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Choreographer Maureen Whiting follows a long road to a difficult subject.
“HOW CAN YOU CRY AND STILL HAVE JOY?”
Maureen Whiting asks on an overcast Friday afternoon in a South Lake Union warehouse where she and dancer Belle Wolf are rehearsing. “It’s the burden of having to live a life of expected joy or creativity when there’s so much tragedy in the world.”
They’re working on Wolf’s solo, which ebbs and flows with violent and subtle motion. One minute Wolf is crouched, thrashing her head around, long brown hair whipping in circles; then she’s laying on her back, knees up, feet flat on the floor as she releases a deep laugh. Whiting watches silently, filming the sequence for later discussion.
This month The Maureen Whiting Company premieres The Burden of Joy, an experimental work-in-progress created through a residency at ACT’s Central Heating Lab. The work features a set of solos and duets—danced by Whiting and company members Wolf and Ezra Dickinson—about life, death, consciousness and exposure of the human soul through movement.
The evening-length work is inspired by Whiting’s mother’s life and struggle with mental illness, which resulted in suicide in 1997. Whiting has been a choreographer for 16 years, but only now has she been ready to tackle the personal tragedy in her work.
Whiting, 48, grew up dancing, starting with ballet as a child in Madison, Wis. She danced into her mid-teens but ultimately decided to attend college instead of pursuing a professional ballet career. In 1984 Whiting enrolled at Smith College, where she graduated cum laude with a degree in mathematics. While at Smith she also studied visual art and modern dance, which proved a gateway to a less traditional, freer form of movement. After graduation, Whiting bought a one-way ticket to Europe and lived in Amsterdam and Germany for several years, traveling and taking in the international dance landscape.
In 1992 she moved to Seattle after hearing about its growing dance scene from one of her Smith instructors, Hannah Wiley, the founding artistic director of the University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company. After she arrived in town, Whiting started working with some of the scene’s galvanizing nontraditional dancers and choreographers, including KT Niehoff, Peggy Piacenza, Heather Kravas and Dayna Hanson.
“There was a lot of experimentation, and it gave us a lot of freedom to try things out,” Whiting says. “I was so lucky to be there when Seattle started to become a choreographer’s town.”
Whiting’s first major work premiered at On the Boards in 1998 as part of the Northwest New Works Festival. Seeing With Both Eyes Closed featured five dancers in black and white performing in groups of two, then three, then five. Coupled with a video installation of vibrant blurred colors by artist Robert Campbell, the dancers moved in mathematical patterns—a measured dose of rationality, a grasp for a stable touchstone in a storm of emotional chaos. Whiting privately dedicated the piece to her mother.
Sixteen years passed—along with various performances, international tours, commissions and residencies. All the while Whiting knew she wanted to create and perform a solo about and for her mother. With The Burden of Joy, she’s doing it.
Her longtime collaboration with Dickinson helped give her the courage. The two met nine years ago when Whiting was choreographing for a concert at Cornish College of the Arts. The concert included work by several choreographers, including a Martha Graham masterwork mounted by two former soloists of Graham’s company. Dickinson, then an in-demand sophomore at Cornish, had to decide whether he wanted to perform the Graham piece or a work by Whiting.
“I took Maureen’s piece because I had an interest in getting into forms of dance that I didn’t know as much about,” Dickinson says, adding that his decision may have pissed some people off a bit. Whiting’s character-driven, theatrical piece appealed to him. For Dickinson, who had been classically trained at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Whiting showed that dance is more than technique.
“She’s interested in the absurd,” Dickinson says. “But I think she’s also very interested in the layering and the mashing up of a lot of images.”
The concert audition required the dancers to do an improvisation based on the memory of a personal story. Whiting remembers being struck by the boldness and energy with which Dickinson performed, the depth of his commitment to each moment. Before they finished rehearsals for that piece, Whiting asked Dickinson to join her company. Today the two remain close collaborators with a special creative relationship fueled in part by a shared experience: mothers with mental illness.
Dickinson’s own mother, a former dance teacher, suffers from schizophrenia, and he has created dance work for her for the past 10 years. In the 2009, he performed a six-minute solo called Mother at the Annie Wright School in Tacoma as part of the Ten Tiny Dances festival, where dancers perform on a 4-by-4-foot stage. In it, he emerges from a box, unraveling a 30-foot paper skirt covered in pictures of his mother. Whiting says she was impressed with his fearlessness.
In Dickinson’s most recent performance about his mom, 2013’s Mother for You I Made This, he led an audience through the streets of downtown Seattle wearing headphones that streamed phrases and memories from his mother: “As a child I was your task.” “In my dreams we are at the ocean shore.” Whiting was the voice of Dickinson’s mother.
“When I was younger I didn’t want to put that much pain out there,” Whiting says. “But I watched Ezra and I saw that it can be an act of generosity—and not torture—to share that.”
Modern dance communicates like no other art form, abstracting the chaos of mental illness, evoking an emotional enigma that’s at once beautiful, confusing, scary and exciting. The often wordless canvas of dance brings forth our most primal and instinctive impulses. We may not have experienced the circumstances or life events portrayed by the choreographer or dancers, but we can feel them. Before there was language, there was movement.
Whiting’s choreography uses technical skill, but doesn’t draw from any particular technique. Sometimes it’s dark—a pack of dancers hopping around stage, attacking one another like wild animals. Other times it’s funny—she and Dickinson flashing their stomachs at each other. Her movements are fresh and raw.
Whiting uses rehearsals as “body research,” exploring how different physical expressions of joy translate to an audience. A switch of the hips can be campy and over exaggerated while a soft swing of arms might come across as precious or shy.
“We strive to find authenticity in both the most absurd and the normal, whether it’s some sort of adaptation of classical ballet or a dance next to a log in the forest,” Dickinson says. “There’s a strong importance put on having a reason or a purpose as to why you are doing a dance.”
Earlier this year Dickinson traveled to Oakland, Calif., for 10 days (Whiting currently lives there with her family, though her company is still based in Seattle) to direct Whiting’s rehearsals for her solo.
“We have a very trusting relationship, so it worked,” she says. “But there were times where I was crying on the studio floor.”
The Burden of Joy is more nuanced and more human than some of Whiting’s past work, with her signature humor thrown in as well. “It marks a step in my growth as an artist to make something more direct,” she says, describing a desire to connect with her audience. Exploring pain doesn’t have to be painful.
The Burden of Joy runs as a work-in-progress Nov. 29–30 at ACT Theatre.