October 15, 2010

Dancing in the Forest. ~ Stephanie Lee

“You go to the place inside of you and I go to the place inside of mine. And we’ll meet together as One”.  ~ Nicole Dagesse

I lay on the prickly pine needles for the final time. Scratched up with all that good lovin’ from Mama Nature. Rejoicing in the resonance of our last performance and honoring the magic. This is why I said yes when Nicole first invited me to perform with her in the Roosevelt National Forest.

Unlike the nine other talented dancers and three gifted musicians who jumped enthusiastically on this project, I was the clear odd ball skeptic. Yours truly is a self proclaimed city girl who had never camped, hiked or climbed trees in her life, let alone danced in the forest.

But this opportunity came at a time when I desperately needed some magic. And maybe, just maybe, I’d find it there.

The tranquility of the site solidified my commitment. I couldn’t believe its gritty yet blissful beauty when Nicole first took us up. It’s a little hide-away camping site 40 minutes up Magnolia Road, littered with domineering boulders and musical aspen groves. Understatedly beautiful and ready for our collaborative adventure.

Photo credit: Nicole Dagesse

Unfortunately it was no longer lush and green; I cringed at Nicole’s vision to juxtapose our bare skins against the dry stinging weeds and cakey rock moss summer had left. Stale branches and bits of glass gave my feet a rotten first-day welcome; I took it as a precursor of the challenges to come but something in me refused to give up.

For seven weeks, we all had to dedicate four-five hours of our Sunday afternoons to rehearse. Honestly, I started out feeling like such a wimp—getting carsick, getting lost on the climb down, falling down numerous times in clumsy chunky hiking boots…As a trained dancer, my sheer inability to connect with the site was embarrassingly apparent among my fellow performers.

Photo credit: Nicole Dagesse

God knows what made me persevere, every ounce of stubbornness I had left was wrapped with a fear of injuries and the unknowns of the forest.

I was afraid of scampering up the trees, rolling around the prickly field, getting bitten by a vengeful snake or stung by an arrogant bee. I vehemently disliked throwing myself onto unfriendly nettles and hiking 30 feet down on a rock wall that had no clear trail or safety rope.

Deep down, I still viewed Nature as a suspicious threat and She treated me exactly the same way; as a stranger with distrustful intentions.

But exploring the possibilities of this space started to inform my body and mind in ways that the stage could not. Simply spending so much time outdoors in the solitude of the mountains changed my attitude towards our ecosystem; I grew to notice, love and respect the constant cycle of death and rebirth.

The interaction of human bodies amidst such an unusual, unpredictable environment and live music simply transformed my understanding of the dancing body and stretched my perception of limitation. What the monotony of culture takes away from us, dancing in the forest brings it back. Threefold.

Performance day arrived, I remember throwing myself at the site and letting all doubt and reservations fly. As a team, we immersed ourselves in harnessing the energy of every tree, stump, and stone, embodying it, and giving it back. Typically as dancers, we focus on our audiences. But in this piece, we seemed to be dancing for our physical site, a higher life purpose rather than to please our distant human observers.

On our very last afternoon, my favorite branch, the one that I had always relied on to support me, broke. I fell about two feet but somehow another branch caught me and I clawed on the trunk, desperate for a grip of some sort.

Bark showered on my eyelashes; making it hard for me to find my path up again. I was so stunned at the betrayal that I clung on hard; angry and hurt and somehow…apologetic.

It hit me that my tree and I were actually fighting. That this, was the closest we have ever had to an actual conversation. Somehow, along this journey, I’d started to think of my tree as a friend. A loyal supportive one who could nevertheless also get mad at me and let out her rants.

I had started to think of Nature as a person who had her own needs and wants. As I hit the gnarly roots in a flurry of dust, I realized that I climbed down safely and had not bothered to look down even once to see where my foot would be.

Photo credit : Tery Spataro

Had I suddenly turned into this fearless tree climber or did my tree just finally forgive me and decided to help support me down safely?

The 300-odd people who came to watch our shows were predictably in awe of how beautifully we swung, rolled, flung, swayed and pulsed with our site and vice versa. We ended each performance by asking our audience to lie down with us in the sun on the prickly fall grass and breath the stillness in. That was truly transformative; to feel numerous bodies breathing on the same grass as yours and experiencing the unmovable, secure earth for themselves too.

I sat up after reaching the end of my savasana and many were still lying down, breathing in love and beauty. The calm smiles and gentle, reluctant opening of the eyes informed me more about their experience than any words could have. I’m so thankful for all those who came to watch us and let themselves be transported into another world. In this wondrous forgotten corner of Colorado, aptly named ‘Narnia’, I’m so grateful to have found my tree. My skin bears the residue of our friendship and my heart safeguards the memories of suspended thought as the earth took over our dance.

Check out more photos by Wendel Smith here:

Steph Lee is a bundle of energy moonlighting as a dancer, writer, blogger, and college student. When not taking long walks alone to ponder over life’s nuances, she mentors kids with the I Have A Dream’ Foundation, volunteers as a PR/Marketing Manager for Catalystic Cadence Collective, a non profit visceral arts company and…tries to finish her homework on time.

She is currently doing one thing everyday for 180 days, that ‘scares’ her, she writes about those Fear Challenges at initiative180.

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