Recently I found myself lost in a salt marsh on the coast of North Carolina. My senses were captured by the sights and sounds of the frogs, crabs, marsh plants, water birds and rising and falling tides. But I was actually in a small space at the Piedmont Arts Center in Martinsville, Virginia, surrounded by “Salt Marsh Suite,” a multi-media performance/installation created by dancer Ann Kilkelly and visual artist Carol Burch-Brown.
This amazing sensory adventure is the result of the artists’ many yearly visits to a North Carolina estuary and its marshes. Longtime partners and collaborators, they have brought to their audience a deep experience, both mesmerizing and stimulating. Incorporating science, digital video, dance, performance art and music (vocal and instrumental, live and recorded), this artwork offers 23 minutes of delicious peace and sensual harmony.
Also contributing to the work are performance artist Celeste Miller and singer Elise Witt, who have both studied the salt marsh and brought their impressions to the collaboration. In addition, live music was provided by Patrick Turner on bass. A trio of young dancers entered the space from time to time to flow like reeds, stretch and flap like birds, perambulate like crabs.
The space was literally filled, floor-to-ceiling on three sides, by projected videos gathered by Burch-Brown over hours, days, years on the marsh. Images of its water, grasses and animals washed the walls and the recorded sounds of peeping frogs, skittering crabs and gurgling creeks rained down. It was easy to imagine a fresh shore breeze moving across the room.
“Salt Marsh Suite” comprises four movements: Water, Mud, Birds and Grass. Celeste Miller opened the piece using her trademark “talking dance” technique to explain the curious phenomenon of not one but two tides per day on this marsh. In what was nearly the only text in the piece, she explained the science of the moon’s effect on the water as her expressive body spelled out the subtext of her words. As the movements progressed, the other performers appeared intermittently. Ann Kilkelly stepped to a small platform and began gently to tap dance, an echo of the crabs chittering in the videos, while the three dancers mirrored the crabs raising and dropping their huge claws as they scuffled sideways along the marsh’s edge. Elise Witt added her own unique voice to the recorded wild calls of the land and water birds.
I was completely transported by this artwork. I have written much about political art, and about the urge that makes some artists raise contemporary social issues in an attempt to bring about specific change with their creativity. I have watched Kilkelly, Burch-Brown, Miller and Witt over the years do just that with their images, text, movement and sound. Yet now, all in their early sixties, and at this complicated political times in our lives, they are choosing to turn to deep observation of nature and place, and to share the evidence of their profound experience with audiences.
These four, based variously in Virginia, Iowa and Georgia, have been friends and colleagues for decades and collaborated in many ways. They know well how to record personal perception and enlarge it to the universal. Here I felt a maturity at work, a true mastery of craft and a careful and passionate generosity. They have been cooking this for years.
Like so many of us, I have spent the last year following the news. We observe with dread the cascade of change that is taking over our lives in the first weeks of the Trump Administration. We find it hard to sleep, or even to relax the tension in our bodies. We suffer near-constant anxiety; this is the process of awakening to real danger in our world and it is a heavy burden for us all. Now, from time to time, I find myself going back to live art for regeneration, and to work that is more abstract than political. I need a breathing space for my spirit, and I found it on a North Carolina salt marsh. I am so grateful.
February 23, 2017
“Salt Marsh Suite” was created by the following team: Directors: Ann Kilkelly and Carol Burch-Brown. Image and Sound Installation: Carol Burch-Brown, videographer, Max/MSP/Jitter Design and Visualization. Choreography: Ann Kilkelly. Dancers: Ann Kilkelly, Rachel Rugh, Claire Constantikis, Saadia Rais, Mya Gallow, Celeste Miller, Cambria-McMillan-Zaph, and Katy Grimes (only five of whom appeared in the production I saw). Musicians: Patrick Turner, bass, and Elise Witt, vocals. Sound and composition: Tohm Judson. Video editing: Joan Grossman. 3-D laser scanning: Thomas Tucker. The project was supported by the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology and the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech. The February performance/installation in Martinsville, January 14-February 24, 2017, was supported by the Piedmont Arts Center and the Virginia Museum of Natural History.