On Friday, June 2nd, 2017, at a few minutes past eight p.m., I found myself in a church on the Upper West Side sitting in a handmade chair, alongside other audience members in handmade chairs. (Furniture, as I knew from meeting Reverend Martin F. Hauser, pastor of the Lutheran church, Grace & St. Paul’s, that had been constructed individually by craftspeople.)
This was not the first time I found myself at the church, having attended, on several occasions, work by The Ume Group, a physical theatre company in residence at the church. When I met the pastor previously, it had been at a panel discussion on theatre and the environment, where the Ume Group showed a developmental selection of work — and now, on June 2nd, they held a performance of by wing, fin, hoof, or foot.
When I entered, there were small reunions: people I hadn’t seen in a long time, that I’d gone to college with; people who I’d meant to have coffee with but it had gotten away from us. I entered into a community, a collective, it felt, as I chatted, before taking my seat in that handmade chair. The piece is a meditation on Migration and movement of humans and animals (though perhaps that distinction is redundant).
I spoke with the artistic director of The Ume Group, Keelie Sheridan, who also directed by wing, fin, hoof, or foot, about the project.
AMY: I’d love first, if you could just give me a sense of where the origin of this piece stems from, and the history of its development.
KEELIE: The earliest origin was that Valentin, the costume designer [who is from Germany] and I, had gone to school together in Ireland. And I was away in the year leading up to the election and it was a really strange experience to be an American abroad during that time — to be both deeply affected by what was going on and also having a kind of distance, even though it’s my own government.
At the same time, Brexit was happening, and part of the island is part of the UK, and having lots of Northern Irish friends and Scottish friends who overwhelmingly voted against Brexit, and felt surprised in how the country was handling international affairs and immigration — that was the beginning kindling of it all. That feeling of suddenly feeling like a stranger to your country when it felt so familiar a day before. . .
The audience is seated tennis-court style (facing one another in two long rows). Above us is a window featuring a large, colorful stained glass image of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the quote I saw going around online about Jesus, especially in the wake of the United States Presidential Election last year: “Jesus was a refugee,” a quote attributed to Pope Francis from 2014.
KEELIE: I was examining my own personal migrations, of my family — it was something I couldn’t escape when I came back to the States. This real, deep curiosity of the migrations of everybody I met, or knew, or interacted with, I couldn’t get it out of my head, that web of movement and mobility that has conspired to make anybody who is not an indigenous person end up here.
I am someone who has moved three times in the last six years. I am born from two immigrants, who moved here independent of family. In some ways, I feel this makes me hyper-sensitive to the ideas of groups and communities. I think often of the people I orbit, and how close or far away I am from them. I live on the opposite side of the country from my closest blood relations. When I moved for the second time, from New York City to Pittsburgh, I calculated the distance: approximately 368 miles.
KEELIE: I was struck by this idea that lots of animals migrate and it’s so natural, and this idea that we should make laws to influence the movement of people. . . I have a hard time wrapping my brain around how one would begin to do that. And who owns places.
The travel ban on people to and from seven countries, also known as Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” more colloquially called the Muslim ban, hangs in haunting conversation with this performance. Not ghostly, because it is still so much in the air, but half-dead, like a supernatural force. Except of course, this is a force that humans made against other humans. And that when this piece began forming, this law was not yet in existence. The artistic foresight is ugly and truthful, and I cannot watch certain scenes without projecting labels onto the performers, in my mind: a metaphor for our struggles, so prescient I want to close my eyes from it.
AMY: So some of the dichotomies that struck me were: herd versus individual, pop versus choral. It seemed like often, an individual was taking on a character and then the group was an outside force, or a larger force, reacting in opposition. Also, you had these pop songs and these choral chants happening. Can you talk about that?
KEELIE: There’s something about the personal and the private. . . I asked people to pick songs from the first time they were able to drive a car, or had autonomous mobility. To get away or go towards something, as their own adult. That’s where the songs come from.
AMY: I had a moment when one of the songs come in, and it’s interesting, related to migration. I bought that album when I was evacuating from a hurricane. We stopped in a Wal-Mart, and my parents and I had been driving somewhere, and I bought that CD. And mandatory evacuation of a place, that’s also a kind of migration.
