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Giant Leaps

During the past ten years, Jody Sperling has created a portfolio of dance works that calls for action to protect and preserve the environment. She has traveled to the Arctic to dance on disappearing ice. Her dances embodying the kinetic effect of wind have garnered admiration from scientists. As eco-artist-in-residence for the New York Society for Ethical Culture, Sperling’s Time Lapse Dance has now unveiled a new work, “Arbor,” to honor the American Elm, mere steps from one of North America’s largest remaining stands of the trees in Manhattan’s Central Park. At the premiere, Sperling and her company of six dancers were joined by ecoacoustic composer Matthew Burtner, and a string quartet from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Performance

Time Lapse Dance, choreography by Jody Sperling

Place

The New York Society for Ethical Culture, New York, NY, November 17, 2023

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Time Lapse Dance in Jody Sperling's “Arbor.” Photograph by Richard Velasco

The evening was filled with the best of Sperling’s most recent works, including (reviewed here) an excerpt of “Plastic Harvest,” that comments both on non-compostable waste and the plight of displaced people, and the gorgeous “Wind Rose” first performed in 2019. The fact that Sperling’s work points to the urgency of the climate crisis doesn’t diminish the pleasure of watching her stunning kinetic sculptures as they shift and change. The performers whirl in billowing silk capes inspired by modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller in a way that conjures a timelapse photograph of a flower bud opening to full blossom. 

For “Arbor,” Gina Nagy Burns painted the silk of Sperling’s signature capes (constructed by Mary Jo Mecca) with twisty elm branches. The same fine grade of parachute silk that has evocatively made the wind visible in such works as “Wind Rose” and “Turbulence” (2011), for “Arbor,” quivered like branches of leaves rustling with a breeze. When lit by David Ferri, the white surface background glowed like sunlight beaming through limbs. 

The musicians played live onstage, blending their strings with Burtner’s electronic score made by sampling sonic waves emitted by tree rings. “Arbor” opened with Maki Kitahara in solo moving from within her silk cape. It took awhile to realize she wasn’t alone. What looked like an exaggeration of Kitahara shrugging her shoulders was actually another pair of arms reaching up from behind her. The second dancer, finally poked up a bare hand, fingers reaching like gnarly roots from between the silk draped arms that cradled her.

Time Lapse Dance in Jody Sperling's “Wind Rose.” Photograph by Richard Velasco

The next section revealed the full root system, represented by three dancers in beige yoga pants and sweatshirts. Nicole Lemelin creeped like a vine against the back wall of the stage, then Frances Barker and Anika Hunter rolled onto the stage and the three formed a Greek chorus of squirming roots. The electronic music sounded like frogs and crickets croaking and clicking. 

In the final section, Kitahara was joined by Sarah Tracy and Rathi Varma, all three in capes, each one cradling cocoon-like a root character. When they opened and closed their arms, the effect was of beating insect wings—or the pulse of a growing tree.

After the roots slid out and wormed their way offstage, the three trees posed one in front of the other, branches spread, one high, one medium, one low, to create a multi-level effect. Yes, they were clearly trees, but they also resembled butterflies with outspread wings, casting a nice allusion to tree growth as metamorphosis. The dancers begin to rotate, slowly turning with incredible control while changing their arm levels. In a gorgeous closing moment, they circled with backs to each other, unfurling the silk into the shape of a tulip. As the fabric fluttered and settled, the lights dimmed. 

Jody Sperling in “Piece for a Northern Sky.” Photograph by Richard Velasco 

“Arbor” is an earnest tribute to its subject, yet nothing can match the pure spectacle of whirling silk that is Sperling’s solo, “Piece for a Northern Sky” to end the show. From 2016, the piece features a pure white silk cape originally created by Anais Romand and Anne Blanchard for the film “The Dancer,” based on Fuller’s life and choreographed by Sperling. The sheer volume of silk suggested a frothy white ocean wave. I can only imagine the weight and wildness of centrifugal force Sperling managed by waving and dipping her arms, extended by slender sticks to a wingspan of 12 feet. The rippling fabric floated up in a column to form the bugle of a cala lily, while stage lights beamed a glimmer of green onto the folds. Then in a psychedelic transformation, a giant peony opened in full circular bloom, with overlapping layers of silk highlighted in a pink glow—a dazzling representation of the Northern Lights. Burtner’s music became meditative and Sperling twirled and twirled like a Sufi dancer in a trance, then stopped on a dime—the evening a perfect blend of education and art.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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