Playful and Poignant: Dancing about the Earth: Dance Exchange Summer Institute at the Capital Fringe Festival
Making an evening-length dance performance with a cast of nearly 30 people who have never worked together before and who come from different states and different parts of the world is a daunting task. To do this in one week, rehearsing about eight hours a day, and blending elements like text, props, and singing with the movement is a rare feat. Yet this is what Dance Exchange does incredibly well: it generates experiences that appear undoable if not impossible and makes them come alive with beauty, grace, and poetry.
On Saturday and Sunday as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, participants in the Dance Exchange (DX) Summer Institute perform “Language from the Land,” a project that draws on stories about our local environments and includes text by Rachel Carson. The project is a first in several ways: the piece will be presented in Columbia Height’s GALA Theatre, DX’s first appearance at this gorgeous venue. It is also the first time the Institute has created a stage production under the leadership of DX’s artistic director Cassie Meador.
“Language from the Land” reflects Meador’s investment in promoting awareness of our environment and ecology. This spring she undertook a 500-mile walk that she described as “an initiative in art and environmentalism.” This year she will craft a piece called “How To Lose a Mountain” for DX’s professional company that will premiere March 16 and 17 at Dance Place in DC.
But this week she is immersed in “Language from the Land,” a work that is similar to “How to Lose a Mountain” in that both pieces are inter-generational and interdisciplinary. For audiences who attend this weekend’s performances, they will see the crux of the Dance Exchange process: exploring the arts as paths to deepening understanding, learning about one another, and discovering distinct environments and stories that illuminate our interdependence.
In spite of the condensed time to create this performance, the Institute’s dancers and directors appeared calm and collected when I watched rehearsal on Thursday. I arrived early to see their morning class taught by resident artist Matthew Cumbie: lush movement phrases warmed up the dancers’ joints in improvisatory exercises, both individually and in trios.
This year’s Institute attracted one of the largest groups of participants in DX history, ranging in age from 20 to mid-60s, and all of them will perform at GALA this weekend. In class together the dancers appeared like morphing and swirling clay figures, supple and pliable, that spoke and laughed and playfully touched one another. Cues from Cumbie ranged from those that sounded like a yoga lesson – “the more you release into the earth the more the earth gives back to you” – to those that could have been spoken by a science teacher: “this is your own research.” The dancing that appeared was a blend of risk-taking with reliability, a combination of uncertainty and wisdom that was fascinating to watch. Phrases became kinetic statements about spontaneity and interactivity, dependence and competence.
Every day from July 6 to 15 Institute participants gathered at DX’s Takoma Park studios. Sharing stories, taking morning class, creating material, and embracing the indeterminacy of the adventure, they furthered the creation of “Language from the Land.” On Thursday, the rehearsal I watched had Sarah Levitt, a gorgeous dancer and resident artist with DX’s professional company, executing a phrase that was silky and startling. She is a riveting performer.
When the Institute participants joined her, forming a captivating ensemble that embraced a spectrum of shapes, ages, sizes, and movement qualities, they formed patterns spatially, created rhythms acoustically, and manipulated props such as stacks of books. John Borstel, who has been with the company’s administrative staff since 1993, watched the rehearsal with me, leaning over at one point to say: “one of the things I appreciate about Cassie is her sense of ‘object-awareness.’ An object has an essence and she sees things about those things and how they are meaningful.”
This sensitivity contributes to Meador’s success as a director and performer. She is keenly aware of participants’ needs, congratulating the cast on well-done parts, and moving the rehearsal along to get to the next section that needed attention. Meador shares the stewardship of the production with resident artists Cumbie, Levitt, and Shula Strassfeld. Watching their rehearsal was intense and deeply inspiring: a group of people figuring out collaboratively how to bring a room full of ideas into tangible forms.
The Institute’s participants cultivated a commitment to communal creative process that provided a glimpse into what can develop when we bring our most attentive selves to a situation. Watching the Institute’s rehearsal made me wonder how our world would be different if we consistently considered the impact of actions not only on our own lives, but also on the communities and environments we share. What happens when we make relationships that are thoughtful, creative, and productive our priority? For almost 35 years the Dance Exchange has dedicated itself to this approach, and the fruits of its process are viewable this weekend in “Language from the Land.”
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