free to gather again: vulture sister song at ava gallery
Susan B. Apel – artful: arts & culture in the upper valley (03/31/23)

Then, and now.

The pandemic may not be entirely over but things have changed. Delivered packages no longer sit untouched for three days in the garage for fear that the virus lives on cardboard. No more swabbing canned goods with disinfectant wipes before bringing them in the house. No longer scrambling for vaccine appointments. Sometimes I look back on the last three years and am startled that I have forgotten some of my own lived history of the time: the stuff of stories you will tell your incredulous great-grandchildren.

Once there was a time when an art gallery, like all cultural gathering places, had to shut its doors and remain vacant for longer than anyone could have foreseen. Windows—great big ones— however, are not doors; hence their particular power. And so there came a time in March, 2021, when a lone dancer danced in an empty gallery, and we all viewed the performance from the outside, peering through the glass. Who could have imagined?

That dancer, Ellen Smith Ahern, is no longer alone and the doors at AVA (and just about everywhere) are once again open. “The lone dancer not only represented a missing audience within the galleries, but also a poignant reminder of community and togetherness that we had in the past taken for granted.”

Vulture Sister Song is a performance designed for community spaces. From across the country and throughout the limitations of the pandemic, the ensemble has been generating imagery, music, choreography, and text. Vulture Sister Song is a modern fairy tale about the relationship between humans and the natural world, specifically, the deeply symbolic vulture. Organized by Lebanon dance artist, Ellen Smith Ahern, this interdisciplinary performance explores human and more-than-human relationships through story, song, sculpture, and dance.

The story sets up a compelling frame for two dancers and a migrating body of sculptural lanterns to explore scenes and ideas through movement and light. The sculptures resemble both small houses and shape-shifting, slope-shouldered creatures. Made of wood and canvas, they function as light sources that are moved throughout the space during the performance, taking on different relationships with the human dancers and shaping the visual landscape with their light.

AVA Gallery: Dance, Through the Glass
Susan B. Apel – artful: arts & culture in the upper valley (03/09/21)

You could be on the outside looking in, but in a good way.

I have distinct memories of the welcoming nature of the big, beautiful windows at AVA Gallery in downtown Lebanon NH. A winter or so ago, my husband’s and my toes were frozen as we limped through the dark from a holiday market on the town green to an opening reception at AVA. The windows shone like marmalade and the light puddled onto the adjacent sidewalk. A postcard moment. We were toastier just for the sight.

AVA will be opening two exhibitions in honor of women’s history month, featuring female sculptors, one a group show with Christine Hauck, Ellen Keene, Amanda Sisk, and Heather Szczepiorkowski and another by artist Stefania Urist. In lieu of an opening reception, AVA will feature a performance by dancer Ellen Smith Ahern on Friday, March 12 at 6:30 pmthe performance is designed to be viewed through the (newly-washed) windows.

Ellen Smith Ahern has danced throughout the world and is a new resident of Lebanon NH. I shared with her my passion for AVA’s windows while wondering about the challenges of performing on the other side of glass that separates her from her audience. Her response acknowledges the limitations but also the potential of this new venue.

“The windows were AVA’s idea, and I’m excited about them, both as a challenge and an opportunity to connect in an unconventional way. . . As an artist, I’m always curious about how dance making can be a journey for both the dancers and the viewers—I like to be able to see my audience up close, hear them, interact with them and feel how their presence shapes my work. So yes, performing behind glass is a limitation in some ways.

I’m hopeful though that, with a sense of humor and a willingness to try to connect despite the barrier, viewers will get to experience the sculptures and the dancing in a fun, thought-provoking way. Maybe we can all get something fresh and new out of what feels like a very challenging, fatiguing year of distance. I think that another delightful aspect of this event is that it opens up the worlds of performance and visual art, both of which can be exclusive, to truly anyone passing by on the street.”

Said windows.

Audience members and passersby who stop to view are asked to wear masks and socially-distance. AVA will also make the performance available via Zoom. To sign up for a Zoom link, and to learn more about the exhibitions and artists, please click here.

(Photo, top, is of the artist dancing in Brno, Czech Republic in 2011. Photo credit: Marek Prochazka.)


3D Western4-2
with Kate Elias

Middlefield Art Installation Deals with Identity, Change, Belonging

Arts Preview by Bailey Wright, Record-Journal, Meriden CT (10/29/18)

MIDDLEFIELD — A one-day art installation next weekend seeks to create a community conversation about identity, change and belonging.

“Hopefully it’s going to be a dialogue between the material we collected out west and the material I’ve collected here in the east…, (and) how we think about who we are and where we live… and the people around us,” said Ellen Smith Ahern, the lead artist and a Durham resident.

She added that the project, called “East/West” encompasses many walks of life.

