In Alison Liney’s Expel, every breath is a letter to the world

by Lewis Whittington

Dancer-choreographer Alison Liney is in her first year residency with MM2’s choreographic collective. Late last winter, Liney was in the studio with the dancers contemplating the final section on ‘Expel‘, her debut piece with the company. Liney cued up the music on her iPod, moving closer to the dancers,  and  then zeroed in on spatial adjustments of dancer body capes and group sculpturing.

Between segments, Alison explains that she usually creates a dance piece working from “a blurry skeleton. I almost always have the movement in my head, but the staging changes. When the dancers start executing the choreography, I try to be as flexible in the development as possible,” preferring to mold her movements from real time interaction with the dancers.

Liney grew up in the Philly suburbs and was classical trained in ballet. “Once I entered college, I lost interest in it. But with my first modern dance class,  I was so taken with it.  I think there is a freedom in ballet that I love when I take class now and again. But I relate more to the expression in modern dance than I do in ballet. I love inverted and floor work.”

As a dancer Liney started comparatively late, she said, than many dancers and not thinking at all about creating choreography. “I was in gymnastics first, and then stopped in high school. I took a ballet class and was immediately hooked,” she recalls. “I think I just grew out of gymnastics and those positions felt so severe, a lot less natural to me than dancing,“ Liney observes.

”Actually, I first got into dancing through musical theater and that made me much more confident about doing it,” she recalls. Liney’s first dance role was in a production at Upper Darby Summer Stage in the stage version of Disney’s Mulan Jr.  “I performed Mulan’s reflection in Mulan Jr. and it was the first time I was recognized for dancing. I immediately connected to dance storytelling, but I didn’t have any vision for group work until I got to college and started to study and understand things like composition.”

Liney started performing and studying dance at Temple University, there she also connected to the experimental and post-modern aesthetics in the curricula. “Yes, I loved the craziest stuff happening on stage. When I realized there was a whole other side of dance I hadn’t known about, my mind was blown,” she acknowledges. As fascinated as Liney is by pushing the boundaries of dance and theater, she hasn’t tried incorporating “anything super post-modern”. She goes on to add that her pieces “may not always be structurally linear, and have been more narrative.”

‘Expel’ has the quality of both abstraction and telling individual stories. Liney cites specific inspirations she used from literature, including quotes from Sylvia Plath’s shattering autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” and another from “Looking For Alaska”, the popular youth novel by John Green.

That balance between dancer and choreographer, Liney admits, can feel “overwhelming sometimes and  hard to balance. Right now I prefer performing over choreographing because I feel stronger as a dancer. I feel like I’m developing and exploring both realms. Actually, this was the reason why I was so pulled to MM2. They provide an opportunity to younger choreographers and this was very exciting to me,” she said.

Liney grew up in the area, but is still finding out how much she especially appreciates the dance diversity of the scene here.  “Things like MM2, the ETC Performance Series at CEC and InHale at Chi Mac and this environment constantly inspires.,” she confided.  “This is easily one of the cooler companies in Philly and the chance to work in this environment was very exciting to me. Most companies have one or two resident choreographers and here it is everybody, which is unique and they are all creatively supportive.”

MM2 Modern Dance Company
Spring Preview of BREATH
Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 2:00 PM
The Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130
Tickets online on
Lewis Whittington’s articles on the performing arts have appeared in several print and online publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dance Journal, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, American Theatre Magazine, Playbill and Stage Directions.