If We Listened to Birds Sometimes

by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal

Dawn Pratson brought If We Listened to Birds Sometimes, an evening of dance and music performances, to Mascher Space. The evening’s program consisted of five works in total, choreographed and performed by Pratson and her collaborators. These works included not just movement but live musical performances, spoken word poetry, and theatrical elements. Pratson also experiments with mediums throughout the performance as well, introducing concepts that play with space and performance such as a small 4×4 stage and the use of digital video communication to display performers from around the world. This lent to the performance a sense of diversity in both its content and concepts as each work felt entirely separate, unique in their own right.

The titular work, if we listened to birds sometimes, is a cross-disciplinary piece which combined movement, live instrumentation, and spoken word. Inspired by the infinite possibilities of the prefix “what if”, Pratson rattled off a list of hypothetical questions which are sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, and always deeply sincere. Alongside the spoken word, Pratson performed a series of gestural movements, embodying the concept of the piece and bringing the poetics of her hypotheticals into the physical realm. The piece was also accompanied by two flutists, Elivi Varga, and Anne Levinson. The two played a hypnotic melody which slowly rose in volume as Pratson continued, eventually matching her volume and overtaking her as she transfered into pure movement. The work sets the mood of the performance to come, utilizing a sincere playfulness in its approach conveying its message to the audience.

Following if we listened to birds was Allemande, which originally debuted in 2018 for “Ten Tiny Dances” at Mascher Space. The piece utilized a raised 4×4 platform as its stage, providing a challenge for both the choreographer and dancers to make use of such a small space. As the four performers moved they seemed to react with one another, each movement cascading into the next which preserved a sense of momentum despite the limitations provided by the stage. As the music (Allemande by Caroline Shaw) drew to a close, it’s overtaken by spoken word and tactile percussion from the dancers. The audience is beckoned to participate as well, lending to the work a sense of joy and community which extends beyond the four dancers on the tiny stage and out into the entire space.

Closing the first half of the evening was Syrinx Pour Un Et Deux, inspired by Debussy’s 1913 composition entitled Syrinx. The work is a duet between Pratson and flutist, Emma Shubin, mixing music and movement together as the two performers act and react to each other. Both the music and choreography were inspired by the myth of Syrinx who was turned to reeds, and Pratson reflects this in her choreography which carries a wavy, windswept quality as if gently pushed by the breeze. The piece hits its apex when the two performers meet, their bodies seemingly becoming one as they move and play, one behind the other. This piece succeeds in marrying a wide range of inspiration; from myth to music, to movement, each layer works in harmony to create an interpretation of the material that feels fresh and nuanced.

The final two pieces of the evening were On Shame and DROG: Dance-Reading On-Line. The former focuses on the self as the dancers repeat a variety of affirmations and share personal stories, all of which relate to feelings of shame, regret, and guilt. Despite the rather heavy tone, the work does have a sense of humor which kept things from growing too somber. As the performers struggle with isolation, longing, and desperation they slowly begin to find a community within each other, this places an emphasis on finding support not just within yourself but with those around you as well, further emphasized by the fact that the performers emerge from the audience at the works start, and return as the lights fade.

The emphasis on community provided a smooth segue into the final work, DROG, in which Pratson projects a video call with her online dance group onto the backdrop. Alongside Pratson and Cassie Roberts Rossi, seven other performers were present digitally, calling in from all across North America. This work provided an exploration of the way in which modern communications technology allows artists to transcend the limits of space to interact, collaborate, and perform together. After two dances, the performers invited the audience onto the stage for a final celebratory dance together as one community, cementing the idea of building communities as the primary theme of the evening.

Despite the works venturing into darker places occasionally, the evening’s vibe never grew heavy and a sense of joy, play, and love underscored the performances. The interludes between pieces were filled by Kate Seethaler who provided interactive audience experiences which allowed the observers to grow closer to the work as the evening progressed and led to the joyous celebration that came at the evening’s conclusion. By the end, even those who remained seated clearly felt the communal joy in the space and participated vocally, emphasizing the impact of the collection of works as a whole. Pratson’s work is a prime example of leading through experience; as it was through the interaction with the audience, group participation, and construction of a community that she provided a meaning that gained through experience rather than interpretation.

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