Think globally, dance locally

Think globally, dance locally

By January 24, 2010Press

By Caroline Palmer
Source: the Star Tribune
January 23, 2010

World sojourners Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, aka BodyCartography Project, undertake a new performance piece of global proportions

Many choreographers launch new works by entering the studio and sweating it out there for weeks until a dance is audience-ready.

For Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, the Sage Award-winning dance and video artists behind the BodyCartography Project, the process is quite different. Their preparation for “1/2 Life,” which is being staged at the Southern Theater on Thursday through Saturday, took them to a remote Japanese island that was home to a World War II gas factory and currently features a plush hotel and a population of unusually large, friendly rabbits.

This peculiar pairing of death and tourism troubled Bieringa and Ramstad, whose research already had taken them to old military fortifications in this country as well as into historical accounts on the development of the atom bomb and a crash course in nuclear physics. They envisioned a performance that would focus on the relationship between the body and science as well as nuclear proliferation and the planet’s deteriorating environment.

As if that weren’t heavy enough, they also wanted to look at global citizenship and connections among these Pacific Ocean neighbors: nuclear superpower United States, nuclear-free New Zealand and atomic survivor Japan, represented by collaborators from each country (Ramstad, Bieringa and guest performer Takemi Kitamura).

The issues are challenging, Bieringa admits, so they asked themselves: “Can we do this topic any justice and not be literal, not be didactic? We don’t want to reenact anything or revenge anything. There’s more complexity to history. Our stage is like a meta-site for these three countries and cultures, and we’re imagining ourselves in this larger world.”

It was a fitting realization for two people who could win a geography bee based on their passports. After studying jazz, ballet and “a lot of fake contact improvisation,” Bieringa left New Zealand at 18, eventually settling in San Francisco, where she launched the BodyCartography Project in 1997, directing its first large-scale site-specific event a year later.

Ramstad, who grew up in Minneapolis and studied improvisational dance, joined Bieringa in 1999. Partners in life and art, they moved to Minnesota in 2001. They estimate that they have created 170 outdoor performances, not to mention works in traditional spaces, and their dance films earn festival kudos. Their touring, commission and teaching schedules — Ramstad is creating a new work for Lyon Opera Ballet — have them constantly crisscrossing time zones to maintain full-time careers.

New Zealand’s Evening Post newspaper noted the “high visual impact” of one project, describing its imagery as “the eye’s equivalent of haiku.” And indeed, Bieringa and Ramstad deftly produce impressive work from basic resources. A 2007 work, “Holiday House 2,” set in their home, relied on the performers’ interactions with everyday objects and with one another, while suggesting deeper layers of dramatic experience.

For “1/2 Life,” the duo will use both choreographed and improvisational movement, as well as a 12-member chorus that Ramstad equated to the black-clad stage attendants in Kabuki theater who adjust sets and costumes in plain sight while you pretend not to see them. New York-based composer Zeena Parkins will provide music for “1/2 Life,” using a mix of early electronic instruments, wind sounds collected from the three represented countries and her own electric harp live during the show.

“Dance is a tool in which I can learn about almost anything,” said Bieringa. “Once you have people watching other people, there’s empathy,” adds Ramstad. And, one hopes, a shared interest in survival.

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