In the center of a paved cul-de-sac, in the middle of an otherwise empty field, stood a woman, statue-still, absorbing the fading evening light. She wore a magnificent hoop skirt that looked from a distance to be made of rose petals. Her arms were frozen in the air.
A covered bridge, an equally vibrant red, crossed the river roaring with spring rains, and the traffic on nearby Route 9 rushed to and from West Brattleboro. There were seats inside the bridge, and candy hearts were strewn across the asphalt. Everywhere I looked, there were words stenciled in chalk on the ground:
Presence Makes The Heart Grow
Patience Is One Path To Gratitude
As I watched her, the woman in red moved slowly. Her movements were deliberate and graceful as those of someone lost in the careful sweep of some ancient ritual. I heard the water roar and the rush of the traffic.
I wanted to get closer, camera in hand, but it wasn’t time yet.
I’d arrived a little early. A group was congregating a little further up the hill around one of the guides who was to lead the audience through the performance of Candice Salyer’s Significant Figures. The event, organized and hosted by the Vermont Performance Lab, is part of their Progressive Performance Festival—three dance events performed in and around Brattleboro June 2-4.
Each evening, an audience of up to 35 will meet at the Blue Moose Cafe in downtown Brattleboro, and after refreshments, they’ll board a bus that will take them to three original contemporary dance works by Emily Johnson, Adele Myers, and Candice Salyers, all in separate locations.
Johnson’s piece includes storytelling, multimedia, fish and dance, and it’s performed with musicians at the Luminz Studio. Myers dances on stage at the New England Youth Theater with an ensemble that includes a large stretch of pink shag carpet. Salyers’ piece is performed solo, mostly outside, around and in the Creamery Covered Bridge in West Brattleboro.
Audience members for Significant Figures gather up the hill from where the performance begins, but, as with the physical boundaries of the piece, its precise starting and ending points are also difficult to determine.
Through the trees, as I waited with the others, I could see the lady in the blood-red skirt moving in the field below—never moving her legs, but bending her body and arms slowly. Unlike in a more formal theatrical production, no curtain was dramatically swept aside; the performance began the moment the audience noticed her and began to wonder. When the guide eventually led us down the hill, our curiosity was already engaged, and as we walked closer, finding a spot on the paved path before her, old questions were replaced by new ones.
Even as the audience fanned out around her, the woman in the red skirt continued her glacial choreography, and, gradually it seemed, her movements became more broken and angular. Less graceful. More distraught. Her skirt hiding her feet, she moved across the grass.
My fellow audience members became statues, staring back at her. Though the guides offered no rules about how to watch the performance, many of those I was with chose to plant themselves in a space and witness what happened, but with my camera, looking for the best angles to capture what was happening, I crept around the circle. Because her movements were so deliberate—raising an arm could take well over a minute—there was plenty of time to absorb what the woman in the red skirt was doing, to take in the bridge, the river, and her relationship to the audience.
The dance, like molasses in January, began taking on new dimensions at quite a clip.
When Salyers undid her skirt and stepped from it, out of the grass and onto the pavement, the act seemed bold. Though she did it slowly, it felt like a surprise, and though she had a shorter black skirt on underneath, it felt as if she were naked. Exposed to the core. After taking a few steps, she hunched down and crawled five or six yards across the pavement to a chalked outline of her body, surrounded by plastic army men. Where the gradual grace of her movement seemed dignified, the length of her journey across the asphalt felt like torture.
As she finally lay down in the outline and became still, she said nothing and her face was largely without expression, yet she seemed absolutely shattered. Broken. Her feet and hands were red and pocked with gravel. An old, minor wound had reopened on her knee and there was blood. Caught in her hair, the plastic action heroes pointed their guns in the air.
Candice Salyers grew up in Tennessee as a Southern Baptist. When she was a toddler, her mother tried to channel the young dancer’s constant movement into ballet lessons.
“I went kicking and screaming, but now, of course, I’m glad she persisted,” she said in an interview with the Advocate earlier this month. Instead of a dancer, Salyers wanted to be a preacher, but since the faith she and her family belonged to had strict gender restrictions, she was forced to pursue her ambitions through different avenues. “It’s the one time I was stopped from doing what I wanted,” she said, but she’s made up for it in a myriad of other ways.
She currently lives in Northampton, and in addition to recent solo performances at a number of festivals, she is finishing up semesters teaching dance part-time at Smith College and Keene State. Salyers is also working on her Ph.D dissertation through Texas Women’s University, specializating in dance performance and environmental philosophy. She is also working toward a Masters of Divinity, and is at work on a new dance project which, she says, explorer, “sincerity from the perspective of saints. People who are striving for a purity that is not only for themselves.”
The performance this weekend, Significant Figures, is something Salyers worked on for several years, and elements have been presented elsewhere, including with the Vermont Performance Lab, where she’s been a resident artist over the last year.
Rising from the chalk mark on the ground, the once broken woman stood. The audience followed her as she walked, dignified again, to the covered bridge. Single file, we followed her along one side of the bridge, and above our heads, hidden in the rafters, voices whispered to us.
“I want to be magnanimous,” an unseen child said as the water rushed below my feet.
The bridge was set up to act like a stage, with seats filling half the space. The other half, behind a two-inch white picket fence, was covered in handwriting. On the white chalk, the woman danced, smearing her words beneath her feet. Her movement wasn’t as slow as before, and as she danced to a scorching ballad by Lucinda Williams, her movement became fierce and cathartic.
And, for one brief moment, the woman jerked her head up and looked at us. After an hour of being silent spectators, we felt suddenly complicit.
And then she turned and left the bridge in silence. As we stood and crossed the field of smudged verbiage, the guides handed us envelopes. Mine had a hand written note inside which read, “Thanks for being here.”
When I got to the other end of the bridge, I saw, down the hill, though the trees, in the center of a paved cul-de-sac, a statuesque woman standing in the middle of an otherwise empty field.”
Tickets for the Progressive Performance Festival are available at the Blue Moose Caf? or online. Tickets are $40 and include tapas and transportation between the events. Tickets for individual performances are $15. See vermontperformancelab.com for more information.