New Works by Paula Higa Dance Explore Themes of Migration and Identity | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Works by Paula Higa Dance Explore Themes of Migration and Identity

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Published May 3, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Still from "The Migrant Body" - COURTESY OF PAULA HIGA DANCE
  • Courtesy Of Paula Higa Dance
  • Still from "The Migrant Body"

Every now and then, we are called to leave the familiar behind and venture into the unknown. We might hike a new mountain, head off to college, make a career change or immigrate to a distant country. With each adventure, we face challenges and rediscover ourselves and our world.

Paula Higa's personal journey from Brazil to Vermont held so many surprises that the dance artist was inspired to create a new work. The Migrant Body Project, composed of two short films and a live performance, explores the complexities of human mobility.

"Every time you open a door, it's a new scene, a new environment," Higa said. "We are always experiencing new territories."

The live performance, titled The Migrant Body, premieres Friday, May 5, and Saturday, May 6, in the renovated barn at Isham Family Farm in Williston. Five Vermonters will perform Higa's choreography to music by Canadian composer Owen Belton. They'll read poetry and prose by dramaturge Mario Higa, the choreographer's husband and longtime collaborator. Colchester visual artist and educator Susan Smereka has designed some of the set.

Higa, who lives in Williston, is an assistant professor and resident choreographer in the dance program at the University of Vermont. Her works explore concepts of feminism and discrimination by mining intersections between dance and the visual arts. She has been presenting pieces locally since 2011 and with her company, Paula Higa Dance, since 2016.

Informed by ballet and contemporary dance, Higa's choreography is athletic, rhythmic, emotive and daring. Dancers seem to cradle and protect each other in one moment, then spar and strike in the next. Sculpture, video projection, everyday items and the natural world influence dancers' interactions.

"Paula's work is extremely thematic," said Carolyn Connor, a UVM dance graduate who has been in Higa's company since its inception. Because Higa begins with a theme rather than with movement or music, each of her works is very different, Connor explained.

Higa's 2021 film, "Aquela Que Eu Queria Ser," based on her live dance work The One I Wanted to Be, examines dichotomies of power and impotence, desire and aversion, and conflict and cooperation. The 18-minute film received an Outstanding Achievement Award for a Screendance Short from the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival and the Bronze Award for Best Screendance Short from the Independent Shorts Awards.

The Migrant Body Project, which Higa launched in 2021, grew out of her own move to the U.S. with her family in 2004. Before Vermont, they lived in Texas and Tennessee. Every new place was "a new beginning, a new birth because of how many things we had to learn," she recalled. Not until her move to the Green Mountain State in 2009 did she become acutely aware of both her privilege in Brazil and lack thereof in the U.S.

"If I go back to Brazil, I am a white woman. But here, I'm BIPOC," Higa remarked. "It was something that I had never experienced before." Living in Vermont deepened her awareness of what it is to walk in others' shoes, she said, and made her "more aware of how society treats minorities."

In 2022, Higa created the experimental film "Sub Pelle Mea" ("Under My Skin"), the first component of the Migrant Body Project. Viewable on her website, the 3:45-minute short examines "the delicacy and translucency of skin," Higa said, and its role in identity. She wonders how we'd treat each other if we didn't have skin. She created the film in collaboration with Boston artist Debra Weisberg, UVM dance lecturer Julie Peoples-Clark, Monkton videographer and video editor Cal Hopwood, and the UVM Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

To create the second short film, "The Migrant Body," Higa broadened her inquiry to encompass the universality of human mobility. For her, birth is the initial immigration: "You were in that environment, breathing water, living in water, and then you were pushed out to land."

"We are always looking for something else, and that entails sometimes going from one place to another," added her husband, Mario, a professor of Luso-Hispanic studies at Middlebury College. "Since the beginning ... this is evolution: people going forward by moving around."

The 12.5-minute film, which premieres this fall at UVM on dates yet to be announced, takes place in a lake, on the shore, in mud, on a grassy field and in a white room — environs that evoke birth as well as our evolution from water-dwelling creatures to modern humans. The locales also reference the three elements by which people immigrate — land, water and air. "These were the natural elements I was working with," Higa explained.

