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Stories, Sticks, and Stones: Kate Speer Talks Narrative and the Body

The old nursery rhyme—at least one version, anyway—goes:

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me

True?

“Not true at all,” says Kate Speer, half of the choreographic team behind the 2012 Philly Fringe production Sticks and Stones.

“When your mother says I love you no matter what, it can help you get through anything,” Kate says, “but there are moments where somebody says a horrible statement and you carry that forever, and you can’t ever forgive them for saying it, no matter how hard you try. For the five ladies in the show, it shows up in our work, where one moment we’re friends, one moment sisters, there’s evidence of being in love, out of love, we see the mean girl—we ask why girls tear each other up when we’re all trying to get through the same thing.”

Kate, who has studied and performed in the United States, Madagascar, France, and Poland, sees the language of movement as universal.

“We don’t all speak the same language, but we can figure out how to all move together,” she says. And even when we do, Kate says, it helps to approach each other on equal footing. Kate, a native of Maine, found that kind of engagement at the Bates Dance Festival.

“It’s where I first saw modern dance that wasn’t competitive dancing or the So You Think You Can Dance aesthetic. Bates prides itself on making everyone feel included. You eat lunch in the dining hall with the faculty. You can walk up to anyone and have a conversation, and it’s not competitive. No summer is complete without going there for me,” says Kate.

Kate, who helped set up the nonprofit status of the Mascher Space Co-op and helped administer the Leah Stein Dance Company, moved to the Philadelphia area in the mid-2000s to attend Swarthmore College, where she studied dance and biology.

“My introduction to Philly was through Live Arts. The first couple of weeks of school, I’d go in and see a few performances on one train ticket. It wasn’t until I moved into the city that I realized that the arts community was so accessible,” Kate says.

Kate has performed in past Live Arts and Philly fringe shows, including a piece by Christina Gesauldi during the 2009 Philly Fringe, and in the 2008 Live Arts production of bodies in urban spaces.

“What I love about Philly is the DIY culture. That’s a big part of Mascher Space Cooperative. If there isn’t a space you make a space, and if there isn’t a niche you make a niche,” Kate says.

Now, she’s carving out a niche in an MFA program at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she’s reacquainting with nature, organizing a performance at the Boulder International Fringe Festival in August, and planning to get her Sticks and Stones collaborators acquainted with Philadelphia at Philly Fringe in September. All five performers in the show are currently students in Boulder.

“I grew up in Maine, and my parents have a house on a lake. I love hiking and backpacking,” says Kate, “and in Philly, it’s hard to get out to natural beauty without a car. I think that was a main reason to go to Boulder, to get back to the lifestyle of being able to hike. Much of our promo material was taken up on Chautauqua Meadow at the base of the mountains, and that’s walking distance from the school. But I’ve been visiting and coming back, and with Philly Fringe, keeping my foot in the door.”

Storytelling, Kate says, is vital to the kind of dances she wants to make.

“When I’m watching dance, I prefer narrative because it helps me latch on to it. Very abstract work where there’s lots of dissociative images, it’s hard for me. I like to care about people on stage because they are people. In Sticks and Stones, we’re trying to work with text,” Kate says.

“Our process at the moment is to create these great poems and then speak them. It’s hard to capture audience attention just speaking poems, so we’re trying to introduce humor, like revealing that I have an imaginary brother to take care of me—and in my mind, he looks like a Backstreet Boy because I made him up in middle school. We have a lot of stories going on in this particular work. [Co-choreographer] Rachel Oliver and I sometimes appear to be sisters, based on how we relate physically: but are we fighting over the space, or are we supporting each other?”

This commitment to narrative can open up dance to audiences who, like Kate, might have trouble latching onto more dissociative or imagistic work.

“You have to interact with people. I think that’s a big part of building community, and I think community is essential to the health of individuals, neighborhoods, and organizations,” Kate says. One such group she worked with in the past was composed of students from the John Moffet Elementary School in Kensington, a neighbor of the Mascher Space Coop.

“The kids at Moffet drew pictures, and many wrote thank-you letters [following workshops and performances]. To hear them realize they could express themselves in so many different ways was great. Some teachers had students who were so shy during the year, but spoke up and became themselves in these workshops.”

While Moffet students probably won’t return to the Fringe—it is the first days of school, after all, and the kids need to get settled—that desire for shared experience, and the desire to be heard, both surely will be back in Sticks and Stones this fall.

Sticks and Stones runs September 7 at 7:30 pm, September 8 at 4:00 pm and 7:30 pm, at the Mascher Space Co-op, 155 Cecil B. Moore Avenue, Kensington. $15.[For another take on the hurt brought down by others, check out Food Court from Back to Back Theatre at the 2012 Live Arts Festival –N.G.]

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo: Heather Gray Photography.

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