An artist friend once "told me, 'Never contextualize your art,'” Lida Winfield declares, standing beside Ellen Smith Ahern before a packed audience at a recent showing of their work-in-progress, "The Woods Are Deep," at the Firehouse Center for the Arts. Both dancers are dressed in oversized trench coats and holding bundles of sticks. “Your art should speak for itself,” she continues, enunciating every syllable.
Then there’s a dramatic pause. “We have decided not to take this advice,” Winfield says.
And then they explain exactly what's coming and from whence it came. Their 50-mintue work is about the natural world. It’s inspired by images of hawks and water and woods and love. “Humans are animals, too. Everything dies,” Smith Ahern says.
They've given the audience instructions, too. We're seated in the round, with a ring of rather large sticks at our feet. When the dancers give a signal throughout the show, those in the front row should grab the stick before them and hold it up until they hear the magic number, which, depending on where you're sitting, could be 30, 12 or 5.
Sounds fun, right? Fortunately, Winfield and Smith Ahern have enough self-awareness to treat this request with the appropriate level of irony.
“This will all become clear,” Smith Ahern assures us before she takes her place with Winfield, in one of four gaps in the circle, to begin.
They start out moving in a sort of daze, running and falling in slow motion, to atmospheric sounds of the outdoors. After a while they signal for the first group to pick up their sticks and, counting out loud, they transition into a new pose with each number: looking through finger-monocles, making their bodies into chairs for each other, holding and lifting one another.
When we first got our instructions for the sticks, I felt nervous and kind of annoyed. I wanted to watch the show and not be worried I would miss my cue or, god forbid, accidentally trip the dancers. Audience participation brings out my weird, manic side. In Big APE’sDisposable Goods earlier this year, the dancers came through the audience with cookies they had baked in a toaster oven during the performance and I went wild, taking two cookies and spilling another onto the floor. I have no idea what inspired this behavior, but I spent the rest of the performance lost in a cloud of shame and self-loathing. I couldn’t even bring myself to eat my cookies, let alone take in the rest of the show.
Luckily, at the Firehouse, I was sitting in the second row, so I didn’t have to touch the sticks. Relieved of my duties, I was able to let go. And from where I was sitting, I could see what the stick raising brought to the performance: a shift in tone, a breath between segments, each of which had a distinct texture, from tender to goofy, violent to playful.
In a lovely section, the two dancers kneel side-by-side, each one with an arm around the other’s waist, the other two raised out like wings. Winfield breaks away, crawling and spinning on the floor, but Smith Ahern remains, both arms outstretched and her head tilted back. She lingers there, as if fully given over to some god in the ceiling, while Winfield moves around her, alternately trying to rouse her and mimic her, but never quite getting it right.
Finally, she does, and they kneel together, like a pair of birds.
When a French voice begins singing, the dancers are kneeling side by side, again, Smith Ahern’s chin resting on Winfield’s hand. Their other three hands move across their knees, palms up, as if they're catching raindrops.
This gives way to something more playful. Out come the monocles again, this time in a pose that makes me think of cartoon characters, scouting for bad guys: Winfield climbs onto Smith Ahern’s back, her legs wrapped around her waist, and they both hold up their monocles and take in the scene.
They fall to their backs and signal the second group of stick holders. Then they count to 12, out of breath, with their hands up and fingers spread.
Then they’re up again, more athletic this time. Smith Ahern ends up on her hands and knees, picking her arms off the ground to smack her chest violently before falling back down on them. Then she’s crouching, kneeling, throwing herself across the floor. Her fitful motion looks painful — until she comes to rest with arms outstretched again.
Suddenly, the sound of castanets. Smith Ahern straddles Winfield, who is lying on her back, and lifts her torso up so they are one creature with four legs, stomping across the floor. They get up and face each other, bashing their chests together. When they stop, Smith Ahern drops to her knees and draws her ear up to Winfield’s chest, checking on her heartbeat.
They put their trench coats back on and signal to the third group to lift their sticks. As they count to five, they push off the wall, running and throwing themselves to the floor, with each number. They're like kids, shouting and laughing, playing their absolute favorite game.
Now Winfield is on the floor and Smith Ahern is crawling over her. They make their way across the floor using each other like stones to cross a river. They talk to each other throughout, as if they’ve never done this before. “What am I supposed to do here?” Smith Ahern says, looking at Winfield’s outstretched body. “Is this okay?” Winfield asks, placing her foot on the small of her partner's back.
They make it to another opening in the circle, and Winfield stands with her back to the wall. She stretches out her arms. Both dancers have returned to this position throughout the work, but Winfield makes it vulnerable this time. She moves like a panicked animal, twisting her arms in their sockets, slapping the backs of her hands against the wall. Smith Ahern is watching her calmly from the floor, lying on her back. She puts her feet gently against Winfield’s belly as her frantic movements become more desperate, as if to stabilize her.
The first time I saw this part — at a work-in-progress showing at the Contemporary Dance and Fitness Studio in Montpelier — I read it as a sex scene. Winfield’s movement is raw and almost frightening, building in intensity until it seems to completly consume her. As she finishes, she collapses onto her partner’s feet. Smith Ahern takes her head in her hands, and lowers her further, so her body comes to rest on Smith Ahern’s. They end in a breathless embrace.
But in a question-and-answer session after the Montpelier performance, the dancers explained the scene was inspired by the hawk Smith Ahern found in the Intervale last year: it was dead and frozen solid, its talons clamped around the limb of a tree. Smith visited the hawk a number of times. Because of the cold, she explained, the creature wasn’t decaying, just gradually slumping deeper into the tree.
This time when I watched Winfield in spasms against the wall, I saw a dying animal fitfully returning to the earth, as Smith Ahern looked on in wonder.
At the end, the dancers return to the circle and lie down next to one another, tossing and turning, as if restless in bed. After a while, they go their separate ways, each one rolling the circumference of the floor over the sticks laid down there, wood snapping sharply under their weight. When they meet at the other side of the circle, they get up and walk along the sticks, back to where they started.