Reinventing Emily: A Choreographer

By Kathryn Roszak


With my company, Danse Lumière (formerly Anima Mundi), a small-scale dance-theater group, I delve into large themed projects that lead me into deeper engagement with the subjects: I create unique repertory pieces, which are performed extensively in multiple venues, over a period of many years, for an audience different than usual.

I choose a collaborative way of working that takes an intense commitment on my part, and the benefit is in the long term. My projects don’t necessarily fit the usual funding time-lines and I have been frustrated by guidelines forcing artists to tailor their works to fit. I’ve steered clear of dreaming up pieces to obtain funding but have instead focused on taking time to deepen the work, relying on the “buzz” around the piece itself to produce intriguing partners and venues. I made a conscious decision to move away from producing an annual dance season, eliminating the constant need to create new pieces. Rather my pieces are like books–they necessitate an in-depth gestation period and then a longer time in the public eye. This requires patience. Recognition often comes from outside the dance sphere.

The longest running piece of Dance Lumière’s is the exploration Pensive Spring; A Portrait of Emily Dickinson. In its twelfth year since creation, it returns this May to the place of its inception in 1998, the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club.

The piece, involves three different artists, a dancer, a singer, and an actress portraying Emily Dickinson, the much-misunderstood enigmatic poet. I’m focusing on something we’ve lost touch with these days–the intimacy of the written word and what it reveals about relationships, nature, death, even madness. For Pensive Spring I edited the poet’s letters and selected poetry to reflect the natural seasons as well as the poet’s states of mind. I chose music by composer Gordon Getty that embodies the poetry, so that the choreography is shaped by songs revealing Dickinson’s psyche and imagery. Perhaps it is this “Rashomon”-like perspective, offering different windows into the poetry, and letting the viewer feel that the whole piece takes place in Emily Dickinson’s mind, that has led to the piece’s longevity. Dickinson’s poetry is a paradox–she is of her time, and outside of it, very radical and psychological in her view. I wanted the choreography and staging to echo this paradox with a seemingly traditional presentation, balletic choreography that gets fractured and reassembled. Dickinson is always a master–a poet/scientist whose psychic eruptions are observed with a surgeon’s skill. In her hands a domestic metaphor can turn to madness.

Living with a piece over time gives me the chance to work with new casts, who each lend wildly different interpretations to the material. The nature of this piece in particular is that three different artists work in solitude, not unlike the poet, in their respective disciplines, and then are brought together for ensemble rehearsals. I danced the role, then I both acted and danced, and now, I act the role. Incredible performers have changed the texture of the piece along the way: the power of San Francisco Opera soprano Elza van den Heever, the humor of Berkeley Repertory actress Lorri Holt, and former San Francisco Ballet dancer Nicole Starbuck brought out dramatic intensity. In our current cast, soprano Kristin Clayton draws out Emily’s passionate humanity while dancer Hally Bellah-Guther brings angular drama.

The settings for the piece, as with much of Danse Lumière’s work, have played a central part in the creative process. The piece resonates differently in its various venues: the intimate drawing rooms of the Falkirk Mansion Cultural Center, San Rafael, gave a feeling of the house’s claustrophobic, period interior with the natural world looming ever-present outside the windows. The larger, 500 seat theatre at the University of San Francisco contained

Dickinson’s world in a sparse black-box with lighting playing a key role. Pensive Spring has an ongoing relationship with the Berkeley City Club, having been performed there originally in conjunction with the Aurora Theatre’s production of The Belle of Amherst in 1998, and subsequently being presented there last fall by Berkeley Chamber Performances. This spring the Club will present the work in the light-filled ballroom.

This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of In Dance.

Kathryn Roszak, Artistic Director of Danse Lumiere, also directs the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California.