Leah Stein’s Ground Works: A Sensory Experience

by Courtney Colón for The Dance Journal

Deftly crafted and intimate in scope, Ground Works by Leah Stein Dance Company was a study in expansion, served in three parts. Performed on the grounds of the Woodmere Art Museum, Stein has created a piece that references the elemental while activating our visual, auditory and tactile senses. Dancers Maddie Hopfield, Jungwoong Kim, and Michele Tantoco, along with bassoonist Chuck Holdeman, delivered deeply considered performances that highlighted humanity’s connection to the materials found on-site, and to each other. Intuitive and whimsical, Ground Works resonated.

I am sitting on a hay bale at the bottom of a steep hill. The sun is in flux, still high in the sky but beginning its descent. There is a slight breeze streaming by me, carrying with it snippets of conversations from the large group assembled. With no fanfare or official declaration, the performance begins. Hopfield appears on the crest of the hill softly and suddenly, like sleep in the middle of the night. She moves languidly towards a singular tree that slices through the horizon, brutal as a knife wound. Unobtrusive and low-toned, Holdeman’s notes begin as Kim and Tantoco appear. They follow Hopfield’s path. A ring of metal is held aloft by Kim as he strides away from the hill and towards the next site. Hopfield and Tantoco welcome the tree as a part of their trio, before rushing to follow in Kim’s steps. After a beat, the audience follows.

As we crest the hill, the sounds of running water and staccato vocalizations rise to meet us, and Harry Bertoia’s sculptural fountain Free Interpretation of Plant Forms comes into view. All three dancers are in contact with the fountain, circling it again and again, involved in their own explorations. Bronze edges are physically outlined, cavernous arches are used to amplify vocals, and miniature waterfalls are rolled through to reach the base of the fountain. As the dancers exit the space, they brush water off of their limbs; a cleansing of sorts to signal transition to the final location.

Dina Wind’s Spring and Triangle juts proudly skyward, a mixture of disparate geometric shapes made of metal and abstract in style. I am reminded of a playground at lunchtime as the dancers run around the space, an air of playfulness exuding from them. Once in contact with the sculpture, the dancers begin to explore. They climb, they crawl through, they hang and swing joyfully. Holdeman joins in on the fun, playing his bassoon as he enters a hollow, rectangular tube. At the end of another hollow tube, the dancers gather, creating a sound score with their vocalizations. The audience is invited to explore, themselves. I walk around the sculpture, brushing my hand across its surface and feeling the vibrations-sound rendered physical. I put my ear to the side of a tube and the soundscape is suddenly amplified. I feel connected and wholly consumed by the experience.

Leah Stein’s Ground Works invites the audience to become fully immersed, alighting all of our senses and leaving room for our interpretations of them. Her partnership with the Woodmere Art Museum has yielded a piece that connects sculpture, performer, and audience; an interior space located within an expansive environment. That the performers were so invested and the landscape so mesmerizing only added to the pleasure of viewing.

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