Monday, September 22, 2008

Judy Williams on OYWPP: An Audience Member Looks Back

Judy Williams attended all 16 performances of OYWPP! What a wonderful gift to us for her to have participated as witness of this process! Following she recounts her experience of OYWPP, adding to the levels of documentation to this performance experiment.

One Year Wissahickon Park Project
Upon first hearing about the One Year Wissahickon Park Project, it struck a chord in me. Back in 1999 I did a piece for the Women’s Theatre Project which came out of my walking to work every day, noticing the world around me and how every block had a different character, dressing appropriately for the changes in weather and temperature throughout the seasons, zooming in on the sounds, the traffic, the people, the buildings, the trees and flowers, the birds, the air. When I read that Merian’s intent was “to shape a number of performance experiences in nature in order to experience their evolution over time, the seasons, temperature, and weather,” I felt a kindred spirit and knew I had to check it out. My boyfriend, Charles, has many fond memories of growing up exploring, mountain biking and rock climbing throughout the park, so I thought it would be a wonderful experience to share with him.

So, on a summery Sunday morning in October, Charles and I drove to see the first installment of OYWPP, at Livezey Falls. He knew where to park so that when we got out of the car the dance was right there. The dancers were situated on and around a stone wall across the creek that had broken away in the middle, so that some dancers were on one side and some on the other, but even though they were separated by the creek, the dancers were all a part of one whole. I immediately felt myself slowing down, listening, concentrating, giving in to the sensations of being out in nature. Charles and I walked alongside the creek, down a ways, and sat for a few minutes on a downed tree lying partway across the creek, talked for a few minutes to the couple who were fascinated by the unexpected scenario in front of them. Then we headed back the way we came, passing the dancers and walking up a ways, getting another view of them from a different perspective. Though I wasn’t working with a branch, I felt connected to the dancers because I felt like we all were observing, listening and being open to our surroundings.
I knew I would have to go to more performances of OYWPP. My curiosity was aroused. How would each location change the dance? How would the weather affect the dancers? I liked that the performances were all on a Sunday morning. I felt like I was going to church, was participating in a sacred ritual, connecting to God/myself/others/nature/the universe.

The second performance, in November, was along Forbidden Drive. It was definitely fall weather now. A lot of people were out and about, walking/running/biking/riding horses. Some looked confused, others looked amused, some paused for a few minutes before moving on, mostly I got the sense that the performance added a little extra something to their day. But there was one obnoxious woman on a horse who insisted that the dancers move out of the way, which they did slowly while continuing the dance, and then she complained the whole time she was riding through. And then she was gone and the dance continued to the end.

There were two performances in December, still part of the fall cycle but they both felt like winter. The first one was at Blue Bell Meadow, a very different space than the previous two, much bigger and open. The cold really kicked in, with a light sprinkling of snow on the ground and slight sleet-like precipitation in the air. I marveled at the dancers’ focus and concentration throughout the piece and felt connected to them through the challenge of trying to stay warm. Shavon afterward said icicles had formed on her eyelashes.

The second December performance, along the Mt. Airy Ave. path, was also cold and damp, though no snow. A friend joined Charles and myself. First we heard Toshi’s music, then we saw one dancer, then another and another, by the pond, at different spots along the path, high up on the bridge. With them being all spread out, there felt like more layers to the piece, more surprises. I got a smile from Merian – she realized I’m a regular.

The January performance started the winter cycle at Livezey Falls again. It was cold with some ice (Merian’s son was sliding around on it). This was my first time by myself; I was on the opposite side of the creek this time. Started up top on Forbidden Drive, slowly zigzagged down the steps. It was cold, but wonderfully sunny. At the bottom, I maneuvered around Toshi, then carefully made my way on the rocks downstream. Slowly, slowly, centering and balancing myself with each step, I didn’t want to slip and fall in the water. When I stopped to listen to the stream, feel the breeze and bask in the glorious sun, I felt connected to the dancers and at one with the environment around me.

The first February performance was on Forbidden Drive. Charles and I were running late. There was no parking in the closest lot so he dropped me off and went back to another lot. I hurried along the Drive, heard Toshi’s bells before I saw the dancers. Oh good, I didn’t miss it. I rounded a corner and they were slowly, slowly walking towards me, I slowly, slowly walked past them, turned around and ended with them. Though I missed most of the piece I felt at one with them for those few minutes.

A week later we were back at Blue Bell Meadow. It was another cold day made bearable by the sun. The light was bright, the sky was blue, the openness filled my spirit. There was an inch or so of snow that crunched with every step. It became part of the piece.

The winter cycle ended on a March day along the Mt. Airy Ave. path. Charles dropped me off, then went to look for some coffee. I meandered around, loving the different layers, checking out the dancers from many different angles, inching past Shavon high up on the bridge, then making my way down the steep, steep incline while holding onto the fallen tree to keep myself balanced. A little later, I looked up and there was Charles making his way towards me, down the hill among the trees. There were so many special moments.

