A few blocks west of the subway stop in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and on a stretch of avenue populated mainly by warehouses and auto repair shops, a performance space called Life World attracted a stream of young Middlebury alumni on a recent Saturday evening in May.
This audience of approximately 70 Middlebury alumni and the few stragglers were here to see the sold-out performance of “Lullaby Machine,” a dance show about living online, choreographed by Maia Sauer ’22. Maia has been dancing since she was four years old, but in making the piece she took a more backstage role as choreographer. Her cast of dancers included Middlebury alumni Cheryl Engmann ’22, C Green ’19.5, and Sam Kann ’21, as well as Daisy Maass. The show also incorporated live visuals, which were designed by Maia’s friend Sylvia Ke.
Many of the people in the audience were my friends. Others were people I maybe had one class with or last saw while crossing paths on McCullough lawn. (There were likely just a few people in this room who couldn’t tell you where or what Middlebury is.)
The room we were convened in was a black box theater with metal folding chairs and decor that was somewhere between a college dorm and a messy radio station. In the back there was a small bar, which meant there were a few beers on a table for sale next to a pink lava lamp. I overheard and engaged in a few “It’s been so longs” and “No way, I didn’t know you were in the citys” before I made my way to the front row of folding chairs and the show began.
The dance opened with Daisy on stage in a corner that resembled a plush room you would encounter on Tumblr. She was journaling on a pink rug with vibrant throw pillows and was enmeshed in a tangle of wires and cords. Behind her on the projector, late-aughts YouTube videos played briefly on the screen before being interrupted or covered by other videos. After several minutes of dizzying visual collages of a young Zendaya, overlaid by Emma Chamberlain, overlaid by an ASMR video, the projector turned a bubblegum pink hue and the layered audio from the videos ceased.
Each dancer embodied a distinct aspect of digital life. Daisy was the evident protagonist, at times monologuing directly to the audience and scrolling on her phone where she encountered or even dreamt up the other dancers. C and Sam danced almost exclusively in tandem and enacted an idealized version of internet relationships. They were clad in flowy nightgowns, evoking an eeriness, as they sought genuine intimacy while balancing the pull to be seen and validated by strangers. Cheryl, whose performance was characterized by captivating solos, making her way across the stage with sharp movements, represented a darker version of online life. Her twirls were a kind of mental spiraling as she made her way down an internet rabbit hole.
In contrast with the candy-colored set and costumes, I was unsettled as I watched the dance. My generation is one that has largely grown up on the internet, and watching this I was at one moment laughing about the nostalgia of it all and the next a little disturbed as I considered how false it all can feel. As the dancers intersected and then pulled apart, I was reminded of how often we seek escape on the internet, just to end up in our own bubbles, completely isolated.
When the projector flashed a powering off screen, familiar to those of us who grew up in families with a shared chunky Microsoft desktop, the show concluded and Maia joined her dancers on stage for a bow.
Until just over a year ago, Maia and I had only occasionally crossed paths during our overlapping time at Middlebury. Last June, while I was frantically searching for roommates and an apartment, a mutual friend mentioned that she had heard that Maia was trying to move to Brooklyn. In response to this news, I opened Instagram and shot off a direct message to Maia asking if she was in the market for roommates. And like any anxious person in my age bracket, I closed out the message with “No worries if not!”
Now, the two of us have been roommates for nearly a year. I know her habits—like the way she starts every morning with a cup (or several) of black coffee and works on the New York Times crossword most days. She has a penchant for scrolling Instagram and sending me memes she thinks I’ll appreciate.
Maia moved to New York a few months after she graduated, and ever since we’ve lived together she’s been grappling with the question of how to be a working artist, especially one without ties to an established institution, after having the backing of Middlebury in many of her performances over the last four or so years. She’s concluded that a key aspect of that path is her digital presence.
“I have always been really fascinated by the slight differences I perceive in how I present myself online versus how people see me in my day-to-day life,” she told me one day as we were sitting on my bed. “And I think especially since moving to a new city after graduation and feeling like I’m rooting in new communities and meeting a lot of people for the first time, I’ve been acutely aware of those differences.”
In pursuit of creating dance, late in 2022 Maia applied for a grant at MOtiVE, whose website it as “a community-oriented space in Dumbo providing tailored artist services for movement-based practitioners.” MOtiVE offers two artist residencies, and Maia opted to apply for the Space Grant, which would provide her with a fixed number of hours of free studio space to rehearse. In her application, she included a proposal with an initial concept that became “Lullaby Machine.”
In January, Maia learned she was a recipient of the grant and began building out the piece. Immediately, she thought of her friend Cheryl, who had danced in her thesis at Middlebury and was a fellow Brooklyn resident, as well as Daisy, whom she had met a few summers back at the Bates Summer Dance Festival. She then made a more ambitious ask of her friends C and Sam, who are based in Burlington, Vermont. From their own accounts, they didn’t take much convincing.
As soon as they agreed, Maia embarked on the logistical journey of setting up weekly Zoom rehearsals with the two of them, in which they were located in a studio in Burlington while Maia sat at her desk in her bedroom, giving instructions and guidance from a few hundred miles away. Maia’s choreography process involved a combination of fixed and spontaneous movement. Most of the material stemmed from what Maia referred to as an improvisational score, or a set of often thematic parameters to dance within.
“I’m really interested in what happens when dance moves in and out of those states really seamlessly or like what you notice differently when you’ve got set movement and improvised movement living side by side.”
Though Zoom rehearsals weren’t always ideal, in some ways they were one part of exploring the thematic material of the dance, as they created connection from across the void. C expressed gratitude for the time they spent together on those Zoom rehearsals and how present Maia was, despite not being in the room with them, “And it felt really good to be able to use technology to connect over those distances, which is like the best version of what the internet can be.”
Maia and Sam in particular, have worked together across many artistic mediums, both as students and professionals, occupying different hierarchies on different projects. Sam explained to me that the biggest factor in her successful working relationship with Maia is trust. This understanding of trust is echoed when I spoke with the other dancers as well. Sam also underscored to me the importance of her closeness to Maia in her decision to be a part of the dance.
“I think particularly because I’m a younger artist, I only feel comfortable doing that with people who I know and love. And I hope that you can see that intimacy. It’s just really nice to make art with your friends also.”
In the days following the show, Sam and C stayed with us in our apartment. Five minutes before Sam needed to leave the city, she and Maia decided to try on the morphsuits they had ordered for their dance show at Plex, an arts festival in Burlington that took place later in the month. They alternated helping each other contort their bodies into the gray, skin-tight spandex suits and then inquired about how they looked.
Sam was one of the organizers of Plex, which, much like Maia’s show, was a grassroots effort, coming together largely without any institutional support. During her time at Middlebury, Sam was one of the founding organizers of the annual Nocturne Arts Festival, so corralling artists isn’t new to her. Now that they are no longer tethered to an institution, Maia and Sam have a lot of conversations about navigating the postcollege artist landscape.
“I keep learning about what it means to be an artist in the real world, and a lot of it is logistics,” Sam laughs, “which is like a funny thing that I guess. You spent so, so, so much time trying to create the space to create within and then you get there and then you do the show and then you don’t really know if it mattered to anyone. And then there’s also the lingering feeling of like, was that good? Like, did people like it? Like are we good artists? Am I a good artist? And also like, where do I go from here?”