How a flock of birds inspired Denver’s ‘Murmuration’ dance event

Photo: Murmuration, b-boy partners with violinist
Violinist Brady Alice Gaynor performs with break dancer Bobby Chan.

A murmuration is a group of starling birds, hundreds of them flying in harmony.

"As they fly they seem to be connected," Boulder-based hip-hop dancer Sarah Touslee says. "When they move, they move together changing direction as if it was choreographed."

This type of synergy captivates Touslee, as well as a number of her artistic colleagues in the Front Range area. It's also the inspiration behind the dance showcase "Murmuration."

Touslee -- along with Colorado musicians and dancers Larkin Poynton, Alex Milewski, Vanessa Weingarten, Becca Gallery, Trevor Donadt, Helen Noland and Andrew Stallz Dransfield -- organize the annual event.

Saturday marks the fourth "Murmuration" event, and it continues to connect dance and music forms that may seem disparate at first glance. Think of a break dancer paired with a harpist, an ensemble of dancers moving in unison to the driving rhythms of a high school drum line, or a ballet dancer performing in sync with a choir.

It began in 2012 at Boulder High School as an effort to raise funds for those affected by a devastating tsunami in Japan. As it grew, the focus shifted from a philanthropic emphasis to an artistic one. With that came larger venues, such as the Chautauqua Auditorium in 2014.

Saturday, the event moves to its biggest space yet, the Temple Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. And for the first time, "Murmuration" used a submission process to select the performers.

The "Murmuration" team spoke collectively to CPR News.

CPR: Why do you think it's so important to get dancers and musicians of varying genres and backgrounds to collaborate? What do you hope to achieve from this?

The "Murmuration" team: As people, we all label and categorize the world around us in order to make sense of things and determine where we fit in among seemingly endless ideas. A genre is characterized by similarities in form, style and subject. If we were to stay true to genres, ballerinas would dance to classical ballet music and B-boys would dance to breakbeats. But what happens when we switch it around? What if we give the B-boys a classical composition? The genre is obsolete. Left on stage is a beautiful symphony of strength, passion and movement. We no longer see the B-boys as street dancers, we see them as artists. This act of breaking people’s expectations and setting performers free to create and collaborate is charged with the raw energy of live performance. [Artists in the show] work together to create something neither would have been able to create on their own -- each of them bringing their stories and experiences into the newfound partnership.

Photo: Murmuration, contemporary dancers collaborate with drummer
Contemporary dancers Helen Noland, Vanessa Weingarten, Lanea Blackburn, Carsen Calano and Anna Gunderson perform to beats by drummer Bk Kahn.

CPR: You're hoping for this diversity on stage, but what about in the audience?

The "Murmuration" team: Every single performer has a community that is different than the person’s who stands next to them on stage. These communities range in backgrounds, ethnicities and socio-economic statuses. It is a virtue deeply rooted in "Murmuration" that it is accessible to the public, reaching those who most need to be reached, and that we have an audience truly diverse in their experiences and ideas. To help make sure we can offer "Murmuration" to anyone and everyone, we currently have a “pay-it-forward” ticket price. We offer a discounted $15 ticket through May 29 for anyone who can’t afford the general admission $25 ticket. Our only request is that people take this act and pay it forward to someone else in need, letting kindness ripple through the lives of others.

CPR: Why did you have a submission process this year?

The "Murmuration" team: After the show last year, we had an overwhelming response of new artists wanting to be a part of the event. That was when we knew an application process would be necessary. We received over 50 applications from incredible artists all around Colorado. The main reason we implemented the submission process was to get out of our own heads and have the dance and music communities at large brainstorm new collaborations of movement and music -- rather than just 10 of us in a room doing all of the curating. We not only got to read some brilliant ideas, but we asked questions that brought up people's goals, stories and beliefs. We left application reading meetings inspired, humbled and blown away that so many incredible people wanted the opportunity to tell their story as a part of "Murmuration."

CPR: How will this year's event at the Buell Theater be different than the last three years?

The "Murmuration" team: Last year, we noticed that the performances that took everyone’s breath away were the one’s with live music. So, we made the show entirely live music this year. Being at The Buell has encouraged us to continue to reach further for our cast [and] include a few out-of-state performers, such as Underground Crew and Jesse Sykes from Salt Lake City and Theory from Los Angeles. This has raised the bar for everyone.

CPR: How do you see "Murmuration" growing?

The "Murmuration" team: We want "Murmuration" to continue to be a yearly event in Colorado. We want people from all over the state to know about the show, and to apply to perform. We hope to fill auditoriums for years to come with diverse audiences. We also want to take "Murmuration" on the road to work with talent in different states and offer this experience to people living outside of Colorado. We have grown so much in the past three years, we don’t want to stop anytime soon.