A comic-book theme will provide room for feminist discussions and physically demanding choreography in "Wonder Women."
The show promises "big, powerful movement" with flashier lifts and jumps, said Joy French, Bare Bait dance company's founder and co-director.
She choreographed the new, evening-length production, which closes out the seventh year for Bare Bait Dance, the only contemporary modern company in the state that produces a full season.
"We began working on it during the craze of 'Wonder Woman' coming out, and there was all this excitement around a more feminist perspective in superhero movies," she said.
They'd considered a work based on important women through history, but found that comic books could act as a hook for feminist themes and a "thematic backbone that takes the audience for a ride," she said.
French is one of eight artists who were selected for the 2017 Artist Innovator Awards, distributed by the statewide Montana Arts Council. The winners are honored for "innovation in their work and artwork," "originality and dedication in their creative pursuits" and "a marked capacity for self-direction."
The show is French's first evening-length piece since 2016's "All About Moon," a series of vignettes related to our cultural fascination with the Earth's satellite.
While the phrase "contemporary modern dance" can seem intimidating, French has a light-hearted streak in her work and often a preference for strong themes and through-lines.
The company is interested in "accessibility within contemporary performance," French said.
Their audience is here and now in Missoula, and they constantly think of ways to engage with them. That might be through collaborations with local musicians, who bring their own audience to a piece, or making films that be can viewed at the Roxy Theater or online.
She said there's a strain of contemporary modern dance, particularly on the coasts, where it's possible to pursue form above all else. A general lack of education in the school system about dance versus visual art and music creates a gap, particularly in rural states like Montana, means companies like Bare Bait need to find ways to balance outreach and art.
"I feel like I'm trying to figure that for myself: Why should Missoula show up? I think Missoula should show up because we're doing something physically interesting for sure, but there's also greater content," she said.
Some of their work is abstract or deals with serious themes — French once based an entire show on the historical oddity of prison newspapers — and she's not discounting artistic integrity.
"I don't have to push the form in Montana to feel like a successful choreographer — I feel like I have to share the work and broaden the audience to feel like a successful choreographer," she said.
The show opens with a short duet between French and Kelly Bouma, co-director of the company.
French compared it to the short cartoons that used to screen before a feature film. "It lives in the same world but it's a totally different piece," she said.
French and Bouma, both of whom have young children, will portray the heroic aspects of getting through the day as a mother. They'll juggle physical tasks put toward them by other members of the company while trying to play "Jeopardy!"
The main piece will find five of the company's dancers in glittery black outfits, aspirational super-heroes.
French said her choreography plays a premium on explosive, flashy movement — you can't have small jumps and lifts in a show about superhumans.
Into this milieu enters a new character and a challenge for the dancers: the Invisible Woman. Since CGI isn't an option, French developed dances that will imply the presence of the unseen super-hero. For instance, the dancers will pair off, with one "dancing" in a way that implies volume, she said.
In later scenes, French emerges in person as the Invisible Woman, a comment on the idea that a woman's "power" requires her to be unclothed.
While French studied comic books and films for ideas about movement, she noticed that much of it is based on combat and fighting, which she didn't feel suited her themes of empowerment.
In the final section, the assistant stage manager, played by Bouma, will emerge as a character, tying in a theme about how women have traditionally been pushed into heavy-lifting roles that are behind the scenes rather than placed at the forefront.