Dancing With Tears in Their Eyes

Arizona dancers take on themes of domestic violence

The family values Arizonans seem to know best are the ones that say: Slash social-service budgets and smash programs that provide aid to kids and battered women.

This being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, several Arizona choreographer/performers apparently decided to score a few defensive whacks for the family with some chillingly strident family imagery.

Consider: a family mummified in the molten ash of Pompeii centuries ago. A beat-up woman in a mud pit of today. Both images appear in dance works being presented in Phoenix this week that are built on themes of family disintegration and domestic violence. The dances aim to explore deep family connections, say their choreographers Ann Ludwig and Ellen Bromberg.

In the hierarchy of Arizona dance, Ludwig and Bromberg rank high. Ludwig has taught at Arizona State University's dance department since 1979. She is now director of the ASU Graduate Program in Dance and also teaches Philosophy and Criticism. In her own choreography, Ludwig has long dealt with women's issues, and currently focuses on abuse and domestic violence.

Tucson-based Bromberg makes dances for companies throughout the United States. She's received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Fellowship last year. The broadcast of her award-winning work "The Black Dress" on PBS' Live From Off Center in 1989 brought her national attention.

This week in Phoenix, on different days at different places, both Ludwig and Bromberg find themselves approaching the theme of domestic violence, but from different historical and social perspectives.

Both works, in a way, are collaborative. Ludwig's A Ludwig Dance Company performs her "glass ceilings," in part, as an installation in tandem with "mud floors," a performance piece by Helen Hestenes, both slated to premiere at the Icehouse on Saturday, October 25, and Sunday, October 26. An art installation by Yoko Ono inspired Bromberg's dance "Aria for an Endangered Species." Ono, in turn, then wrote the music for "Aria," which will be performed Thursday, October 23, at ASU West. "Aria" was made for Core Performance Company, of Houston and Atlanta, which will perform it here.

When Bromberg saw Yoko Ono's family sculpture/installation "Endangered Species 2319-2322," she wanted to bring it to life through dance. Ono's visit to the ruins of Pompeii had moved her to sculpt a family as if it had been excavated from under the volcanic lava. Wanting to observe the dynamics of an intact family of certain ages, and unable to find one through her own phone book, Ono flew a family she knew from Iceland into New York. She sculpted them first in wax, then she torrefied them with heaters. Strangely, that gave them life and movement at the moment of their symbolic redestruction by heat. The father's neck cracked under the weight of his head, the mother and daughter leaned toward one another. At that stage, Ono had the wax figures dipped in vats of ice water and then cast into bronze. They became the installation's central focus.

When Bromberg approached her with the concept for "Aria," Ono was eager to participate. "I thought Ellen had a beautiful idea," she said. "It inspired me to write the music. I gave the family one day and one night in a beautiful summer field to relive the past." She used sampled birdsongs for the daytime, the sudden flapping of birds' wings to usher in the night and river sounds for the main music of the dance.

Critics often call Ono's music inaccessible, raising the question of whether Bromberg had been expecting a linear or programmatic structure. "No, I didn't. This music is surprisingly lyrical and melodic. The first part consists of a driving percussive rhythm and a poem recited by Yoko. The second part is mostly guitar and voice. Yoko wove it all together with her sampled, organic sounds. Lovely."

So how did Bromberg work within it? "Well, it was challenging because this isn't a pretty piece. I wanted it to be what it wanted to be, for its rawness to show. I tried to let the dancers release their movements as they would in relationships. This unearthed family can't rest in peace until they bring it all out and let it go."

Primal memories inform the dancers' movements. Images projected like petroglyphs recall the Ono installation. What you see is a domestic unit struggling to stay intact, but destroyed finally by violent outside forces--volcanic ash, hot debris. By reconstructing a history for this meltdown family from Ono's work, Bromberg humanizes people alienated from, in this case, centuries of indifference.

"Mud floors/glass ceilings" takes us into another kind of excavation. Helen Hestenes, performance artist and artistic director of the Icehouse, jokes that "as an underground artist, I always wanted to do something literally underground." She got her chance when she choreographed asphalt cutters and earth diggers as they carve a mud pit in the Icehouse courtyard for the opening section of the performance. A lone dancer moves into the mud pit, unable to escape it on her own. Women from area shelters wearing Sheriff Joe Arpaio's prison uniforms rescue her. From the pit, the dancer plunges into a dunking tank and, cleansed, she leads us all into the Icehouse where Ann Ludwig's "glass ceilings" section begins.

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