Female Fusion Spotlight on Arianne MacBean


Nancy Dobbs Owen

Arianne MacBean is a writer, educator and Artistic Director of The Big Show Co., a LA-based interdisciplinary performance group. Although when asked how she would describe herself she leads with choreographer, her biography on her company page does not list that among her many titles. In contrast, her Instagram profile defines her as “Choreographer, Writer, Educator, Girl Gang Boss.” She dances and performs with her company, but specifically says that she is no longer a dancer. This enigmatic question of self categorization set off a conversation full of layered responses and complex ideas related to identity, process and creation. Her journey to become the artistic force that she is today was and continues to be long, winding and constantly evolving.

Like most creatives in Los Angeles, MacBean wears many hats, has numerous titles and shoulders many responsibilities. In addition to being the director and force behind the Big Show Co., she was the Director of the Dance Program at Oakwood Secondary School for eighteen years, and is now adjunct faculty at Cal State University Long Beach, Pasadena City College, and Glendale Community College. Her classes include graduate seminars in Dance Management, graduate level Modern Technique and Composition, Beginning and Intermediate Hip Hop, Modern Technique and Dance History. She is a regular facilitator of professional development workshops for LAUSD teachers on how to promote diversity in the classroom through movement. Through the Big Show Company, she leads Memory Writing Workshops at Casa Treatment Center in Pasadena, for women in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, and she has spent many years working with U.S. military veterans leading free Memory Writing & Movement Workshops. She is a published author. Her academic dance works include Dancing into Diversity – a curriculum for self-discovery, empathy and creative leadership, which was published in the 2014 special teacher edition of The Journal of Dance Education and Scripting the Body, an essay and curriculum which was published in 2001 and which continues to guide her work today. She also wrote a charming children’s book, Backyard Fairies. In 2012, she was awarded the year-long CHIME Mentorship Grant, produced by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in San Francisco, which is a mentorship program for professional choreographers. Other recent awards include the 2018-19 Cultural Trailblazer Award and 2016-17 Artist-in-Residence Grant from the City of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as the 2016-17 & 2017-18 California Arts Council Veterans Initiative in the Arts Grant.

The Big Show Co. was founded in 1998 and has five core members. In addition to MacBean, the company includes Angelina Attwell, Genevieve Carson, Brad Culver, and Max Eugene.

left to right: Max Eugene, Arianne MacBean, Genevieve Carson, Brad Culver, and Angelina Attwell. Photo: Dyanne Cano

Both men began as actors and have become movers. The women are all technical dancers, but as they have worked together for over a decade, those lines have become blurred. What you see in The Big Show Co.’s work is the result of literal years of breaking down then rebuilding creativity.

“When that core group came together, we started to develop this creative process. It was unlike anything we had ever done before and we started making work that was unlike anything we had ever seen before and we called it dance theatre. We generated the text and the movement simultaneously and we started to refine and then I started to think about the creative problem solving…..to codify it, to think of it not just as creating material for performance but as a way of processing information that feels to me a little bit more authentic to life.”

“I grew up, even in grad school with this idea of the integrity of the art. There was a lot of judgement…that these ideas need to be completed. I still feel all of those things and bring all of that but I wanted process to reflect what I wanted to show up on the stage which was much more dynamic and not tied up or wrapped up in a string, which is much more reflective of the way I live; I have ideas, they come, they melt away, I’m laughing, then I’m crying because I am so sad at what I’m laughing at and then I’m pissed and I love this person then I hate them all in the same minute. We called it the creative problem solving method.” She jokes that naming the process was mostly for grant writing purposes.

Once they had solidified and codified this method, they looked out, away from the core group of dancers/performers and sought to apply it to more diverse communities. At the suggestion of a friend’s husband, himself a veteran, she started working with groups of veterans in free workshops and began to develop the idea of memory making as a performative act. A result of that undertaking was The Collective Memory Project, a show that was developed and performed at The Ford Theatres in June of 2018. Creating the show was a three year long process.

The Collective Memory Project at The Ford Theatres, June 2018 Photo: Timothy Norris

Joining the core company members for the Collective Memory Project in June were Heraclio Aguilar, Edem Atsu-Swanzy, Armen Babasoloukisn, and Priscilla Songsanand. It is impossible to write about all of the elements of this incredible performance so I have linked to two reviews, The Berkeley Daily Telegraph and Broadway World. I would also urge you to check out the Work in Progress video: The Collective Memory Project, and both the Collective Memory Project Promotional Video and The Collective Memory Project Reel. I saw both the developmental workshop and the performance. It was astounding and glorious and emotional. As MacBean says so eloquently, “Every veteran wears their service differently.” The journeys taken throughout the evening were both immense and minute and all of it was intensely moving.

