Embracing Strength

ae leadNew performance piece at Motion at the Mill explores how limitations can create opportunity

The first thing you should know about “Your Body is Not a Shark” is that it is not about triumphing against impossible odds. “This isn’t a piece about Joan [Jeanrenaud] and Denise [Leto] and their conditions, nor is it a piece about heroically overcoming these things,” says choreographer Cid Pearlman, referring to her collaborators on the performance piece, who grapple with multiple sclerosis and laryngeal dystonia, respectively. “It’s a piece that’s about the possibilities for generating creativity within limitation—we want to be careful not to create a false heroic narrative.”

“Your Body is Not a Shark” encompasses dance, live music, and sound collage, and runs Jan. 17-20 at Motion at the Mill. Examining the creative process through the prism of physical limitation and difference, the production is choreographed by Pearlman, with an original score composed by Joan Jeanrenaud, text by poet Denise Leto, and musical direction by Maya Barsacq.

The title, “Your Body is Not a Shark,” originated as a line from a previous collaboration between Leto and poet Amber DiPietra, entitled “Waveform.” “So it came from a different work, but it transformed over time to be more specific to ‘Shark,’” says Leto. “Initially, it was pointing to both the fragility of the body and the strength of the body, and we began to respond to the body as the locus of threat or danger—so the threat or danger is kind of internal to the body, but that those threats or dangers don’t necessarily make the body the enemy.”

Constructed as a series of six movements, each based on a poem by Leto, the piece is performed by a multigenerational cast of six dancers. Barsacq, founder of locally-based chamber orchestra CADENZA, will conduct seven members of her ensemble in performing the score along with Jeanrenaud as soloist.

The performance engages with what the collaborators refer to as the “stumble” and the “stutter”—multiple sclerosis and laryngeal dystonia—and explores how the body responds to these physical setbacks.

With that in mind, the production is not necessarily about those themes as they relate exclusively to the production’s creators, but rather as they relate to members of the audience; sooner or later, everyone must cope with matters of physical decline. “We all have moments in our lives when we stumble,” says Barsacq. “Every day is a challenge in its own way.”

That said, personal experience did inform the conception and development of “Your Body is Not a Shark”.

For Jeanrenaud, it was a case of one door closing, only to find other doors that had previously been open but forgotten. After playing cello with the Kronos Quartet for 20 years, she left when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late-1990s. “I decided it was too difficult for me to travel so much, and so that’s when I turned to improvisation, which then led me to composition,” says Jeanrenaud. “And so you can work with these issues to actually help you create something that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Likewise, the onset of laryngeal dystonia had an obvious impact on Leto. “It really changed all aspects of life, including my artistic practice,” she says. “For example, I took a break from reading publicly so I could develop a new way to do it, because the typical way just wasn’t working.”

Of course, it would be reductive to assume that physical disability automatically leads to positive change.

“When you’re faced in later life with a change in your physicality, you must contend with all kinds of transformations,” says Leto, who is careful not to suggest that a limitation itself is inspirational, “because the material reality of living with a disability also can be isolating or painful.”

Ultimately, “Your Body is Not a Shark” is about the human body—and indeed, the human condition—in its many guises. “Different people in different stages of their lives have much to offer, and that adds to a more complex picture,” says Pearlman. “As a choreographer, I want to live in a world full of complexity and compassion and intimacy, where there’s room for difference,” she says. “I think that this is a piece that opens up a space for different ideas of virtuosity, and a space where people can imagine themselves entering into the picture.” 


“Your Body is Not a Shark” runs Jan. 17-20 at Motion at the Mill, 131 Front St., Santa Cruz. $20/general adv, $16/students & seniors adv. For details and tickets, visit santacruzdance.com. PHOTO CREDIT: BEAU SAUNDERS

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