Inspiration in the swamp

A member of the Parsons Dance Company in Big Cypress last week.

The muck and mosquitos of the Everglades is the last place you’d think of for staging modern (or any kind of) dance, but that’s exactly where the Parsons Dance Company has been burrowing into their psyches for the last week and a half.

“It’s really getting in touch with your primal emotions, your primal being,” Parsons said from Big Cypress last week. “We’re letting nature come inside us. It’s very primal – you’re down there in the muck, there’s animals, lots of water, primordial ooze. The dancers take it to the limit, and you can see the animal in us all. “Because we forget that, don’t we?”

The Parsons troupe’s visit to Florida’s own vast and unique swamp is part of a singular program produced by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the organization behind that famous venue outside of Washington DC. Called Face of America, the program has been taking illustrious dance companies and choreographers to create original pieces inside national parks since 2000, when they took Project Bandaloop to cavort on the cliffs of Yosemite.

Since then Face of America has taken Doug Varone into the world’s longest cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, traditional hula dancers on the edge of volcanoes in Hawaii, the Trey McIntyre Project swirling around the bears and bays of Glacier National Park in Alaska. The dancers are filmed on site, and the results become part of a multi-media performance at Wolf Trap. The Parsons/Everglades edition, called Face of America: Spirit of South Florida, premieres Sept. 8 2012.

Wolf Trap president Terre Jones came up with the idea as a millennium celebration. But Face of America has become much more, an artistic vehicle to reveal and understand this country’s spectacular natural gifts. (And perhaps to help persuade the politicians and the electorate of the value of supporting national parks and the arts). “The national parks are an extraordinary jewel that a large portion of this country doesn’t understand or appreciate,” Jones says. “Wolf Trap is America’s national park for the performing arts. So it’s telling these stories of people in the park. Instead of isn’t that a gorgeous mountain or canyon, it’s really about how humans relate to that natural beauty and visceral sense of how beautiful these places are.”

Putting the choreographers and dancers into raw nature brings something new out of them. Varone, who went into the cave system, is claustrophobic, and struggling with his fear inside the stalactites and caverns juiced his adrenaline and creativity. Parsons, whose group has been in Big Cypress, Flamingo Bay, and islands in the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Park, is having a similar reaction. “You go from an Econolodge to the middle of nowhere,” he says. “You could be back a million years.”

Click here for a PBS-produced film on the Face of America.


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