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A Separate Piece

A Local mover explores the boundaries of break-up dancing


Published February 28, 2001 at 2:16 p.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen

Annette Urbschat pokes her head up out of the box, her face expressionless. She looks around, but without seeming to really see anything. Soon her nose, her wire-rimmed glasses, her dark hair sink back into the box. Only then do you notice the word printed in large block letters on one side of its lid: “DEPRESSION.”

Over the next 10 minutes or so, Urbschat fidgets thoughtfully inside her 3-foot-square cardboard cell, protruding hands, feet, heat, shoulders in various dispositions of self-absorbed malaise. Finally, she rocks the box until it falls over; she kicks out the bottom, sprawls full-length, and begins to pull herself away. A tape of her own voice fills the studio, words conveying near stream-of-consciousness fragments. The text is from her journal, kept over the time she was going through a divorce.

Urbschat, 38, has been thinking, in and out of the box, about divorce for quite awhile — since she went through it three years ago. It is the inspiration for and central concept of her current work-in-progress, Horse-Divorce: one woman’s journey from denial to acceptance. Loosely adopting the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross concept of five stages of grief, she will fill in the bargaining, anger and depression. “But you don’t go in a linear fashion from denial to acceptance and then you’re done,” Urbschat notes. “You go back and forth.” Indeed, emotions are not neat, and cannot be ordered around. Still, in Horse-Divorce, Urbschat aims to arrange the stages of her internal journey — with movement, music and spoken word — in a way that resonates with viewers. Even happily married ones.

The Burlington dancer is not the first person to transform pain through the alchemy of art. She may not even be the first to do some of it in a box. She is, however, the first person to do it in the Flynn Center’s new Brianne Chase Family Dance Studio, thanks to a special grant recently created by the Flynn. Given the tongue-in-cheek name, “N.A.S.A. Space Grant,” the award allows a performing artist room to move, literally, and to develop a new piece from conceptual to actual. The non-monetary grant is modeled after a similar program at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

“It’s about process,” emphasizes Flynn Programming Coordinator Aimée Petrin, “about the creation of new work.” The grant, given out twice a year, offers the use of performance space six hours per week for 10 weeks. At the end, says Petrin, “the artist has a choice of how to present the work — a condition of the grant is they have to present something — either as a finished project or a work-in-progress.” The Flynn will also contribute the space and “minor technical support” for that performance — which, in this case, will take place in late May.

Urbschat was chosen as a N.A.S.A. recipient, Petrin adds, mainly because the grant focuses on process, not product. “It’s not a rehearsal space, but about exploring and investigating something,” she explains. “We felt Annette’s piece was at that stage. Everyone just gravitated to her aesthetic and her use of collaborators.”

Despite the title of her work, Urbschat will not be alone on stage or in her stages of grief. Three other women will bring their own perspectives to the subject: Dancer Liz Seyler and actor Gail Marlene, both recently divorced, will contribute monologue and movement; dancer and musician Ellen Bernstein is married, but has been in the middle of numerous divorces in her profession as a mediator.

So far the women have not worked together very much. Urbschat welcomes their contributions, but notes that she’ll have the ultimate word on what finally appears in the piece. “I reserve the right to edit,” she concedes with an apologetic smile. “I really want to have my signature on it. But we’re still tailoring it as we go along.”

When she works alone, Urbschat is accustomed to planning everything in her head and letting it unfold on the dance floor. The Space Grant is “an opportunity for me to work out rough ideas. That’s new for me,” she says. “I usually have very clear concepts, and now I have the chance to play around.”

Urbschat has a pleasant, almost-shy manner and the lean, graceful build of a dancer. The crisp diction of her fluent English just barely betrays her native German. She studied ballet and modern dance at the University of Hannover before transferring to York University in Toronto — with a Canadian mother, Urbschat actually has dual citizenship. In Toronto she met the American man who would become her husband and father of her three children — two boys, 12 and 14, and a daughter, now 6. The family, seeking a more rural environment, moved to Vermont in 1990.

Since then, Urbschat has been teaching dance in a couple of area studios, and now in an after-school program in Burlington. She’s in a women’s improv group, and has danced in several of local choreographer Hannah Dennison’s community-oriented works, as well as a couple of her own. One of the latter was a piece about mother-daughter relations, “It’s the Belly That Holds the Child,” performed with seven other women at Champlain College in 1997. The positive audience feedback amazed and encouraged her.

Urbschat thought it would be harder to “get anyone excited” about a piece on divorce. For one thing, she notes, it’s become a commonality in society — nearly everyone has experienced it themselves or through parents, other family members or friends. At the same time, most people don’t particularly like to talk about it. But Seyler and Marlene proved her wrong: Both women were enthused about an artistic outlet for their own experiences.

“It’s nice to laugh and loosen up with the other women,” Urbschat says. Still, “I say to everybody to let me know if it’s too much” — “it” being the raw emotionality and psychic pain to which her movements and words allude. But Urbschat is holding herself back, just a little. “My children will see the piece, and I really thought about that,” she muses. “How far do I want to go? I’m really having to transform a lot of my feelings — in a way, fictionalizing them.” She doesn’t want to hurt the kids or, ironically, her ex-husband, who still lives in the community. “It’s a delicate thing,” she concludes.

Consistent with the piece overall, Urbschat’s text for Horse-Divorce is nonlinear. Some of the phrases are dagger-sharp; others reflect distraction, like the mental notes a woman might make while juggling laundry, dinner and the demands of her family. Sometimes she sounds worried, or simply doesn’t make much sense. At other times she’s plaintive: “Does anyone really know what’s going on inside of me? Does anyone really care?” Urbschat notes that working with words is still new to her, but in this case “they just wanted to come out.”

Music, both recorded and live, will play a role, too, as will poetry. Urbschat is also thinking of having someone — perhaps a young girl — read a passage about divorce from the Wayne Johnston novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The book takes place in Newfoundland, where her mother is from.

Asked what she expects others to glean from Horse-Divorce — the title came from a rhyming-game expression overheard from a 4-year-old — Urbschat is confident that her body language will be heard. “The body is one of the most powerful modes of communication,” she says, “so I feel I can communicate very strongly, that I will bring something across.

“People don’t want to think or talk about divorce,” she adds. “By sharing our experiences, maybe, hopefully, it will be cathartic for others as well in some small way.”

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