BodySonnet dance collective embodies history at Chesterwood

A woman turns her head to the sky. She arches with her shoulders open, her head back. She draws one knee up to press her foot into the rock. She closes her hands and her eyes. She is holding herself taut. Moscelyne ParkeHarrison remembers Andromeda. In the Greek myth, she is the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, and she is chained to a stone on the coast as a sacrifice to a sea monster that threatens her home and her people.

Growing up in South Egremont, ParkeHarrison knew Daniel Chester French’s sculpture at Chesterwood. Returning now after years of studying and performing in New York City, she is drawing on Andromeda for inspiration.

In September, ParkeHarrison and her collective of emerging artists, BodySonnet, will create a new work in residency with Berkshire Pulse and perform in French’s gardens.

“The whole group are dancers and choreographers,” she said, “and also web designers, photographers. We share ideas and learn from everything around us.”

More and more, she said, she sees artists moving away from a director at the front of the room and toward this kind of collaboration, a shared excitement in the play of ideas.

They have come together to find new places and ways to share them.

In college at Juliard, ParkeHarrison often worked with fellow dancer and choreographer Sean Lammer. They would perform in community spaces around the city, she said, in hospitals and places of care, for people who were sad and tired and in pain.

As they graduated, ParkeHarrison and Lammer were not seeing ways to create, she said, so they formed their own. They wanted to engage with people outside the theater spaces they knew.

“We were basically in school in the Lincoln Center,” she said.

Jake Nahor and Mio Ishikawa joined them to found BodySonnet in November 2019.

“Since then,” she said, “because of the nature of the art world, and the challenges of the finances of the art world, and the availability of stages, we have moved toward creative site-specific performances — in fields, on racquetball courts, in gardens.”

They created their first project in the Berkshires last fall and winter, at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, with the Harlow Chamber Players, a network of musicians founded by a Berkshire native violinist, Hannah Lynn Cohen.

In September they return for the newest in a series of collaborations, first at French’s historic house and studio in Stockbridge, and then in Chatham, N.Y., with the Neave Trio and film and installation artist David Michalek at Performance Space 21.

BodySonnet, a collective of dancers and choreographers, performs new work. Press photo courtesy of the artists.

BodySonnet, a collective of dancers and choreographers, performs new work. Press photo courtesy of the artists.

Dance in a distanced summer

As the pandemic has closed indoor performance spaces this summer, and plays have opened under tents, some dancers in the Berkshires have begun to move outdoors.

Berkshire Pulse is holding dance classes on the lawns at Chesterwood and at the Mount.

In the pandemic, BodySonnet has spent much of the summer at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, creating Arena, an evening-length work to perform in their fields.

ParkeHarrison has felt thankful for a place where the company could come together.

“We had been away from each other, from other dancers, from dance, for four months,” she said, “and here we (could rehearse) in a beautiful studio, and we could partner and touch … we were relearning how to be together, and how to trust.”

They created the new work indoors first. And then they brought it outside.

“Rehearsing in the studio,” she said, “we realized how specific the environment is to dance. When we tried to re-sent the work in the field, we realized how different it felt,” with the grass and the sounds of summer insects and the sunlight.

“We’re dealing with negotiations,” she said, between the complete freedom to create and the background of the quarantine, the beauty of the landscape and the grass underfoot.

The dancers created four solos, strung together with short moments often inspired by film, and excerpts of music, from ambient to vocal to operatic.

They also created a shorter work, Volta, on the indoor / outdoor stage, with music by the Neave Trio, a music collective based in Cambridge.

Live music lends itself to site-specific choreography, ParkeHarrison said. The music and their embodiment, their movement and the landscape build on each other and move people in different ways. The sounds of cicadas or wind in the leaves can blend into the work.

Here the dancers moved to live music by the 20th-century viola virtuoso and composer

Rebecca Clarke, who won international recognition in her lifetime … and has a connection to the Berkshires. In 1919, her Viola Sonata was one of the top works in a competition in the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music, a precursor to Tanglewood, and her in 1921 her Piano Trio again won acclaim.

BodySonnet, a collective of dancers and choreographers, performs new work. Press photo courtesy of the artists.

BodySonnet, a collective of dancers and choreographers, performs new work. Press photo courtesy of the artists.

Sculpting bodies with Berkshire Pulse

In the Berkshires in September, BodySonnet will create a new work and perform outdoors in French’s gardens at Chesterwood, in the long evening light around sunset. ParkeHarrison looked forward to working with French’s sculptures outside the studio where he sculpted the Lincoln Memorial. The place itself intrigues her.

“It’s set up perfectly,” she said.

The audience can move freely outside the garden or sit at a quiet distance to watch the dancers from any angle. BodySonnet will create the work to be seen from 360 degrees. This is a new exploration, she said, designing a dance in the round. She is used to thinking of her movements from the audience’s perspective, but not from all directions at once.