The free interactive installation will be open Nov. 10, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the community center, 405 Main St. A family-friendly dance party with DJ Red Supreme will follow.

The display will feature several stations for visitors to interact with the material, including a dance film, audio interviews, and an opportunity to record stories or memories.

At one station, a local art teacher will lead the making of a paper quilt. Visitors will also be able to markup maps of the east and west locations. Coginchaug Regional High School students are also expected to contribute.

“We really want to offer people an experience with multiple points of access,” Smith Ahern said. “So if dance is not your thing and you want to watch it for a little bit, but you don’t feel like it brings you in or it resonates with you, there’s four other windows into the work.”

The project was first created about 10 years ago when Smith Ahern and a friend from college started putting together a duet performance piece with a playful take on the west, titled “3D Western.” The piece has since continued to evolve and was filmed while the two did a two-week residency at an artistic foundation in Wyoming about two years ago.

While in rural Wyoming they interviewed a variety of locals, including wildlife biologists, range specialists, an antique seller and a Native American studies professor.

“It’s been really a very challenging process, but really fulfilling and interesting,” Smith Ahern said. “As the social and political climate has shifted in the last couple of years, this kind of project to me feels really important because we have so many perceived differences dividing us… I think that some of those differences are real and some of them deserve a closer look.”

Next weekend’s event took life more than a year ago when Smith Ahern applied for a grant from the Coginchaug Valley Educational Foundation.

Nancy Earls, the foundation’s president, said the proposal was unusual, unique and ambitious.

“It’s going to be a really thoughtful presentation that people can talk about,” she said.

The local part of the project involved 30 interviews with people ages 6 to 101.

“I think this is an important story to tell because we’re actively questioning our local and national identity right now and we have the opportunity to make social and political choices that are inclusive, that acknowledge that most of us share a connection on some level as immigrants,” Smith Ahern said.

Smith Ahern’s creative partner Kate Elias, who resides in Seattle, will attend the event at the community center.

3D Western1-2


with Lida Winfield

A Dance About Death, and Life, with Humor

Featured Arts Preview by Megan James, Seven Days newspaper, Burlington VT (09/12/12)

The latest dance-theater work from choreographers Lida Winfield and Ellen Smith Ahern, Long Gone, springs from one simple concept: All of us come from a long line of dead people.

In their evening-length piece, which debuts at FlynnSpace this weekend, the duo, who collaborated in Vermont for several years — and have continued to create work together after Smith Ahern moved to Long Island last year — use movement and storytelling to explore memory, lineage and death.

“You know when you look at a photograph of people who maybe you never knew, who aren’t alive anymore?” Winfield says. “You have a story you make up in your head of what happened: where they were, who they were, what they said, how they stood.” The pair wanted to explore the effect of that phenomenon, how those thoughts about the people who came before us become part of our memories — and our identities.

When Winfield and Smith Ahern began working on the piece a year ago, they looked to their own families for inspiration. But soon they realized they needed to broaden their perspective if they wanted to strike a more universal tone. So they held storytelling workshops in which they encouraged participants to dig into their own memories. Some of the resulting images and concepts made their way into Long Gone. So did audio recordings of Smith Ahern’s grandparents and an intriguing sequence the choreographers call the “death song.”

It was important to both Winfield and Smith Ahern that this death-centric work wasn’t just doom and gloom. “We all know people who are dead who were terrible,” offers Winfield wryly. They took on the challenge with a sense of humor: “Could we make a piece about death that wasn’t exclusively about loss? And could it be not heart wrenching? Could it be funny and awkward?”

In one solo piece, Smith Ahern re-creates a visit to a grieving friend’s house, armed with lasagna and an arsenal of socially acceptable condolences. “But when the person opens the door and their father just died, and you say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ the words can feel really flat, or weird,” Smith Ahern says. “They don’t begin to cover the loss.”

Another piece is inspired by Winfield’s own story of losing a loved one as a teenager. The scene plays out, she says, after “the funeral is over and everyone’s gone.” Like many a tormented teen, she blares Led Zeppelin and decides she’ll never survive.

And then she has an epiphany. “I wanted a bagel and a cup of coffee,” Winfield recalls. That simple craving “was a reminder of how good it is to be alive, how amazing it feels to survive hardship, how powerful that is.”

Long Gone looks back on those who have died, but it also celebrates the joy of living. After all, for most of the time the work was in development, Smith Ahern was pregnant. That offered poignancy — not to mention a whole new movement vocabulary — to the dances.

“It was really interesting to make a piece about death while Ellen was making a baby,” Winfield observes.

“My immediate thought was that it was going to be a real hardship in the creation of this piece,” adds Smith Ahern of dancing with a pregnant body. “Actually, it turned out it was kind of a gift.”

