Gathered to tell our stories: ‘Under the Canopy’ from Selmadanse 

Selmadanse's 'Under the Canopy'. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Selmadanse's 'Under the Canopy'. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

Boston University Dance Theater, Boston, MA.
April 14, 2024.

“Thank you for sitting under the canopy with us, where there is room for all of our stories,” said Joanie Block, welcoming us to Under the Canopy. The work was from Boston-based Selmadanse, conceived/directed by Block, and made in memory of Sandy Block. That invitatory statement encompassed the spirit of the whole work: of the raw, vulnerable truth of varied stories of loss and grief. It was a tapestry of myriad experiences recounted in just as many colors and textures. 

Each story was like a leaf in a dense canopy, with its own richness and beauty yet also part of something much bigger and more all-encompassing. It was nurturing and nourishing, even; taking this work in was a rare opportunity to slow down and to reflect. We could witness a fundamental – and just about universal – human experience. On a body level, a big part of that was notably easeful and rather pedestrian movement. Multimedia, including poetry and video, joined the body in telling these stories and allowing our witnessing. 

Block also noted that the work was meant to be one continuous thread. Interestingly, the program detailed three different acts – yet there was no intermission. The work was structured such that it did feel like such a continuous thread, not to mention the through-line of shared qualities and employed tools. Impressively, cohesion was consistent even with varied works from an ensemble of nineteen.  

Many, if not most, of the separate pieces within the work called upon multimedia: including video, poetry, and live music. These approaches both helped tell these separate artists’ stories of grief and constructed a highly evocative atmosphere. That atmosphere was a container for grief in these stories, and the conduit for bringing us in the audience right into those stories. Nicole Ward (also in the ensemble) contributed filmmaking, Beth Birnhaum poetry and voice, and Olivia White animation. Ken Field served as music director/composer/musician, and Lynda Reiman as lighting designer. 

An understated, thoughtful movement quality was another connecting thread through all of the separate pieces. The movement was by and large pedestrian, shaped and structured – with care, but with nothing to prove – into something we might call “dance.” With such universal, poignantly human subject matter, that felt only right; dancing humans, rather than some superhuman ideal of “dancer,” can truly connect with (beautifully) flawed human audience members. Block choreographed many of the pieces, yet other choreographers also contributed, including Andy Taylor, Jennifer Lin and Edie Hettinger.

These connecting threads of aesthetic quality also only felt right considering the commonality of these artists’ experiences, which they were now sharing with us. Yet, each piece felt unique in its own way, as unique as each story of loss and grief. Each of these artists’ authentic voices seemed to come through. That can happen when artists are as openly vulnerable as these were – and they’re to be thanked and commended for that. 

Varied use of those multimedia tools also helped each piece feel like something fresh and new, as well – for example, text coming through voiceover in one work and right from the dancers in another. All in all, a beautiful diversity of approaches together created something poignant.

Some of those individual stories of grief are what we might first think of when we think of that experience – for example, loss of a spouse (yet also the rebuilding of a new family with a new partner and their children). Other grief experiences seemed to have potential to broaden our understanding of what that experience can be, from all sorts of loss. 

Jason Jordan, for example, described (again on video) losing the potential of a longer, more “accomplished” dance career. Yet, he also found a new path of sharing the art form with young, hungry minds. Many dancers know that sort of process well. His following solo offered both pulsing, raw power and soft, attuned sensitivity. 

A video of (and from) Meghan McLyman described her experience of breast cancer and mastectomy. Powerfully, facing a dance studio mirror spoke to navigating the resulting changes in her body. Her movement was just as strong, yet also sweetly sensitive. 

Toward the end of Act II, and through the whole of Act III, came something that felt more like traditional concert dance. By maintaining that quality of easeful, unassuming movement, these sections fit right along with the former sections full of multimedia. 

“Promise Me” – a memorable trio choreographed by Joanie Block and performed by IJ Chan, Jason Jordan, and J Michael Winward – even more concretely embodied the feeling of grief through lack of sustained human connection, and the visceral yearning for that connection that can result. These three dancers were notably generous, and wonderfully themselves as movers – it felt like – in their performance of this work. 

Act III, “Darkness Into Light”, brought the whole ensemble to the stage. Block effectively juxtaposed movement that was unison and individual to each mover: further embodiment of grief itself, something so fundamentally human yet so personal to each of us. These dancers navigated space together, with the stage full and busy – just as we navigate layered, complex experiences of loss and still go on facing each new day. 

Earlier sections offered a motif of a significant number of dancers forming a line and dancing mostly with their upper bodies – pleasing in its own way, and another satisfying connecting thread through the work. Yet I also wanted these sections to be longer; they felt a bit choppy and with untapped potential to be further developed. 

Thematically, however, such short sections were further kinetic depiction of grief and loss; our sense of time can come to feel disjointed and hazy. It can feel like nothing fully makes sense. Everything changes, even time itself.

Whatever those experiences of grief were, in all of their aching and beautiful complexity, we in the audience were there – under the canopy – to witness. Each of those individual stories were part of that canopy collective – an imposing, majestic one at that. Yet myriad little leaves made it up, no one of them exactly like the other. 

In turn, we in the audience were sheltered to face up to our own experiences of grief. The person next to me was evidently crying, and I myself was a bit choked up. Art at its best can inspire such inner work, an external offering that leads us into something internal

Thank you, Selmadanse, for inviting us under the canopy and into our own storytelling (even if that’s just within ourselves). Such an offering can also remind us that we are wonderfully individual little leaves, but not shaking out in the wind alone. We are sheltered in a canopy of leaves like us – and that’s indispensable. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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