- Courtesy Of Jonathan Hsu
- Ellen Smith Ahern, Joseph Hall, Lida Winfield and Laurel Jenkins in IMAGINARY
In a scene in IMAGINARY, Lida Winfield's dance, theater and storytelling piece, a dancer lifts Winfield up, spins her 180 degrees, places her in a headstand and supports her while others hover about. Two dancers put mismatched, gaudy green shoes on her airborne feet; another proclaims aloud that a mustache must be shaved. Winfield is like a doll adorned with others' judgments and expectations, her view of the world literally and figuratively upended.
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"I'm a very learning-disabled person," Winfield says in an interview. "I didn't learn to read until I was a grown-up, and I was in special-ed classrooms." What grown-ups and peers in her life "imagined I was capable of or not," she adds, "impacted my potential."
The Middlebury-based dancer inverted their assumptions long ago to become an interdisciplinary performing artist and educator. Winfield earned an MFA from Goddard College, has toured original work across Europe and is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Middlebury College dance program.
In IMAGINARY, Winfield and four collaborating artists explore imagination — its playful, kooky, silly brilliance as well as its capacity to impose harmful limits on self and other. Part of the Middlebury Performing Arts Series, which co-commissioned the work, it was scheduled to run Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14, at the college; it was postponed because of concerns about the coronavirus.
For the series' 100th anniversary, director Allison Coyne Carroll has chosen works reflective of those past years, she says, along with "new works or new artists that will launch us into our second century." IMAGINARY's content and performers — who hail from Vermont and beyond — "felt like an organic fit for this season."
The genesis of the piece dates back about three years. In 2017, Winfield received a grant from the National Performance Network to create IMAGINARY, co-commissioned by the Flynn, Jacob's Pillow and the Yard, along with the Middlebury series. She premiered it in February of 2018 at Flynn Space in Burlington.
"I remember being very drawn in by the motion and the colors and the energy," Carroll recalls. There were "very vulnerable moments, when you heard personal stories and got sucked into them, and then [you were] drawn back out into this larger, swirling world."
But, Winfield notes, "It's hard to make a final product on your first go." She has since "deepened and changed" the piece as she has gained clarity on her vision. This weekend, she performs it with artists from 2018 and new ones who have helped hone the work.
Composer and saxophonist Matthew Evan Taylor created the sound score, a blend of composed and improvised music. The Middlebury assistant professor of music plays several instruments, uses a looping machine and moves around the stage with the dancers. His presence is "a really rich part of the performance now," Winfield says.
Two other artists have ties to Middlebury. Ellen Smith Ahern, who has danced with Winfield for the past 11 years, graduated from the college in 2005 and is now a social worker in Connecticut. Maree ReMalia, who has also danced with Winfield for years, served as the 2015-17 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation interdisciplinary choreographer for Middlebury’s Movement Matters residency. Based in Florida, she’s a certified Gaga instructor and had planned to offer a free workshop for the public in that movement style; it, too, has been postponed.
The fifth performer in IMAGINARY, Joseph Hall, is executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh, Pa., and an accomplished producer and curator. Throughout the week of the performances, Hall and the other visiting artists had planned to engage with Middlebury students and faculty in a residency.
To revise the piece, Winfield and her collaborators "did a lot of talking about imagination and perception," she says. They considered the links between imagination and success or joy. "You might imagine that if you could just have a different job, or if you had a husband with a beard, your life would be better."
In one scene in IMAGINARY, a dancer gesticulates wildly, asking the audience, "Who wants a boat, a baby, a house, a house with a yard, a good body...?" As other dancers hoist her in the air, she exclaims, "All of this could be yours!" in a breathy voice, as if worn out by the drama.
Winfield and her collaborators also considered "how our perception of others is shaped partly by the blanks that we fill in about them," she recalls, "and how that impacts how we treat each other and, therefore, how we respond to each other." Such patterns are "the root of racism and sexism and classism."
Solos, duets and group sequences evoke pain, compassion, confusion and adventure. Dancers wear balloons, turbans, tutus and oversize clothing. The excesses of capitalism are juxtaposed with the depths of familial longing and love.
"It's a wild and strange piece," Winfield says. "A world is created, and then another world is created, and then another world." IMAGINARY is playful, political, sad and "very, very funny," she adds. She likens it to "a roller coaster of parts that are all sections of our human experience — and how imagination is part of all of those experiences."