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And Then, Now

An enduring image from Jody Oberfelder’s new site-specific dance “And Then, Now,” is of the lithe, 70-year-old choreographer perched up on a tall hill at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, framed by enormous trees and an expansive blue sky. Arms spread wide, the wind ripples through her diaphanous lime green tunic—the same arresting color of two parakeets I saw playing in the grass as the roving performance began. As she communes with the earth and sky, the rushing sound of this windy spring evening is nearly as loud as the violin music playing behind the audience. Her simple gestures and slow rotations alternately conjure a spirit, a memory, a vision of the future. Her multiplicity is a nod to the many narratives that exist simultaneously amidst the remains of 600,000 people.

Performance

Jody Oberfelder: “And Then, Now”

Place

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY, May 4-6, 2024

Words

Candice Thompson

Jody Oberfelder's “And Then, Now.” Photograph by Stacey Locke

The performance is structured as a winding walk through a large swath of this 478-acre historic resting place: home to deceased Civil War generals and other famous Brooklynites like the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and the philanthropist Peter Cooper as well as an arboretum full of living things. Three musicians and five dancers, including Oberfelder, serve as our guides. Beyond singing, dancing, and playing instruments, they are tasked with both scripted speeches and unscripted conversation with the audience. But their shifting roles are jarring in practice; rather than naturally blurring the boundaries of the fourth wall, the performers bounce back and forth between worlds, performing their hearts out in vignettes only to then pop back into the group to offer earnest suggestions or to simply compliment someone’s shoes.

Finding myself in a lush green space, particularly after a rush hour commute on the subway, organically heightens my senses; the stark contrast attuning me to the natural world that feels far away from the city streets. So while I understood the desire to begin the performance with a short, grounding meditation at the side of a small pond, the strategy began to feel cluttered as we were gently asked to “consider how we are a vessel for water,” and “pay attention to the sound of our footsteps on the path,” and “notice what muscles you are recruiting to walk up this hill,” among so many other directions and asides.

One family plot we enter and linger in briefly, belongs to the extended Leavitt clan. In a sort of circular meadow, framed by numerous headstones, Oberfelder encourages us to lie down and take in our surroundings. I watch a plane overhead and hear the constant roar of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. But before the contrail from the jet has time to evaporate, we are rushed out of repose, back on our feet, slapping and brushing at our bodies as directed.

Jody Oberfelder's “And Then, Now.” Photograph by Stacey Locke

I overhear one of the dancers saying that in order to perform in certain sections of the cemetery, amongst particular mausoleums and headstones, permission from both the cemetery and the descendants of the families was required. It is obvious that this production was conceived with utmost care and consideration, so it is confusing that my experience as an audience member, on a two-hour stroll through an incredibly beautiful and sacred space, ultimately feels busy with so many interactions and leading questions.

Thankfully, some of the performances last a bit longer. Marisa Karchin serenades Andrea Farley-Shimoto with her resonant voice, her fingers playing on the edges of wineglasses while Farley-Shimoto’s feet swipe at gravel, a feast for the ears as the low sun envelopes half of their playing space in shadow. Later, Karchin climbs into a stone alcove, framed by Raina Arnett on the violin and Noémie Chemali on the viola. They accompany Mariah Anton-Arters in a sprightly solo followed by Michael Greenberg and Farley-Shimoto in a duet of seductive, leaning shapes. As their two bodies lay prone, stacked one on top of the other, my eyes are drawn to the names on the headstones sitting like footlights in front of me: Fedele, Missone, Licata, and Albergo. Returning as a harbinger of death, Anton-Arters comes back to separate them and lead Greenberg away.

Throughout there is wonderful rapport between dancers and musicians. In a tumbling solo in front of small copper doors, Greenberg deftly matches the acceleration of strings as he maneuvers through headstands. And near the end, when we find ourselves in the oldest part of the cemetery, the Catacombs, the dancers partner Karchin. Their interventions turn her into a sort of deity: their hands covering her eyes, their many arms extending at differing levels behind her, even floating her in midair as she continues to sing. Justin Lynch joins the group here—along the path we encountered him sitting in front of a mausoleum, knocking on doors, winding among stones, only to continue on our way past him. He takes my hand and leads me through one of the many open thresholds, into a cramped and damp space, lit only by skylight, where bodies are stacked like filing cabinets. The moment is intimate, but extremely brief.

Jody Oberfelder's “And Then, Now.” Photograph by Stacey Locke

Back in the close, arched tunnel, the acoustics are powerful, simultaneously immediate, and somehow far away. We are pressed into the walls, in-between the openings to the remains. I want to close my eyes and absorb this space and this sound, but too many other things are happening: the dancers are running, promenading us in and out, and coming together in different tableaux.

Just as earlier in the performance—when the prompts began to pile up on one another, and I found myself following one direction to “reflect” on something only to be interrupted by a competing suggestion or didactic speech on trees—my senses desired more room to take in all that the environment offered. Throughout, I navigated those tensions, trying to reconcile my personal instincts with the imposition of another’s artistic vision; at the end, feeling strange about applauding in a now dark graveyard even though the performers deserved it. 

But the peace of Oberfelder swaying like a beacon on that hill is still with me, and likewise, one otherworldly minute of quiet walking under the immense tent-like branches of a weeping beech tree. A tree I have never seen before! And now that this performance has ushered me deeper into this special place, I know I will return to reflect, sense, and be with my borough’s ancestors and ancient trees, in my own way and on my own time.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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