York-based Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble on a piece titled “The Bowie Project: A Rock & Roll Soundpainting.”

Ariel and her husband moved to Austin from Champaign, Ill., shortly after Ariel obtained her Master of Fine Arts in Dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has been performing and working in Austin for almost 25 years now.

“My work is rooted in the heart of what Austin is all about, which is that if you have a creative idea and if you have chutzpah to put behind it to put it out there, this city has the space for you,” Ariel said. 

In 1998, Ariel was introduced to the Walter Thompson Orchestra when it performed in Hyde Park Theatre. Founded in 1984, the orchestra set out to explore the possibility of live composing using sign language and the blending of art forms,  such as dance, theater, music and physical theater. It was then that Ariel first learned the language of soundpainting. 

Soundpainting — a sign language for artists, actors, musicians, visual artists and dancers — is composed of more than 1,200 gestures, which are signed by the soundpainter or conductor to indicate the type of response desired of the performers. The soundpainter composes a hybrid piece in real time, using the responses of the performers and the predefined gestures.

“When I first discovered soundpainting, I realized it was so evocative of your creativity,” Ariel said. 

The composer uses what is called the soundpainting syntax to sign predefined gestures that indicate who, what, how and when the performers are to act. Gestures are signed to indicate things like improvisation, stage positions, costumes and length of a musical piece.

“Soundpainting is the perfect fodder for allowing beautiful dance and language to live together in a piece and have many different kinds of relationships to each other,” Ariel said. “What’s exciting about it is what it allows: language and movement coming together.”

At the annual Soundpainting Think Tank in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1999, Ariel met Leese Walker, actor and artistic director of New York’s Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble. Ariel and Walker have collaborated on many soundpainting pieces since then.

“She’s a very thoughtful soundpainter,” Walker said, “Because she comes from the dance world, she tends to think very visually. She’s really skilled at finding a meeting place between dance and theater.”

Ariel’s soundpainting meets ’70s glam rock in The Bowie Project, which has been Ariel’s dream for the past five years. 

“I had this idea of matching the soundpainting with a thematic band or a tribute band and making it a live-music concert that uses soundpainting and dance and music,” Ariel said. “In The Bowie Project, we have embraced David Bowie, his history and his music.” 

It was some time during her research into Bowie’s music that Ariel came across the Bowie-tribute band Super Creeps and approached lead musician Adam Sultan to ask him to collaborate on the soundpainting piece.

“She’s very talented and driven. She understands and works in a lot of different mediums, not just dance, and I think that’s refreshing,” Sultan said. “She brings a lot of creative input into the work that she does. She also likes to investigate the theme of what she’s working on. She’s done a lot of research about Bowie’s identity.”

Ariel and Sultan are now working to start an Austin soundpainting group, which will serve as an incubator for artists who are interested in working in structured improvisation and learning the soundpainting language.

Through this, Ariel wants to reach out to a wider audience, including the music audiences in Austin and also nurture the connection between New York and Austin by collaborating with Walker’s Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble on a more frequent basis.

“We’re really in uncharted territory with soundpainting,” Walker said. “[Ariel] is very nurturing, extremely supportive, and she really creates an environment for artists to blossom and be their best.”