“… I was in the studio the other day, and I sculpt my body in terms of where people’s eyes can see it. (Working in 360 degrees) is letting go of control. There are many avenues into a work, and added layers to that, music and space, angle, how the architecture changes between people and in a person’s shape.”

The dancers are drawing influence from French’s sculpture, she said. They are translating his still forms into movement. Andromeda is his unfinished final work.

“He started it when he was 80 years old,” she said. “He’s known for Lincoln, and Lincoln is angular — in a way he feels a bit harsh, beautiful. He is meant to be impactful. Andromeda is more fluid.”

The dancers will play with the physical language in his work, their gestures, the abstract shapes they form with their bodies.

They will perform to live music with Stockbridge violist and composer Bram Fisher. As BodySonnet talked with him about this project, about contemporary dancers stepping into French’s 19th-century studio, Fisher suggested music moving through time. He will pair contemporary fragments with Bach’s cello suites transcribed for viola, and he will perform live as they dance.

“It’s great to have a collaboration and interpretation in another artistic language,” ParkeHarrison said.

Exploring stillness

Overlapping and following their work at Chesterwood, she and BodySonnet will explore stillness in another field, improvising dance to live music in the apple orchard at Performance Space 21 in Chatham, N.Y.

They will rejoin the Neave Trio to work with David Michalek in a residency for his ongoing work, Portraits in Dramatic Time.

Michalek has worked around the world in photography and drawing, film and sound, installations and performances. Husband of internationally acclaimed dancer Wendy Whelan, former principal and now associate artistic director of the New York City Ballet, Michalek often works with dancers and actors. ParkeHarrison said, and in this residency, he is interested in working with live dance in extreme slow motion.

At PS21 he will film BodySonnet in the apple orchard, in two performances in the morning and two in the evening, and here too, people are welcome to come and watch.

To hold almost still and move with care is it’s own skill, ParkeHarrison said, different from agile speed.

“It takes physical strength, tension and intention,” she said. “You have to drop completely into this other dimension.”

Grassroots art grows local roots

She is looking forward to creating a new work near home.

“I love that it’s specific to the Berkshires,” she said. “I grew up here and moved to New York and Chicago. To return to the Berkshires and relearn a lot of these things, it’s amazing, and to see the development, institutions inviting dance into their space, new groups and platforms forming. I’m happy to be back.”

With BodySonnet, ParkeHarrison wants to form new community relationships, in the spirit of her work in college. In the pandemic, she said, that work can become harder in some ways and easier in others. Dancing in physical spaces becomes challenging. She sees a growing interest in tools and spaces to share dance online: “We’re becoming more virtually eloquent.”

But no digital experience replaces the immediacy of bodies moving together to music, she said, or the feel of earth under their feet, or the scent and sound of a garden in late summer at dusk.

She wants to share dance in places where people feel comfortable, and she is passionate about making new connections.

“We’re in such an interesting place right now,” she said, “in society and culture. People need art more than ever. They want it.

“These challenges open more doors, especially (for me) as an emerging artist. It’s the flip side of the pandemic — it’s shaking up older institutions and providing more spaces for those of us who have always been uncertain and unstable and flexible because they had to be.”

People are leaving the cities, she said, and coming to places that don’t feel as saturated with dance.

“New York is inspiring, but it doesn’t have to be so grinding all the time. There can be time for reflection and real conversation, and audiences that understand, and audiences that don’t understand.”

That feeling, in part, has brought her back to the Berkshires. And she wants the Berkshires to feel dance made here.

“When I was growing up,” she said. “I felt a lack of creating, of dance created and shared here. There can be a feeling in small towns that art is imported.”

She lives in New Marlborough now, and she grew up dancing here. Her mother, Shana ParkeHarrison, was her first ballet teacher, at what was then Flowering Child, the organization that would grow into Berkshire Pulse. Her mother and father are now mixed-media photographers, and ParkeHarrison studied for many years with Pulse’s artistic director, Bettina Montano.

Her family moved away, and then she left for college in the city. Coming back to the Berkshires after time away, she sees new connections forming between artists and creative places and the communities they belong to.

She sees them in larger and smaller creative places, she said. She sees Berkshire Pulse growing and widening its impact on the community. When she was growing up in the Berkshires, Jacob’s Pillow International Dance Festival was a place to see beautiful performances, but she did not feel the Pillow coming into the community as it does now.

She wants to open new spaces, for people to see and feel a power in movement, and for them to have the chance to speak through it, in places where they feel welcome and unafraid.

Sunset glimmers at Performance Space 21 in Chatham, N.Y.
Performance Space 21

Sunset glimmers at Performance Space 21 in Chatham, N.Y.

BodySonnet will perform at Chesterwood at 6:30 p.m. on September 4 and 5, and at Performance Space 21 at 11 a.m. on September 6 and 12 and 5:30 p.m. on September 7 and 11. BerkshirePulse will hold outdoor classes at Chesterwood and at the Mount into the fall for as long as the fall weather allows.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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