On a warm summer evening, I gathered with a small group of people at Bend-in-the-River park by the Jordan River for a performance of “Those with Wings,” billed as an “immersive dance experience” based on Terry Tempest Williams’ book When Women Were Birds. We were given instructions to go wherever we pleased, to look at whatever we found interesting and to be sure to step off the paved paths. On one side, dancers in black were carving space with dramatic warmup movements, while further along the pathway dancers dressed in red sat cross-legged in meditative stillness on a length of white fabric. As the performance began, those in red arose and began to dance repetitive patterns, moving slowly along the path as the fabric was rolled up behind them; those in black mingled with the spectators and passed through to the front of the group. Then they turned to face the audience and recited lines from Williams’ book:
“If ever there was a story without a shadow, it would be this: that we as women exist in direct sunlight only. When women were birds, we knew otherwise. We knew our greatest freedom was in taking flight at night.”
I had come to the performance with a bit background. Not only had I read (and recently re-read) Williams’ book, but I had also interviewed two of the directors for an article in Catalyst magazine (August 2017 issue). I was familiar with the basic narrative: Williams inherited her deceased mother’s personal journals but found that every single page was blank. Williams’ book is series of 54 brief personal essays about silence imposed on women’s voices, and the event was built on a similar structure as the dancers spoke excerpts from the book and then performed a kinesthetic response. After each “chapter,” black-clad dancers led the audience to a new location within the performance space or else scattered so that the audience had to decide which thread to follow. In the first vignette, the body of “mother,” danced by Ai Fujii Nelson, was carried away and a red feathered tunic was pulled over her black dress. She joined those dancing slowly down the white path and it became clear that those in black were in the mundane world; those in red occupied an otherworldly realm of birds.
This is an unsettling kind of performance to attend. With movement and music taking place simultaneously, sometimes in disparate locations, it’s hard to know where to look. There are unspoken rules: the audience should not interact with each other or interfere with the performance unless invited; participants trust that if they play along they will not be humiliated. The reward is a kind of intimacy that’s not available in a stage performance. It’s OK to stare at dancers up-close, and proximity allows for subtle actions that wouldn’t work onstage. For instance, in one vignette “mother” tore a page from a blank journal and folded an origami bird which she handed to a member of the audience. Faintly, from far away, the musicians were playing a slow waltz in a minor key. The moment was transcendent.
Bend-in-the-River is a two-acre open space shaded by tall cottonwood trees, a restoration of a damaged riparian ecosystem, and so the dance took place in a landscape that is in the process of re-wilding. Loose, soft soil under a large old cottonwood with leafy branches drooping to the ground was the setting for a tango-inspired duet introduced by the words, “I met a man who understood wildness, and I married him.” In a black box, this would have seemed merely seductive since the expression of wildness arose from interaction with dirt and fallen leaves and sunlight filtering through the branches. At one juncture the audience was invited to pull slips of paper from a jar and follow whichever dancer was holding the object pictured. I followed Emma Wilson, who was holding an apple. She led us to a structure that looks like masts on a ship where she became a teacher, leading us (in the role of students) in a silly song about whales, an episode from the book that led to Williams being fired for teaching her students about ecology. Likewise, the Jordan river became the site for a bird rookery as dancers incubated “eggs” of stone. With the next gesture, the stones became emotional weight in their hearts.
A lot had to come together to make all of this work: the outdoors setting, the choreography, the skill of the dancers, the source text and narrative, the management of the audience, the live music, the props and costumes. It had to feel like entering into an experience, not just observing one. As the performance progressed, the audience gradually moved in closer, becoming more deeply involved in the story. The performance ended when the dancers crossed a bridge and the musicians stood across the path to prevent the audience from following any further. It was a metaphorically-rich image that arose directly from the configuration of the landscape, but also created a sense of sadness as when you finish a book and can’t follow the characters any further.
The dance was conceived in partnership with the Seven Canyons Trust as an event to establish the Jordan River as a vibrant community asset. The choice of a local author, and the themes of human relationship and ecological restoration contributed to a multilayered, emotionally affecting experience. The Bend-in-the-River site tied this experience to an actual place and neighborhood. After the performance I overheard people from the audience comment that they had never been to anything like that before, but it was amazing. And truly it was amazing.
“Those With Wings” was an immersive dance experience based on Terry Tempest Williams’ book, When Women Were Birds. Directors: Liz Ivkovich, Alysia Ramos, Ashley Anderson with Ching-I Chang Bigelow. Performers: Ai Fujii Nelson, Peter Larsen, Samuel Hanson, Emma Wilson, Samantha Matsukawa, Efren Corado, Amy Freitas, and music by Old Soldier. The piece was performed six times Aug. 17-19 at Bend-in-the-River along a segment of the Jordan River Trail in Salt Lake City, accompanied by an un-amplified quartet (fiddle, mandolin, 2 guitars). Each one-hour performance allowed a maximum of 25 tickets sold so that the small audience could follow the dancers through an expansive outdoor space.
Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.