Immersion on the dance floor 

click to enlarge Cat D. Olson, artistic director of immersive theater company CAT + THE COYOTE. - LOUIS RESSEL.
  • Cat D. Olson, artistic director of immersive theater company CAT + THE COYOTE.

When Cat D. Olson creates work for her immersive dance theater company, Cat + the Coyote, her first thought is not about technique or the coordination of music and movement. Instead of tailoring the piece to the stage or a topic like many post-modern dance creators, Olson focuses on the relationship between performer and audience. This perspective is especially important for immersive theater, which brings audience members into a space other than a traditional theater and invites them to be an integral part of the piece.

Olson’s creative process is inspired by her own performance career, which began at Hochstein School of Music and Garth Fagan Dance. After graduating from SUNY Brockport, Olson moved to New York City to complete her MFA at New York University and work professionally.

When a friend of hers joined the cast of “Sleep No More,” an internationally successful immersive theater production by British theater group Punchdrunk, Olson felt herself pull away from classical dance. She was determined to make her way into the space between dance and theater in which “Sleep No More” lived.

click to enlarge LOUIS RESSEL.
“I got in after my third audition,” Olson said. “That was a whole new dance chapter. There’s something about working with ‘Sleep No More’ that pulls that out of people. I started thinking of myself as a fully rounded creator, performer and choreographer.”

A decade later, after moving back to Rochester during the pandemic and connecting with Heather Roffe Wiktorski, a fellow SUNY Brockport graduate and director of the undergraduate dance program at Nazareth University, Olson added “teacher” to that list. Since teaching at Nazareth, Olson has found immense inspiration in her students. So much so that she decided to create her company with four graduating seniors as her founding members in May 2023.

Jennifer Roush, a former student of Olson’s and current member of Cat + the Coyote, credits Olson with changing her perception of a dance career.

click to enlarge LOUIS RESSEL.
“I learned that dance as a profession is way broader than I ever imagined,” said Roush. “She broadened my mind about what possibilities exist for me and my future career.”

Hoping to use what she has learned from working with Olson to spark an immersive theater career of her own, Roush will pursue an MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London this fall.

While Olson’s students draw inspiration from her teaching, she has also discovered new creative motivation from her work in the classroom.

“Serving the students comes to the forefront and the rest of it strips away,” said Olson. “It lets me get at these things that I maybe would have worried more about if I had been by myself.”

Along with this element of mental clarity, Olson found demonstrating for technique classes allowed her to expand her physical range of movement. Her continuous growth as a dancer and choreographer is, in large part, due to Olson’s ability to embrace challenges, a characteristic she passes onto her students.

“She knows how to push you in ways that are uncomfortable, to make discoveries about yourself and your art,” said Roush. “But she knows how to do it carefully so you grasp it fully.”

click to enlarge LOUIS RESSEL.
Olson’s risk-taking is reflected both in the movement and challenging topics of Cat + the Coyote’s performances. Her most recent work, “pedestals” explores female objectification and the layered life experiences of being a woman. Olson has also created pieces about the stages of grief, aging, motherhood and evolution.

Though the ideas behind her creations are important, Olson always comes back to the audience. She hopes people leave her performances feeling the urge to talk with others about what they saw.

“Every piece of great dance I’ve seen are pieces that tackle fresh, challenging ideas and not only feel profound from a visual standpoint, but also spark conversation,” said Olson. “One of the most interesting things about art as a medium is the conversations we have after.”

Upcoming performances by Cat + the Coyote include a premiere of a collaborative work, “The Lost Generation: An Immersive Cocktail Rendezvous,” as part of the 2024 Rochester Cocktail Revival on Saturday, June 8; “Chapter 38” at Dances at MuCCC June 19—22, and “pedestals” at Rochester Fringe Festival in September.

Sydney Burrows is a contributor to CITY.
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