Sebastienne Mundheim describes her new performance piece, Sea of Birds as a "fragile paper sculpture animated by dancers, a lyrical voice, a sonic landscape, live musicians, light and shadow play." Performed in and around a giant white dome covered in projected silhouettes, multiple fantastic stories and one true one interweave and combine to tell a tale about the immigration experience and story telling itself.
Mundheim explains: "[The work is about] the power and pleasure of the storyteller and the portrait artist. And about the space between portraits. What does it mean to immerse yourself completely in a character, knowing you're going to leave it and move on to another one? I wanted to do a series of portraits from which there would be a departure, and then a re-encounter. So, I wanted to follow this one process of character-making, and I wanted to make something about my mother's experience in Latvia, and so I thought I'd put her in as one of the characters. She was born in Latvia and had to leave in World War II because of Stalin. I always think of my mother as a storyteller who creates a portrait of this place that she left. I wanted to integrate these two things: my mother's story of leaving Latvia, and my fantasy characters, and what it meant to immerse myself in the making of one, and then leaving it to make another."
Along with Mundheim's mother, the piece includes characters such as Ivars the Butterfly Catcher, Guna of the Birch Trees, and Gregor the Tormented Meadow Dweller, represented by a menagerie of puppets and manipulated by Mundheim and her five performers using a variety of techniques. Mundheim, who acts as the narrator, wrote Sea of Birds, but it was choreographed by Kate Watson-Wallace, who collaborated with the troop as a team. The music was composed by James Sugg, and the combined effect of all this artistry, along with that provided by Mike Riggs' lighting design, is intensely dream-like. Which, as it happens, was the inspiration for the piece.
"The dome is made of bamboo, trace paper, cheese cloth and jute," Mundheim said. "I had a dream where there's this dome that's filled with these yellow flowers, and so I immediately ran out to make one as fast as I could before I forgot it. And then it became the organizing principle for the show."
This is Mundheim's 18th original, commissioned performance. Other works have included A Potable Joyce: a Watered-Down Version of Ulysses and Currently Franklin: The Story of a Paper Boy, both of which have been performed more than 100 times, across the world. She has become known, according to her press release, for "synthesizing complex ideas into lyrical, accessible works for audiences of all ages." Sea of Birds will tour New England this spring, with performances at MassMoCA, Marlboro College, Keene State University, and the Stonington Opera House. While her works generally are made up of a collusion of influences and techniques, Sea of Birds presented the artist more challenges than she'd been used to.
"Somehow, I feel the things that spark me and make me work are the moments when you're so overworked, so you just say 'Fuck it' and you do something hilarious because you need a break, and that's what you use," she said. "[For this show] I haven't had a lot of hilarious moments. It's been a lot of work."
But work that has paid off. As the Sea of Birds begins to breathe and come alive, the complexities of the staging and choreography dissolve, and the audience is transported into a singular world, of light, shadow, music, movement and magic.
Sea of Birds is co-presented by Marlboro College and Vermont Performance Lab. Performances are Friday and Saturday March 6 and 7, 2009, 7:30 p.m. at the Whittemore Theater, Marlboro College, Marlboro, Vt. Tickets are $12/advance, $15/door. Information: (802) 251-7644.