alight dance theater presents Speechless at Dance Place
January 25, 2011 3 Comments
Last October, I was at The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage for the premiere of alight dance theater’s Speechless. According to their website, Speechless “explores the struggle of parents of special needs children with communication issues to care for and understand their silent child in an increasingly noisy world.”
In addition to performing this work at The Kennedy Center, alight dance theater performed a reprise at the Greenbelt Community Center in November 2010. Their performance of Speechless this weekend at Dance Place will be the last so don’t miss out on your chance to see this moving work. Despite an incredibly busy week, alight dance theater founder Angella Foster was kind enough to share some information about Speechless.
When did you come up with the idea for this piece? How long was the process?
Speechless was inspired by my fifteen-year-old cousin Taylor who cannot communicate using verbal language. She’s a remarkable young woman who has also faced many physical struggles such as seizures and multiple surgeries. I’ve wanted to make a work that shared her story for most of her life, and receiving the Local Dance Commissioning Program funding gave me the resources to finally bring her story to the stage. I got word of the funding in February, so I had about nine months to cast dancers, interview the families involved and set the whole work. Sort of an appropriate amount of time…nine months!
Honestly, the work hasn’t changed a lot technically since The Kennedy Center. We have made some changes but not anything drastic. I thought I might alter the work radically after the premiere, but the constraints of time didn’t really make that possible. And, at this point, I’m not sure I am really emotionally ready to look at the work completely objectively with a fully critical eye. I still see the piece and remember the moment when Taylor recognized herself on stage as Lucia. I guess it is hard to change the work much knowing that it resonated with Taylor the way it is.
What do the props represent? Who designed them and why did you decide on those shapes/colors?
The colorful forms featured in the piece were designed by a mixed media artist named Jessica Braiterman. I had seen a previous work of hers at the Greenbelt Community Center where alight rehearses, and it just reminded me of Taylor so I approached her about making something for Speechless. Originally, the forms were meant to be a reflection of Taylor’s fascination with small, textured objects like beads and flexi-straws. She rubs little objects like that as a way to soothe her nerves when her body is under a lot of stress. My family calls them “holdies.” Anyway, I wanted something in the work that was bright, playful and tactile enough to evoke the things that appeal to Taylor. Over time, we used the forms in lots of ways–as objects of play, comfort and even in place of therapeutic tasks.
We’re really committed to the power of story. Everything on stage–from the movement to the costumes and lighting–is carefully crafted to serve the story we’re telling. As a result, our work often juxtaposes full-bodied physicality and subtle human-scale gestures. We have a group of beautiful, technically gifted dancers on-stage, but we want you to forget about the technique and experience the characters and the story they have to tell. Our goal as a company is to be transparent, so the story…and the way you connect to it personally…is what you see and remember–not us or our “style.”
What has been the audience reaction to Speechless?
Overall, the reaction to Speechless has been tremendously positive. My family came to the premiere at The Kennedy Center, and the other families I interviewed were able to watch the work online through the Millennium Stage’s live streaming. All of them were touched by the work and felt we clearly communicated the essence of their stories which was really important to us as a company. Beyond that, I’ve had lots of parents of children–with and without special needs–say that the work spoke to them about the joy and burden of loving children unconditionally. Considering none of the cast, myself included, are parents, we’re relieved to have “gotten it right” according to some real experts. I’m confident there are critics of the work out there, but usually those people don’t wait around to talk to the choreographer after the show!
So many things…I want people to fall in love with these families and their great kids and see the realities of their struggles without reducing them to a case study or a diagnosis alone. I want people to go home to their families or call up their mother or whoever loves the worst version of them and say thank you. At some point, every one of us has felt as small, vulnerable and misunderstood as Taylor and other special needs kids feel everyday. And if you’re making it through life mostly okay, it is probably because you’ve been loved and that has shaped you more than the pain. The kids in this story are remarkable not just because they’ve faced sickness, silence and sometimes death but because their stories are really marked by celebration, more than brokenness.