Since 1987, Deborah Abel Dance Company has presented modern dance productions of the highest caliber in Boston, Massachusetts, and abroad. Based in Lexington, MA, the company aims “to remind us of a level of connection with ourselves and others that gets buried in everyday life, and which the arts are uniquely qualified to uncover.”
I remember my first introduction to Abel’s choreography in the fall of 2011. Through a fateful flurry of mutual connections, I had been invited to replace one of the female leads in the company’s production “Calling to You,” which was set to debut a few months later in Boston before touring India by invitation of the Indian government. With my background in ballet, modern, and classical Indian dance in the Odissi style, I stepped into my first rehearsal with Abel’s company having never performed her work, yet feeling a sense of inexplicable belonging. Her movement embodied all of the styles I had trained in both physically and mentally, stretching oneself athletically (through weight-shared partnering and full-bodied openness akin to my work in ballet and modern), while emphasizing details of the face, hands, and spirit (harkening the mudras, facial expressions, and storytelling of my Odissi training). There was a professional mindfulness among Abel’s dancers—an understanding that in order to genuinely perform their characters’ metaphysical journeys onstage, they would first need to undergo this same soul-searching in their own personal lives. It was this authenticity of Abel’s work—and her company members’ wholehearted openness to not only dance, but to truly live and breathe their roles in the studio—that made me feel emotionally and physically ignited as a performer.
Now, four years since my last performance with the company, Abel is on the cusp of presenting her newest work, “The Wild Divine,” which debuts at the Tsai Performance Center in Boston on March 17 and 18, 2018. Similar to “Calling to You,” this work once again calls upon its performers and viewers alike to undergo a spiritual exploration, heightened by the music of resident composer (and Abel’s husband) Lee Perlman.
According to Abel, “The Wild Divine” is based on the true story of a friend who tragically passed away of ALS in her 40s. “It tells the story of a woman who has fallen very ill,” Abel tells me. “As her body is failing, her inner journey begins. Her friends offer her healing in the ‘Women’s Healing Circle.’ Letting go of her deeply held identity with her body opens doors to her unexplored inner world and the extraordinary freedom, light, love, spaciousness, and ultimate connectedness to the greater whole. This is a story of healing,” she goes on to say, “unfolding as we glimpse the magical states experienced on the spiritual journey of inner self discovery.”
Playing the lead of “The Wild Divine” is Wendy Lawson, a mature dancer with whom I shared the stage in “Calling to You,” and whose work as a performer beautifully bridges the emotional and physical layers inherent in Abel’s choreography. “The Wild Divine” marks Lawson’s fourth production with the company, having previously performed in “The World Is Breathing” (2007), “The Beauty Road” (2009), and “Calling to You” (Boston 2012, India Tour 2012, and Boston 2014). When asked about this production, Lawson admits the process has been noticeably different.
“Deborah’s process in creating and developing choreography has been more collaborative with the dancers than in previous productions,” states Lawson. “The vision she and her husband, Lee, desired to manifest has required an even greater degree of personal vulnerability, inquiry, insight, and improvisational movement from the dancers to bring it to life.”
One difference since past performances is the official redefining of Abel’s movement style, which she now calls “Bhakti Modern,” a melding of western psychology and eastern intentionality. In 2016, Abel toured her Bhakti Modern masterclass through southern India where she taught at Chennai’s conservatory of music and dance, Kalakshetra, University of Hyderabad, and the spiritual community, Auroville. Since giving her modern dance genre a formal title, Abel has experienced a greater confidence in “being it fully.”
“This is who I am,” she told me (with eyes beaming and chest tall). “This is what I’ve been doing since I started choreographing and just didn’t know it at the time. I’m no longer wondering if the dance community is going to be open to it [because] it’s authentically ‘me.’”
In January, I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of Abel’s rehearsals as the company refined a section of the work titled “Deeper Still.” I watched as the dancers channeled the full breadth of Abel’s choreography—juxtaposing moments of athletically primal muscularity against the luxurious melting of ever-shifting, sculptural vignettes.
Among the six dancers present was Dorothy Anderson, a former competitive gymnast and diver, who took the time to discuss with me her understanding of Bhakti Modern and her relationship to the production as a whole. Anderson, who additionally studied Graham technique for three years at the School of the Toronto Dance Theatre, describes her training as “an excellent foundation to layer other styles of dance onto. Graham built my core strength and trained me to move from my center. I learned how satisfying it is to initiate movement from the core.
“Bhakti [Modern] technique is ideologically complementary in that the experience of dance originates within the self, and the catalyst for moving is emotional intention,” she explains. Anderson has found that the experience of performing Abel’s choreography is “emotionally meaningful, with every movement phrase expressing a human narrative. Bhakti [Modern] facilitates connection with other dancers, with the audience, and with one’s own soul.”
Similar to Anderson, Lawson feels a unique kinship to the central character she has been cast to play—having recently undergone her own unfolding, as a human being, woman, and artist—yet she simultaneously views this character as being globally accepted as well. “In truth, my character represents every human being,” notes Lawson. “She is a woman whose body begins to fail. As her dear friends lovingly surround her, she finds healing, in the form of wholeness, through an otherworldly experience of her truest nature. When she returns from this experience to her failing body, she knows her true essence. This is her healing.”
Lawson’s take on her character’s journey harmonizes with Abel’s own impetus behind the work. In contrast to her last production, “Calling to You,” “‘The Wild Divine’ has quite a different story; it has a different energy,” Abel explains. “We’re still dealing with love; we’re still dealing with the inner issues of the soul, the heart, and healing … but the storyline is different. [“Calling to You”] was very romantic, and this is not that kind of concert. There is a piece about romantic love, but it’s more like an offshoot, because the true focus [of “The Wild Divine”] is instead on the [power of the] group and the healing of one woman—her story.”
It is this story, this singular woman’s road to healing, that remains the central force of the company’s new work, and as the opening of “The Wild Divine” draws near, it is clear that Lawson is ready to tell it. “[Is the role] physically and emotionally challenging?” she asks. “Yes. [But it’s] worth all the time, body and heart aches, energy, and courage to grow as a dancer and human being.”
Deborah Abel Dance Company performs “The Wild Divine” at the Tsai Performance Center in Boston, MA, March 17 and 18, 2018.
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