Next, Livezey Falls again, the beginning of April. By myself again. It was starting to feel a little like spring in the air. I parked at Pachella Field off Henry Ave., had a good run down, down, down the long path to Forbidden Drive, then walked north to the site. It was a rainy day so I wore a poncho, so did most of the dancers. A fisherman on the stone wall was part of the dance – he was in purple, Noemi in red was next to him, they were a great contrast to all the subdued colors around them. As before, I zigzagged down the steps, past Toshi, south along the creek, then cut across the woods back up. Up top, I saw a large, single goldfish swimming down by Noemi and the fisherman. Another magical moment.

The end-of-April performance was along but not on Forbidden Drive, on the rocks at water’s edge instead. Last time I had offered to videotape; today Merian offered me a camera. Now I had to really slow down, I became part of the dance more intimately than before, slowly, slowly, slowly moving around and among the dancers, breathing, centering, every step a balancing act on all the rocks. When I neared Noemi, what a surprise, there was a little cove hidden behind her. A little later I was focusing on Olive when Toshi started throwing different sized rocks and stones into the water with great splashing sounds, but by the time I slowly turned the video camera to him, he was done. Darn. Charles had wandered off, later he told me he had run into Jumatatu, who was nowhere in sight during the whole piece.

There were two more spring performances, both in May. Charles and I biked to the first one, at Blue Bell Meadow. It was slightly chilly and gray at first, but then became sunny and warmer. I walked around, taking it all in, listening to the birds accompanying Toshi. The sound of the bat hitting the ball from two guys playing baseball nearby became part of the piece too.

The last of the spring cycle was along Mt. Airy Ave. path. The foliage was vivid and lush, I felt filled with the promise of spring. The anniversaries of both my parent’s deaths were within the previous week, so I meditated on them, felt their presence in the earth, trees, air. Afterwards, we visited the cemetery. It all was part of the dance.

The summer cycle took place four Sundays in June. Each of the last four performances was an ending. The last performance at Livezey Falls was on one of the most humid and hot days of the year, but it felt refreshing at the falls. I was on the far side of the creek (like the first time), never saw Merian because she was on the other side up on Forbidden Drive. Shavon and Olive were like goddesses, standing powerful and tall and full on the stone wall, welcoming and challenging the sun at the same time. I walked along the creek, talked to two young tattooed fishermen, they showed me a snake sunning on the rocks. I hadn’t seen a snake in years. Later, down by the water, I stuck my feet in – ahhhh… exquisite. I walked around in it, trying to keep my balance on the slippery rocks. Then, goodbye.

The next week, I brought my friend Cathy. The performance was along Forbidden Drive, on the rocks again. A lovely day, not so hot and humid as last week. We heard Toshi first (I always got a thrill when that happened), before we came upon the dancers. Juma and Merian were up on Forbidden Drive. Cathy & I talked briefly to a curious Asian woman who slowed down her walk to watch for a few minutes. I was telling Cathy about how slow the movement is and all of a sudden Merian made a sudden move, another, and then ended up moving a few feet away, that hadn’t happened before. I found out later some bugs were biting her. We walked down to the rocks where the other dancers were, took our shoes off, got our feet wet and walked around on the rocks and in the water. Again, Shavon and Olive stood out, this week they were water goddesses. The cutest curly-haired little girl was playing with her dad in the water. Little by little all her clothes came off as they had more and more fun. We were all part of the dance. Then, goodbye.

The following week at Blue Bell Meadow had the biggest audience yet. I had four people with me. The grass felt so good I walked around barefoot. There was an annoying car alarm that kept going off, but Toshi incorporated it into his music. He always amazes me. Then, goodbye.

The final performance was along the Mt. Airy Ave. path. As I walked down the path and neared the pond, I looked ahead, scanning for dancers spread out along the way. I didn’t see anyone and Shavon wasn’t at her spot atop the bridge. Then I saw everyone around the pond and the audience standing on one side watching. Oh, no. I felt disappointment, the piece felt changed, more static and presentational. Then I saw Jumatatu on the other side of the path and up the hill a little ways. Ah, that’s better. I decided to still do my exploring, down the path, up and over the bridge, saying my thank you’s along the way. I came back to the pond the back way and watched the audience watch the piece. When I got back to the path, Jumatatu started moving towards the others. As he was crossing the path, a woman on a horse stopped short. The horse’s nostrils flared. Instead of getting upset like the horse woman at an earlier performance, this woman got off the horse and calmly and firmly led the horse away. Jumatatu kept moving, and then the others joined in. They were all making their way to Merian, to honor and thank her for her vision and her grace. Then, goodbye.

Every performance was like a journey, an adventure. I was continually fascinated with everything. Always starting out by slowing down, feeling the elements, wondering if the dancers were experiencing their surroundings in similar ways. Finding my own challenges along the way. Feeling connected to the dancers and a communion with nature. Concentrating within and without. I loved it all.

Photos: Pepón Osorio

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