From sculpture to set to video to score—and back again.
One hundred six pairs of cast-iron legs mingle at the south end of Grant Park. Although Magdalena Abakanowicz’s installation, Agora, is still fairly new, the concrete on which its sculptures stand is well-stained with plumes that shoot off each figure’s foot; these comet tails of rust fading from east to west are the permanent record of four years on the shore of Lake Michigan. Agora’s figures account for less than a tenth of the giant, headless bodies the Polish artist has placed in parks and museums around the world, but to her they’re part of a universal community. “I’m immersed in the crowd,” she’s said of her work, “like a grain of sand.”
A book of Abakanowicz’s art was brought by choreographer Jan Bartoszek to an initial design meeting with sculptor Barbara Cooper for Hedwig Dances’ Dance of Forgotten Steps, premiering Thursday 1 at the Dance Center. Like Abakanowicz, Cooper is best known for her public art and site-specific projects (that’s her stainless-and-brass bouquet Transitions hanging from the ceiling of the Paulina Brown Line station). She’s forayed into set design just once before, in 2005 for a production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Still, making the jump to dance wasn’t a stretch. “All of my work focuses on ideas of flow, of fluidity, the implication of movement,” she says. For Steps, she’s created five tall screens, wax-coated steel frames holding translucent black fabric. The panels are longitudinally and asymmetrically curved, leaving comma-shaped footprints that allow them to be left standing when they’re rearranged by the dancers. Cooper, having just finished their construction, is excited to see how her set pieces frame the action. During a studio run-through with the rest of the creative team, she leans over to say, “They’re like parentheses.” They are, and turned concave, they’re also a clean précis of the halved shells of Agora, each loosely fitting a single body. Her choice of material is functional, allowing middle-ground stopping points for the piece’s video projections, which appear distinctly on the sheer fabric and again, larger and dimmer, on the upstage backdrop.
The projections, white-on-black “negative shadows” of the dancers, are still being tweaked by media artist/videographer Petra Poul Bachmaier. Like Agora’s rusty comet tails, the silhouettes’ opacity diffuses away from their hands; it’s like seeing focused palms on the frosted glass of a shower door, the body behind faded into fog. Bachmaier pulled the shadows’ motion from footage of the dancers and plans to toy with congruence peeling off its connection to the onstage action. “I’m not going to be working with live feeds,” she says, “but I do want it to appear that I am.” She uses video-editing software called Isadora, a program created by Mark Coniglio of Troika Ranch. “It’s the best software for live performance,” Bachmaier says, although her ears perk up when Victoria “Toy” DeIorio mentions she’s been able to use QLab for video as well as audio design.
DeIorio, a former dancer who never thought she would be creating music for choreography, is recording interviews with each dancer about a past event at their identity’s core. These stories have already been turned into movement, becoming slippery solos, a tangled duet and ensemble scenes. Jessie Gutierrez repeats a gesture we interpret as contact lenses being taken out; afterward, Gutierrez explains they’re tears for friends and family in her native Cuba she had to leave without knowing when she would return. DeIorio plans to weave audio from her interviews into a collage of music Bartoszek chose; her eyes are bright as she explains how shared experience is the center of Steps’ gravity. “Turning these specific histories into gestures and movement expands them to get at the universal community all human beings share, and I think that’s what keeps [Steps] from becoming sad. That’s just how life is.”
Hedwig Dances celebrates its 25th anniversary at the Dance Center Thursday 1 through Saturday 3.