Dancing While the Earth Burns

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Mary Seidman does not believe in downsizing. At a time when so many are thinking small and scaling back, she is presenting an expansive new dance work tackling weighty themes with an original score and a cast of 40. You’ve got to admire the vision—and the chutzpah.

    There are so many collaborators and performers involved in Seidman’s MAMA, a modern folktale that the information barely fits on the large postcard about the event. To embody her imposing theme of the death and regeneration of the earth and its resources, she has enlisted a multi-generational, all-female cast. Leading the way are seven estimable dancers with considerable resumes, who are joined by seven members of Seidman’s company, a group of high school sophomore dance students from LaGuardia High School, eight-and 10-year-old students from the Mark Morris Dance Center (where Seidman teaches) and cameo appeaances by others, including several infants.

    Last week, the seven dancing divas assembled together for the first time to rehearse “Black Winged Night,” the somber opening section that serves as a call to arms for the work’s environmental themes. Two former Paul Taylor luminaries from different generations—the recently retired Lisa Viola and 1980s star Linda Kent—were there. They’re joined by Janis Brenner, known for her own work as well as her nuanced performances with Murray Louis and Meredith Monk; Amy Pivar, whose feisty presence made a strong impact of works by Bill T. Jones as well as Urban Bush Women; and dancer-choreographers Robin Becker, Elisa King and Amy Marshall. “They have so much to offer. They’ve got lifetime experiences in dance. I felt that having their stature in the work would pull so much into it,” Seidman observes.

    They scattered into wide, swooping circles before pulling into one tight central ring, intently focused on their spacing and counts. Donning their black robe-like costumes for the section—which represents “the death of mother earth,” Seidman explains—they lie on the ground, barely moving, then rise and fill the expansive studio with skittering patterns, like a flock of wild birds. Four of them separate for a brisk, nervous quartet filled with swooping turns.

    Following the rehearsal, as costume fittings go on, Seidman explains that the 75-minute work includes thematic solos for each of these women. The younger contingents of dancers embody “the next generation witnessing the death of the earth—what are they going to do about it?” Clearly unafraid to tackle big themes in this piece, Seidman has sections focused on war, deforestation, and flood.

    “I wanted to make a piece about my concerns over what we’re doing toward global warming, and how our environment seems to be falling apart. What we can do to help it heal? I felt that nature has its ways of bouncing back, all the time, even when there’s a lot of destruction. The more I pulled the piece together, it just became clearer that the men weren’t going to be involved in this—that it was really the voice of the female earth. I wanted to make a piece that honors the strength of women, and the wisdom of women and our ancestors. We are taught by our elders.”

    It worked out that all of Seidman’s collaborators on the project are also women. Cristina Spinei has composed an original score that ranges from rich cello-and-piano melodies to intriguing percussion sounds to a cappella vocal sections to be performed live. Karen Young has clearly let her imagination run wild with the costumes. In addition to the seven leading women’s layered sheer black garments that suggest a blend of shroud, burka, nun’s habit, several of them try on the outfits for their solos. Viola becomes a glittering burnt-orange scaled sea-creature, while Amy Marshall is transformed into a woodland spirit. Young got some practice meeting the challenges of Seidman’s considerable imagination earlier this year in “WeDogs,” in which dancers were transformed into an array of breeds, from Great Danes to Pugs.  

    Clearly not one to set limits on the subjects dance can engage and confront, or on the expansiveness of her projects, Seidman first conceived MAMA: a modern folktale five years ago but admit she “didn’t have the guts to do it at the time.” Now that she has seen it through, her dancing divas of all ages will bring her vision to life.

    Dec. 18 through 21, La Mama E.T.C. Annex Theater, 74A E. 4th St. (betw. Bowery & 2nd Ave.), 212-475-7710; times vary, $25.