Excerpted from Moving Bodies: Vermont’s Dance Scene Takes a Big Leap 
 (by Megan James, staff arts writer for Burlington’s Seven Days  12/01/10) 
 Read the full article at


‘Ellen Smith Ahern and Lida Winfield
At a recent rehearsal for their upcoming show at the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts in Burlington, Ellen Smith Ahern and Lida Winfield look like sisters. Physically, they’re quite different — Smith Ahern, 27, is about half a head taller, with dirty-blonde hair and dewy eyes; Winfield, 32, is tiny, with the dark hair and fair complexion of a porcelain doll.

But the way they move — climbing over each other, slamming their chests and mimicking each other’s curious gestures — has the playful intimacy of children exploring the world together.

The Burlington dancers recently formed a creative collaborative in the style of a CSA — instead of community-supported agriculture, they’re talking community-supported arts. Members who invest in the duo’s dance making will receive tickets to shows and invitations to participate in dance workshops and attend open rehearsals.

The two performers came to dance from different perspectives. Smith Ahern grew up in Illinois, where she trained in ballet. When she discovered modern dance in high school, and later at Middlebury College, she knew she’d found her calling.

“I was getting the message from ballet that my body wasn’t right for it, for a number of reasons,” she says. “So it was liberating to find this other dance form.”

Winfield grew up in Vermont and took classes in jazz and modern as a kid. “I really wasn’t very good,” she says. “I was often sort of the kid in the back.” Unable to remember the steps the teacher taught, she’d often just make things up. It wasn’t until she started participating in the creation of movement that something clicked. At 14, she was one of the youngest members of Hannah Dennison’s company, Working Ground.

Winfield and Smith Ahern met while performing in UVM dance prof Paul Besaw’s dance collaboration with the Burlington Chamber Orchestra last year and sensed they would work well together. Both have a taste for the awkward and ugly, as well as for the beautiful. And they’re both driven by the sense that this is it: They want to make a living from dancing.

“Our drive is similar,” Winfield says. “That is, the joy and also the heartache that comes with being an artist.”

The piece they’re presenting as a work-in-progress at the Firehouse — and before that in Montpelier — was inspired by a dead hawk Smith Ahern found frozen in a tree, its eyes open, talons wrapped around a branch, at the Intervale last year.

Talking about the piece and its origins, Winfield muses, “I always believed our bodies hold more truth than our words ever can.”

Smith Ahern says she dances because of the sense of freedom it gives her.

“I really love the idea of how much time and effort and thinking and emotion — and sweat! — goes into creating something that is gone immediately,” she explains. “This fantastic practice of creating something that you really care about, that you’re also willing to just let go.” ‘


Footage above is from ‘Critical State’ 2010 – stay tuned for footage from 2011’s performance… the following is an excerpted review from 2011:

Excerpted from Dance Review: No Boundaries in ‘Critical State’
 (by Megan James, staff arts writer for Burlington’s Seven Days, 9/2/11) 
 Read the full article at critical-state.html

“…The venue, River Arts, is an intimate two-story building that feels more like someone’s home than an art center. But Motley and her collaborators — five dancers, one composer, four video artists, one lighting designer — essentially transform it into a mixed-media fun house. The performance runs for three hours, but the action ebbs and flows, swelling in one room until a sound — or live video footage — from another draws the focus elsewhere.

…It’s easy, at first, to feel overwhelmed. Which dancer should I watch? What’s going on downstairs? Am I missing something? It’s difficult to tell who is part of the performance, who makes up the crew and who is just there to watch. Which, of course, is part of the point. Motley’s goal is simple: She wants to see how ‘media, performance, audience and environment affect each other.’

…Near the end of the night, Smith Ahern, in a billowing, floor-length black dress, ties her feet with ace bandages to two cinderblocks. She’s the only one performing upstairs now, and it’s a relief. The music, too, is suddenly more conventional. The surging electronic sounds of earlier in the evening have given way to a pop-y piano-and-guitar tune. It sounds like something you’d hear in a romantic comedy during the sappy morning-after montage. Smith Ahern makes it startlingly beautiful.

She cannot move her feet, so she dances from the hips up. We watch her build up the courage — and strength — to attempt to move her concrete-bound feet. And then we see her struggle, sliding the blocks slightly forward, then losing her command of them and slipping back. She finally falls to the floor, her feet still strapped down, a small rock in each hand.

It’s hard not to clap when she finishes, but no one does.

I head to the stairs to leave and find Motley sprawled on her back, head first, on the steps, pulling herself down. When she gives up halfway, she looks like a murder victim. I decide to take the other stairs.

After a few hours in Motley’s ‘Critical State,’ I start to see performance all around me, even after I’ve left. On the drive home, I pass through Waterbury, where at 9 p.m., the road crews are hard at work making repairs under bright lamps. The pavement is lit up like a stage.”

%d bloggers like this: