by Elizabeth Whelan for The Dance Journal | photo by Mike Reilly
Vermont-based movement artist Joy Madden sat Philly Fringe Festival goers down for a good old-fashioned story telling this past weekend. In an intimate and appropriately small showing of her latest work, The Storytellers, Joy Madden and her dancers turned page after page, spelling out the familiar tale of family life through Madden’s narration and beautifully crafted movement.
The evening unfolded much like a family gathering, with sounds of Madden’s own family sitting around the dinner table echoing through the third floor of the Iron Factory, a re-converted early 1900s factory in Olde Kensington neighborhood. Most of the recorded conversations were drowned out by laughter. “Laughing rang from our house at all hours. It was our currency,” said Madden, as she made her way across the floor in the beginning of the performance.
Six dancers, including Joy, held space for the six siblings of her family, though she made a point to emphasize that their Irish Catholic household in Ohio was a place in which all were welcome- a haven for cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents to seek refuge during trying times of their lives. Madden joked about the over-crowded nature of their home, pushing and squeezing her way through the other dancers that seemed to always be in her way. The close proximity of the dancers to one another also pointed out their dependency upon one another as they leaned in, sharing weight and helping each other stand and walk.
Madden was a natural at storytelling—a craft that seems to come naturally to her whole bloodline. She supplemented the rich history of her life using intentional and impactful movements. The Storytellers had an innate way of sharing the complexities of a family in a simple, relatable nature. Madden seemed to know just when to let silence speak and movement commence. Choreographically, Madden did not fear the use of repetition. The dancers repeated movements over and over with beautiful synchronicity while reciting the Hail Mary, a traditional staple prayer of the Catholic faith. A somber Gregorian chant echoed through the loft. Resolving in a calm surrender to the music and prayer, the cast delved into an all too familiar and amusing enactment of falling asleep during church service together.
Madden hinted at hard times, like her brother’s sickness and her Uncle’s divorce. Throughout the narrative, they danced on- both literally and metaphorically. Madden’s work itself was a tribute to the family’s perseverance and will to continue moving together as life pushed on. She kept her Catholic identity threaded through the entirety of the piece, but wasn’t shy to share her doubts of faith, “I could never connect to the divine. It was too distracting… like trying to write a poem at a football game,” she recalled before mentioning that she thinks Catholics get a bad reputation, saying, “You can do a lot worse than raising your kids to be like Jesus.”
It was moments like these that Madden caught the true light of what it meant to be in a family: together for it all. It seemed fitting that a portion of the audience was Madden’s family. Their presence for the performance brought integrity to the content, as they gathered together by the speakers before the show started, listening to their own voices echoing throughout the room- recalling the conversations that sparked Madden’s choreographic exploration of her family’s knack for storytelling.
In fact, her idea for The Storytellers, which was premiered in Burlington, Vermont, came from an impromptu recording her husband made during a family gathering that he later showed to Joy. Upon hearing the tape, Madden knew she had to create. The Storytellers is homage not only to her family, but to all families. It is the story that everyone already knows: one of love, of hardship, of pain and comfort—the story of coming home.
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