Shannon Sweeny ’13 and Tyler Catanella ’13 met at an Emerson Dance Company audition and bonded over their love of movement.
They began exploring a new form of improvisational dance they called “paradise lost,” and with a group of likeminded students started jamming in studio space at the Paramount Center.
“We would try some exercises, create new forms,” said Catanella, a Theatre Education graduate who works with kids at the Watertown Children’s Theatre.
By his senior year, Catanella decided to try melding the improvisation he and Sweeny were using at the Paramount with traditional theater and dance techniques to stage a production, Nostalgia, as an independent project.
“When we mounted the show, we found we could actually do this and make it a real thing,” Catanella said.
Three years later, Paradise Lost is a dance collective that emphasizes narrative and collaboration in its productions, as well as in its bi-monthly open studio sessions called Movement SLAMs (Storytelling, Listening, and Movement).
“All of the work we create is based strictly on narrative, so it’s not just performance for the sake of entertainment, or just for the sake of making art, or just for the sake of physicality,” Sweeny said. “We tell important stories we think people need to know and people need to hear.”
Paradise Lost mounts a season consisting of a fall/winter production and a spring concert-style show with between 14 to 18 dancers. The majority of the performing company is composed of Emerson graduates and students, simply due to the founders’ social circle and the fact that “those are the type of people who get what we do,” said Sweeny, a Political Communication graduate who works in public relations at Babson College.
This fall, they will perform Enough, a revival of a production they did two years ago that follows a male character’s exploration of his identity and sexuality.
“This is a production that’s close to both Shannon and me,” Catanella said. “This production is really a question for me, and it is the darkest and most hopeful we created. The piece explores the question of what does it mean to be ‘enough.’”
Maybe the strongest example of Paradise Lost’s commitment to improv and collaboration, however, are the SLAMs, which anyone, regardless of ability or experience, can join for an $8 fee.
At a SLAM held Wednesday, August 24, at Green Street Studios in Cambridge, roughly 20 participants—all relatively young, with a mix of trained dancers and enthusiastic amateurs—started by sitting in a circle and telling the group what they “needed” from this session. Confidence. Human connection. “Flow.”
The exercises start simple and abstract. Moving around the room haphazardly at different energy capacities. Forty percent. Eight percent. Ninety-five percent (that one seemed dangerous).
Eventually, the dancers graduated to making shapes, then to making shapes with “seasonings” like “you’re underwater” or “all five people in your group must touch at all times.”
Toward the end of the session, the groups were instructed to convey an emotion, and then had to interact with members of other groups while maintaining their anger, or anxiety, or effervescence. It wasn’t a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but a casual observer could begin to see conflict or cooperation, even desperation. Something was going on.
Liat Racin was doing her third SLAM. She recalled her first time.
“I thought it actually was challenging, but not physically. It was just a very creative space, and it was, like, really refreshing to be in that space…,” said Racin, who works at Emerson’s Engagement Lab, though she found out about Paradise Lost through Facebook. “I remember feeling like I had found a goldmine. It blew my mind.”
Racin said she’s done comedy improv before, but dance improv goes a little bit further.
“Improv comedy is you’re…silencing the filter that usually tells you to stop saying something inappropriate [but funny],” she said. “With dance improv, you’re just silencing your mind completely, so you’re letting your body have the freedom.”
Michael Kelly ’15 said he watched Paradise Lost germinate while at Emerson and was happy to see Sweeny and Catanella stay true to the values of the group as it’s grown from a small student group to a successful dance collective.
Kelly said he got very sick earlier this year and lost the connection he typically has with his own body.
“I knew of all the places I could go to get back moving, Paradise Lost was at the top of my list because of the people,” he said. When he first tried the SLAM, “I did not stop smiling, because I was just so happy to be in the room with them, because they foster such a great, creative atmosphere.”
The SLAMs have become so successful, Sweeny said, that they’re almost at capacity. They’re working on building a community collective that can facilitate more SLAMs and reach more people.
Going forward, Catanella and Sweeny said, they would like to bring their narrative dances to younger audiences, with a mind toward building confidence and self-esteem. They’re hoping to expand on Enough and bring it a school, youth organization, or LGBTQ youth group. And Catanella said he’s incorporating the tools used by Paradise Lost in the SLAMs to teach dance and movement to fifth through tenth graders through the Watertown Children’s Theatre.
“Something Emerson taught us, if there’s something that doesn’t exist, you need to make it for yourself,” Catanella said. “Paradise Lost exists because we wanted to do something that was more than just movement.”
For Movement SLAM and audition information, visit Paradise Lost's Facebook page.