alight dance theater presents Speechless at Dance Place

SpeechlessLast 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!

SpeechlessHow has the piece changed since you performed at The Kennedy Center?

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.

SpeechlessHow would you describe your choreography/style to someone who has never seen alight dance theater?

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!

SpeechlessWhat do you hope viewers will take away from the experience of watching Speechless?

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.

The Deets

  • alight dance theater presents “Speechless”
  • Dance Place – 3225 8th Street NE; Washington, DC 20017
  • Saturday, January 29th at 8pm and Sunday, January 30th at 4pm
  • Tickets $8.00-$22.00
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Dance Performances at The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve never been to the Kennedy Center until this past week. Two free dance performances brought me to the performing arts center’s Millennium Stage. Monday, October 11th the US Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and The DeVos Institute at the Kennedy Center presented US Department of State International Hip Hop Dancers and Friday, October 15th I was in the front row for Angella Foster’s ‘Speechless’ performed by her company alight dance theater.

Monday’s Hip Hop Dance Ambassadors featured eight dancers from Ecuador, Burma, Uganda, Turkey, Bolivia, Pakistan, India and Zimbabwe. I got there 20 minutes before the performance at 6pm and had to settle for a seat in the second to last row. I could barely see anything from where I was sitting, but it didn’t seem like I missed much. Only one dancer – Min Htun of Burma – really held my attention and my favorite part of the show was the message at the end.

Each dancer did a solo and took the mic to share what hip hop meant to them. Hip hop is family. Hip hop is my passion. Hip hop is whatever you want it to be. Hip hop is a universal language. It was encouraging to hear that dance played an important part in their lives and also that dance plays an integral role in cross cultural understanding.

Friday, I decided to get to the Millennium Stage as early as possible. I got there around 5:25pm and there were already people in line. I lucked out with a seat in the front row, but the place quickly filled up. I was excited to see Angella Foster’s ‘Speechless’ – a 2010 local dance commissioning project premiere. The piece weaved together the story of four families who care for special needs children who cannot speak. One of the stories was actually Foster’s personal story about her cousin Taylor who was sitting in the row behind me.

The piece began with a beautiful overture played by a female string quartet, followed by a video of each family introducing themselves and their story. Throughout the piece, dancers performed to music from the quartet, videos or audio of the families, Foster speaking directly to the audience about her cousin Taylor or a combination of the different elements. This mix of media, along with Foster’s innovative choreography, created an inspiring work that moved many to tears. I was surprised that the crowd didn’t give more love during the final bow, but perhaps they were ‘speechless’ themselves.

If you’re interested in seeing a free show at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, you’re in luck. They have them every day of the year and also do a live webcast on their site. Here are some of the upcoming dance performances for the month of October. All start at 6pm:

Thursday, October 21st and Friday, October 22nd Local Dance Commissioning Project: Affectations – This multimedia collaboration between Dance Box Theater directors Laura Schandelmeier and Stephen Clapp, installation artists Lorne Covington, and composer James Harkins is guided by the premise that ‘order will eventually emerge from chaos.’

Tuesday, October 26th ‘Beyond Dancing’ – Modern and hip hop dancers Michal Rynia and Nastja Bremec of Slovenia’s M&N Dance Company present a performance and workshop that gives audiences a chance to learn the steps they see.

Thursday, October 28th and Friday, October 29th Local Dance Commissioning Project: what R U missing? – For this audience commission project, choreographer Mary Lane solicited input (stories and personal experiences, concepts, themes, and inquiries) through various social media forums to assist in the artistic process of creating a new dance work.

danceDC Weekend Event Guide 10/15-10/17

Tonight I’ll be making my way to the Kennedy Center to see alight dance theater perform ‘Speechless’ choreographed by Artistic Director Angella Foster. I’ve been looking forward to this performance since meeting alight dance theater member Michelle Cardoso at Dance/MetroDC’s party at SkyBar. Below is a video of the work in progress from alight dance theater’s YouTube page. I’m working tomorrow night, but if I wasn’t I would definitely be at Joy of Motion’s INSIDE OUT at Atlas Performing Arts Center. Edgeworks Dance Theater, Furia Flamenca, DCypher and a host of other DC dance companies are scheduled to perform. Have a good weekend!

Friday, October 15th

Saturday, October 16th

Sunday, October 17th

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