Thriving on individuality: Creative identities flourish in Berkeley’s Thrive Dance Company

Caragh McErlean/Senior Staff

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Thrive Dance Company is, in a lot of ways, anomalous in the Berkeley Dance Community (BDC). At 25-30 members total each year, it’s one of the smaller on-campus dance groups. It puts on just one show each semester  — its one-to-two hour showcase — that exclusively features work created by Thrive dancers. The company also doesn’t enter competitions — instead, Artistic Director Emily Arshonsky characterizes Thrive as a post-competitive-dancing-era release for a lot of its members. “Thrive is about growing as a dancer, but because you want to,” she explains. “Not because you want to win a competition.”

The emphasis is on individual growth; the result, in such an intimate troupe, is the singular experience of exploring one’s individuality within a group that has meshed into a fully functional, living unit of its own.

“I think that the coolest thing about Thrive is that we’re a group of totally different dancers from totally different backgrounds,” says Arshonsky. “And when we come together, we can create something super unique to Thrive itself.”

From ballerinas to urban dancers, Thrive is assembled with intentional focus on creating a company whose power lies in its diverse composition. You can feel this in Thrive’s summer project: “Blonde, a Video Album.”

Arshonsky, along with Thrive’s three other directors — Executive Director Kelly Yen, Marketing Director Zoe Edelson and Outreach Director Naomi Jung — initially loved the concept of using an album as the foundation for their pieces. But, Thrive’s leaders wanted to be careful to avoid limiting individual license.

“You’re telling choreographers what to do if you’re telling them you have to use this song, and we never want to do that, because we always want to give people the freedom to do their own thing,” Arshonsky explains. So instead of using the album to dictate Thrive’s Fall Showcase, the company’s directors pivoted toward pursuing the more freeform, voluntary project of the video album.

For reasons reflective of Thrive’s mission, Frank Ocean’s latest release was an easy pick for the project. It was popular and familiar, but, more importantly, the 17-track-album offered creative freedom to choreographers with its wide range of music styles and potential artistic directions.

The product, available on the company’s Facebook page, is an eight-piece dance project that embodies each group member’s individuality.

As artistic director, Arshonsky intends to use her position to even further develop the foundation of independence and creativity that Thrive has already established.

Each year, Thrive’s artistic director chooses a theme for the company’s showcase — it can be a word, an idea or even a poem. Some pieces rely on the theme as a foundation, while others may only loosely refer to it. As with all things Thrive, you never really know what to expect. The company’s creative product is the unique sum of its members’ individualism — “No semester is going to look like the next,” Arshonsky reiterates.

This fall, Arshonsky’s theme is simple: “creativity.” Arshonsky is in her third year at Cal, and she has been dancing with Thrive since her first semester. Her favorite Thrive moments have always revolved around the creativity of her peers sparking group connection; the most exciting manifestation of this is, to Arshonsky, improvisation.

While improv can be intimidating, Arshonsky emphasizes that letting go is essential to developing and demonstrating your style. Past this initial leap of individual improvisation, she describes group improvisation as something entirely beyond words — “When we’re all doing it together, I just can’t really even explain it.”

In addition to Arshonsky’s increased emphasis on creativity and improvisation, the four directors collectively want to emphasize community more than in past semesters. Developing Thrive as a social and emotional support system for its members will hopefully benefit the company’s dancers, as well as contribute to Thrive’s creative product. “It’s important to be comfortable and to have good relationships, because it creates space for experimenting,” Arshonsky says.

Audiences can look forward to experiencing Thrive’s expanded focus on creativity and community at its Fall Showcase in December. The show will consist of several two-to-four-minute dances — one piece featuring the entire company, three pieces with nine dancers each and a few pieces involving just three or four dancers.

A lot of people admittedly have a hard time grasping the concept of contemporary dance. But, Arshonsky maintains that Thrive shows have something everyone can enjoy — the opportunity to connect with others.

“Every dance is just a reflection of the choreographer and the people in it. That varies so much, and that’s what’s cool about Thrive,” she explains. In opening up to empathizing with performers on a human level, audiences can get a taste of the individual creativity that makes Thrive such a unique group both to be a part of, and to watch.

Contact Claralyse Palmer at [email protected].