KEELIE: That’s so wild.
Sections of the Ume Group’s performance feel as though we are watching animal-human hybrids. This imagery, aided by fantastic costume design by Valentin Peter Eisele, evokes a sense of distance and archetype for me. It feels almost as though I am watching a fairy tale, or an animal documentary about conflict within an ecosystem. And then, a throbbing base of sound comes on, and the bodies are writhing and dancing in a way that feels so human, perhaps in part because it thrums with a quality of wanting to escape oneself.
These scenes would then drop into more animal-like scenes, often, and the juxtaposition of a such a hedonistic-looking human world, and such a survival-focused non-human one pushed me towards ideas of climate change, and of humans’ mindless impact on those living around us (not to say nothing for our much more effective, direct impacts related to things like food and land resources). I thought, “What does a frog or a bird or a fish think of that bass sound? Do they understand it? Is it distressing? What do we do to them with that sound?”
AMY: I’m thinking of how humans influence other humans’ migration, but also other animals’ migration. And how climate change and humans have altered those patterns.
KEELIE: The way we came up with some of the pieces was, I asked everyone to devise a piece based on the mass-human migration that they were each researching, but they had to perform it as animals. And then we did the reverse, and looked at their animal migrations. Not even intentionally, we began researching the historic animal migrations and then what has happened over the last ten, fifteen years as a result of global warming and climate change.
KEELIE: When you look at the core, that people just move towards or away from resources and conflict, and animals do the same thing, it’s a really similar migration. Some of the animal migrations, like the dragonfly, scientists aren’t sure why they’re doing them, but they’ve still noticed changes in the pattern that are obviously very linked to human interference, and that’s fascinating.
Watching the Ume Group move through such areas of thought, and topics varying and rife with personal and distant conflict — I find relief in watching a group of people physicalize all of these complicated questions and subjects, turning them into fluid motion that is, sometimes simultaneously, unsettling and gorgeous.
Keelie tells me that the concept of having ideas wash over the audience remained central as they built this performance. There need be no answers here. And as the piece ends, and the lights come up, and I squirm to reclaim circulation in my body (a kind of internal migration on a cellular level), I find I don’t have any answers. But I watched this herd move through difficulty, and joined it for a time. And I look at the dewy cast, and fidgeting audience members, each waking up in our bodies, our own paths of movement resuming.
New York, NY – The Ume Group will present by wing, fin, hoof, or foot, a newly devised meditation on migration, immigration and presence, at the Church of Grace & St. Paul on W 71st. Street in NYC from June 2nd – June 24th, 2017.
Tickets range from $15-75 (with concessions for students/ seniors/ artists and an option to help subsidize tickets) and can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2950640.
About The Ume Group
The Ume Group is a New York-based dance/physical theatre ensemble dedicated to sharing traditions and developing new work. We believe that a good performance artist is constantly learning, creating, teaching, and performing. We work in physical disciplines ranging from butoh dance, gymnastics, yoga and martial arts to ceíli dance, clowning and commedia.
Hailed by critics for their “commanding, physically impressive performances” (The Village Voice) and “risky physical vulnerability” (nytheatre.com), their work has engaged audiences across the US, from Hollywood to Brooklyn. The Ume Group celebrated their Five Year Anniversary at The Irondale Center in Brooklyn in 2015. Most recently, The Ume Group launched their first company-wide Social Action Project–a series of street performances inspired by the individual activism of ensemble members.
About Valentin Peter Eisele
With a BA in Information Design, years of experience in Graphic Design and collaborations with several theaters in Germany, Valentin Peter focused on Stage Design in the MFA program at The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Dublin, Ireland. With a keen interest in creating haptic and visual experiences in the theatre space, he is currently working on Set and Costume Designs for the independent dance theatre company Backsteinhaus Produktion and the production house Theater Rampe. He combines different design approaches and experiments with creative techniques in all aspects of his work.
For more information, please visit http://www.theumegroup.org/.
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