Filmed at Shelburne Farms and at two Burlington City Arts spaces, 10 dancers run, reach, interact and open doors as symbols of change, migration, opportunity and discovery. Their energetic movements are informed by gestures from daily life. "I think the gesture is my aesthetic," Higa remarked. "I love hands. I talk with my hands."

Higa codirected the film with Hopwood and ultimately credits the film's completion to dancer, administrator and educator Haley Bradstreet Olszewski, who produced the film. "Without her, this film really wouldn't have been possible," Higa said. The short was recently selected to screen at the Florence Dance on Screen Festival in Italy in May, and Higa is submitting it to other festivals and competitions.

To create the project's third and final element, the live performance, Higa expanded the film's choreography and altered the work for the stage. She invited Smereka to design set components that suggests land, water and air, and she asked Mario to compose additional poetry and prose.

In "The Migrant Body" film, a narrator reads Mario's poem "The Yellow Chrysanthemum," a meditation on restlessness and desire. In the performance, dancers recite this poem and four more by Mario that are by turns silly, poignant and serious.

Compared to Higa's previous works, "this one is much more rooted in dance theater," Connor said. "There's more spoken word and audience interaction."

Still from "The Migrant Body" - COURTESY OF PAULA HIGA DANCE
  • Courtesy Of Paula Higa Dance
  • Still from "The Migrant Body"

Six of the 10 dancers in the film will perform in the show, and all are Vermonters. Connor will dance with Candace Fugazy, Calvin Walker, Olivia Schrantz, Charlotte Feinberg and Er Raff.

One notable Brazilian Canadian is in the film but not the live show. Professional dancer and choreographer Márcio Vinícius Paulino Silveira, who lives in Montréal, gives a riveting solo in the film's final scene.

Silveira is proud of all he has accomplished since moving to Canada more than 10 years ago, he said, but wants to reconnect with his homeland. "Making the move of going to another country comes with a lot of sacrifices," he reflected. "The weight of those sacrifices are different now than when I first moved here." The film's theme resonated with him and suggested ways to express his roots in his own art.

Connor will dance that solo in the live performance. "It's very emotional," she said. Though she has never lived in another country, she, like many people, felt alone and uncomfortable during the pandemic. While rehearsing the dance, "I'm thinking a lot about the isolation that people feel when they move from place to place," she said.

Professional composer and recording engineer Belton created the music for the live performance and the sound score for the film, which includes sound effects as well as his music. The Vancouver resident has composed for renowned Canadian choreographer and dancer Crystal Pite, numerous national ballet companies, and many short films and theater plays.

South Burlington's Kristi Kilpatrick designed the costumes, and Bennington's Thomas Dunn designed the lighting.

Higa received funding for the Migrant Body Project from the Vermont Community Foundation and the New England Foundation for the Arts. She received in-kind support from Shelburne Farms and Burlington City Arts.

Exploration and discovery are central to Higa's creative process — and often lead her down unexpected paths. "I think art pieces never really end the way they started," said Olszewski, who has danced with Higa for nearly as long as Connor. "Migrant Body started with the idea of skin and its delicacy but also its strength, elasticity, all those things. And then you apply that to the body, the migrant body: your strength, your elasticity, your flexibility, and having to change and adapt ... Skin is constantly changing. You're constantly changing."

The Migrant Body marks the launch of the farm's annual summer arts series, First: Earth Project, a nonprofit endeavor that champions community, the performing arts and the natural environment. The season continues with Vermont Repertory Theatre's performance of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, May 25 through 27; the Alyx Hilshey Family Magic Show, June 10; and Williston Community Theatre's Little Shop of Horrors, June 22 through 24. More events will be announced later.

Updated May 4, 4:54 p.m., to name an additional dancer who will appear in the live performances.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bold Moves | New works by Paula Higa Dance explore themes of migration and identity"

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