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with Lida Winfield

A Dance About Death, and Life, with Humor

Featured Arts Preview by Megan James, Seven Days newspaper, Burlington VT (Septeber 12th, 2012)

http://www.7dvt.com/2012dance-about-death-and-life-humor

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.”

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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 http://www.7dvt.com/2010vermont-dance

 

‘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.” ‘

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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.”

Posted December 1, 2010 by ellensmithahern

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