When asked about her work as an activist, the issue of self identity was once again raised. “I don’t really see myself as an activist. The work that I do is creative work and I think it is activism, but it is a collaborative community process and its this really intuitive listening and pushing and guiding and listening and pushing and guiding. And re-visioning with the material that comes in front of me, we start with text and start mining human experience. Then you have to guide these non-performers into thinking performatively and thinking about storytelling, but there is the goal of art, but that separates from the trauma of it...”

That stated, there are multiple avenues that Arianne pursues with the creative memory writing process; Memory Writing Workshops, Memory Movement Workshops and Creative problem solving. For example, in addition to veterans, she works with women in recovery from addiction. These workshops are mainly writing, though as with everything that Arianne is associated with, movement finds a way in. In contrast to the work that led to the Collective Memory Project, the workshops are not performative. They are about personal growth and the journey that each individual takes.

All of this creativity, whether focused on a performative or personal goal is intense and can be triggering for both the participants and MacBean. The related issues of balance and care came up in our conversation in numerous ways: in regards to being a mom and teacher, as a guide and therapeutic leader, and in her family life. MacBean has a husband and two tween daughters. She is close to her parents, who live in Berkeley, where she grew up. Her mom has stage four breast cancer and was just diagnosed with Dementia and Alzheimers. There is a lot to juggle and she is open about having her own therapist to help deal with it all. Even with the stress, MacBean expresses gratitude and excitement for her complicated family and life, and for how she has grown artistically with and as a result of it. Once she had kids, she found that she had to start integrating more of the sides of herself, moving on from the heady space of academia into a softer, more accepting place. Her motherhood and teaching is intertwined with her creative output. “It’s all part of the process...with my family, we have always danced." She found that there was a stripping down of self restriction and self judgement both in her own work and in the work she of others she watched. She had to let go of the pretentiousness of it all, the academic certainty of right and wrong when it came to art and open up to much more fun. “I had to start to watch musical theater, and LOVE it!” She shares a family tradition; the Backyard Big Show. Friends and family who love to dance but may not be dancers themselves come together to create once a year. Everyone brings a dish to share and a dance for the show. The Backyard Big Show echos the work she does with her company. It is an organic process of working with communities and creating art while not taking yourself seriously. There really is a lot of play, both in the family celebration and in the creation of ultimately serious but still entertaining and joyous dance theatre.

From The Big Show Co Instagram

MacBean and The Big Show Co. will be in residence at the Ford Theatres in the Fall 2019 with a new project entitled, She/Her: Memory Trace - dance theatre exploring femininity and the military veteran experience. The project was inspired partially from a memory that was explored in the first show; attending San Francisco Ballet performances at the Opera House with her mom. She was already thinking about the influences of mothers, women and feminine energy on memory when one of the veterans contacted her about writing about his mom. This desire was partially inspired by the journey that MacBean is going through with her own. “I started to think about the military and men and this really male dominated space and how do they feel about the women in their lives, and how the women in their lives have affected how they think of themselves as men in relation to the military. Then I thought about the very few women who did come to our writing workshops and how they had extremely different experiences than the men, which then made me wonder about my own relationship with ‘femaleness’. I have always been more of a masculine woman. I have never been much of a girly girl. Nathan Clum, The Dramaturg and Co-Facilitator for all Collective Memory Project Writing Workshops, is gay and he is always thinking about his femaleness and we are in this new culture with gender fluidity being so much more accepted than before. The show will jump from this perspective to further explore the idea of durable memory and seek to discover at a deeper level why and how “memory and identity is a creative act.”

The Big Show Co. is still seeking veterans to work on this new project.

Paid Workshops and Performance!
Male & Female Veterans Wanted!
Must be available on the following dates/times:

- Workshops: Sundays, September 8, 15, 22, 29, October 6, 13, 27; 10am - 1pm at the Ford’s Community Room
- Project Launch Showing on the Terrace at the Ford Theatre, Saturday, November 2, 10-4pm. OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
- Wrap-Up Workshop: Sunday, November 17; 10-1pm

Project Launch Showing at the Ford Theatres:
Saturday, November 2, 2019
10am-4pm

If you are interested, please send a resume via their website contact form at TheBigShowCo.com/contact.

There is so much more to Arianne MacBean than is possible to share in this article; her love for Hip Hop, her passion for teaching, the joy that talking about her children brings to her face. I would encourage you to check out her irreverent Instagram account, her amazing performances, and maybe take part in one of the workshops. The possibilities that are opened up by her work and collaborations are infinite.