The Body As An Instrument – Leah Stein Dance Company Spring Studio Works

By Nicole Bradbury for The Dance Journal

Upon walking into The Art Room Studio on the evening of March 9, 2020, it was difficult to ignore the large drum set. It’s looming appearance in the periphery of the classroom, turned studio space, signaled to the audience that they would witness instrument and the body for this round of the Studio Works performance series presented by Leah Stein Dance Company.

The night’s line up consisted of three works in progress by Maddie Rabin, Sarah Cunningham, and duo stb x at (Sean Thomas Boyt and Andy Thierauf). All of the works wove together movement and musical instruments, shedding light on the ways in which it is possible to feel, remember, and cultivate sensations through multiple forms at once.

Rabin presented first with a refreshing lightness. Banjo in hand and a well-loved journal open in front of her, she invited the audience to move and sing along with her for her a music set. I found this proposal to be invigorating and inclusive. It had the potential to allow the audience to intrinsically feel the work, rather than just view it. This kind of offering and sharing is rare in performance, and paired well with the inviting flow of Rabin’s gentle, yet acute presentation.

Rabin organically switched between sitting on the floor with her banjo, softly singing songs of emotive exuberance, to dancing while executing acapella vocals. Her movements and gestures were reflective of the romantic lyrics as they often returned via swinging and lilting motions to arms outstretched, or hands to heart. Rabin expressed to us between songs that she is inspired by the performances of pop stars during concerts, and wants to explore that with folk.

One of the most enjoyable moments was when Rabin was repeatedly singing the lyrics, “not alone”, and a few audience members were harmonizing and singing the lyrics along with her. Warmed by the self awareness, I believed her.

Next up was Sara Cunningham, who began by laying down with her viola de gamba (similar to a cello), caressing it as if it were her lover. Cunningham continued developing various movement and vocal scores that displayed almost all of the ways to be with the instrument except play it. The execution of these tasks appeared ceremonial, as she moved between guttural vocal tones, whole body shaking, and tapping unpredictably on the instrument. Almost as if the viola were different assets of her life, these jump cuts were scene-like, and Cunningham was investigating them to the fullest extent.

Cunningham concluded by playing a classical song on the viola. With passionate vocals, this shift was satisfying and seemed to sew her scores together, as they felt like pieces to a larger puzzle. As she ended, the fragments all fell into place.

The final work was of the duo stb x at, made up of Sean Thomas Boyt and Andy Thierauf. Andy assumed his position at the drums and began playing an ominous rumble, while Sean moved with a wave-like dexterity diagonally across the space. As Andy’s drums intensified, Sean fell into a kind of movement vernacular, returning to motifs of a hand reaching out on the ground, a side glance, and torso sloshing. Sean and Andy’s performances sometimes matched in pace and texture, and other times departed from one another to fall into their own rolling groove. The work rumbled to an end after a few minutes, but I felt as though I could have sat and watched the stormy landscape the pair created for hours.

The evening was a beautiful reminder of the dialogue between, performer, instrument, and audience. After each work, the audience had the opportunity to participate in feedback sessions, which offered  the performers  informative insight on their research. The Leah Stein Dance Company has created a welcoming space through the Studio Works series for new ideas to emerge, and for those ideas to be appreciated and disseminated to the community.

About Nicole Bradbury

Nicole Bradbury is a performer and writer based in Philadelphia. She attends the University of the Arts, where she will receive a BFA in Dance in May, 2020. At UArts, she has performed works by Doug Varone, Bobbi Jene Smith, Andrea Miller, and Jesse Zaritt, among others. Her studies have led her to Israel, where she has studied with the Batsheva Dance Company and Yazmeen Godder. Nicole has also attended the dance festival Camping at the Centre National de la danse in Paris, France. There, she performed the works of Jocelyn Cottencin and Lauren Bakst. Nicole recently presented her own work in Philadelphia, And then, we'll keep going with her partner and collaborator, Neva Guido. She hopes to continue making work and obtain a master's degree in the near future.

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