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In Leaves

Selene Carter, Tiina Harris, Atalee Judy, and Amy Alyn Pope

at Link’s Hall, November 19-21

By Terry Brennan

When Tiina Harris met her 94-year-old Estonian great-grandmother for the first time, the great-grandmother looked carefully at her and said, “You are the first one who looks like me.” Although we tend to think about looking back at our ancestors, illuminating the past in search of our origins, it’s also likely that our ancestors looked forward into the blinding light of the future to see us. They hoped, perhaps, to find themselves re-created. These connections, backward and forward in time, form the subject of the five dances in a concert by four choreographers, “In Leaves.”

The evening had a remarkable stylistic and thematic unity, using a common setting, a stage floor covered with dried leaves and bare, slender tree branches at the sides. Leaves were scattered throughout the space, even in the hallways. A buffet in the entry offered free autumnal food, including “Amy’s Nostalgic Cider,” and the plastic cups for the cider had been imprinted with the name of the event. Although autumn as a theme suggests loss and death, two of the dances focused on the power of memory to overcome loss, while a third explored using anger to overcome sadness.

The choreographers called their work “dance stories.” And while dance was the central element, it wasn’t always the most powerful one: the choreographers also used family photos, old family films, live musicians, notes and biographies in the program, spoken texts, and an installation in the entry that included letters, photos, and mementos. Overlapping stories were what gave this evening its texture and unity.

The first dance story, Atalee Judy’s Fleeting Smile, set the mood perfectly. Judy placed an old wooden desk and chest among the leaves, and as she entered (wearing a pink lace dress made by her grandmother in about 1930), a 16-millimeter film in video transfer was projected on the back wall. It shows her grandmother in 1928 at the family farm in Grand Minot, North Dakota. First we see the short film through in its entirety, then in a collage (created by David Birdwell) that emphasizes the sweet awkwardness of people who’ve never been filmed before: a small boy looks into the camera with his “party smile” fixed in place, a teenage girl stares seductively but can’t help bursting into laughter, an older woman walks in front of the camera with conscious dignity. The program notes name each woman and give her dates of birth and death. The hallway installation tells their life stories: one had breast cancer; another a husband who died in the war; a traffic accident left one sister in a coma for five years; another sister cared for her and raised her son. The film makes these women–presumably known to Judy only through stories–into people very much like herself.

As the film begins, Judy sings a slow song with long-held notes and indistinguishable words that sets the mood more than it communicates a meaning. As the film focuses on each woman, a new performer takes center stage and presents a muted dance. The one for the sister in a coma is a gentle duet for two women, a continually flowing embrace. Although not much happens in Fleeting Smile, there’s a certain dramatic tension as to whether such a delicate mood can be sustained; magically, it can.

Tiina Harris’s story is the most dramatic. Her Estonian grandparents met at a dance in a small village. He approached her because she was short and they would dance well together. She paid attention to him because he was a good dancer; she didn’t even talk to him until they went for a walk in the woods after the dance. He didn’t tell her his real name until their third meeting. They confess in a taped interview that they slept together before they were married; their baby was Harris’s mother. Six months after they married, the Soviet Union invaded Estonia, and Edgar was forced to join the Soviet army. When the Germans invaded, he surrendered and spent a year as a prisoner of war. He was reunited with his wife and daughter, but when the Soviet army retook Estonia, all three fled to Germany, then to rural Michigan.

This story is critical to Harris because she’s pregnant, which she tells us as she cleans fish while seated at a table set in the carpet of leaves. Her solo, Keep Until They’re Inside, reveals her astonishment that she exists, that she is the result of these wildly improbable events, and that improbabilities still rule her life. She met her husband on a blind date, and afterward she said to herself that she’d certainly live if he didn’t call; but he called, and now…In a moment of compelling honesty, she cries out that she’s terrified for everyone, for her grandparents, her husband, even her cat. Given her family history, Harris’s existential terror is understandable.

Keep Until They’re Inside is Harris’s first choreographed dance; in her program biography she calls herself a “dance improviser” rather than a dancer. The piece itself is choppy, including many moving moments–such as family photos from the 1930s projected on the back wall–but also suffering from rough transitions and a spotty narrative. Fortunately the real-life story is more than enough to carry the piece.

Selene Carter’s Wind Egg is also a first dance and also very personal, but it has a much different intent and effect. While Harris acknowledges motherhood as her destiny, Carter chooses the life of an artist. The dance illustrates a lovely poem by her father, Jared Carter, about a farm girl who finds a “wind egg”–an egg without a shell. It’s a superb poetic image, something that can just barely be imagined and that Jared Carter is careful not to describe realistically. His daughter makes it a metaphor for an artist’s sensibility, standing naked and exposed to the world, bombarded by sensual impressions and without adequate defenses. In the poem, the farm girl summons a workhorse and rides off to a new life. Carter uses the poem as a declaration of her existence as an artist, as the runaway farm girl.

Wind Egg intersperses banjo music, played live by Chuck Stebleton, with a duet by Carter and Emily Pitcher, whose hair is braided like a schoolgirl’s. The duet, which displays Carter’s intuitive grasp of dance composition, uses a vocabulary of spirals and twists derived from her experience with contact improvisation. The easy quality of her movement translates the poem well into dance, opening up its dense imagery without sacrificing the beauty of the language. Her father should be proud–and apparently he is. The hallway installation includes a letter from him about how much he enjoyed seeing Selene at a party on Halsted, which reminded him of the excitement and vitality of his days in Paris.

The remaining two dances were enjoyable but didn’t touch the evening’s themes as deeply. Amy Alyn Pope’s solo Here, Here, Absent is a meditation on the seductiveness of sadness. Pope stays in the middle of the stage in a clearing in the leaves. The floor seems to be exerting an extra amount of gravity because she keeps being pulled down. A burst of anger enlivens her and she seems to sail above the floor, but then the anger passes and she’s sucked down again. An improvisation by Carter and Sheldon B. Smith called Philadelphia Duet is filled with Smith’s quirky humor.

Although the suite’s nominal symbol is autumn leaves, a more appropriate image might be seeds, with their suggestions of dormancy and growth–not death but rebirth.