hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture September 2020


Dancing amid the gardens and fields

BodySonnet collective set to perform in Stockbridge, Chatham


The dance group BodySonnet will perform Sept. 4-5 at Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Mass., and Sept. 6-12 at PS21 in Chatham, N.Y.


The dance group BodySonnet will perform Sept. 4-5 at Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Mass., and Sept. 6-12 at PS21 in Chatham, N.Y. Courtesy photo


Contributing writer


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, the daughter of the king of Ethiopia 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, Mass., ParkeHarrison knew Daniel Chester French’s sculpture at Chesterwood, his historic home in Stockbridge. Returning now after years of studying and performing in New York City, she is drawing on “Andromeda” for inspiration.

This month, ParkeHarrison and her collective of emerging artists, BodySonnet, will create a new work in residency with Berkshire Pulse, the dance center in Great Barrington, and perform in French’s gardens at Chesterwood on Sept. 4-5. Later, they’ll head across the state line to Columbia County for a series of performances Sept. 6, 7, 11 and 12 at PS21 (Performance Spaces for the 21st Century) in Chatham.

“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, ParkeHarrison 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 The Juilliard School, ParkeHarrison often worked with fellow dancer and choreographer Sean Lammer. They would perform in community spaces around the city, she said, and in hospitals and places of care -- for people who were sad and tired and in pain.
As they graduated, ParkeHarrison said she and Lammer were not seeing ways to create after college. 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,” where Juilliard is based, she said.
Jake Nahor and Mio Ishikawa joined them to found BodySonnet in November 2019.

“Since then,” ParkeHarrison 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, in collaboration with the Harlow Chamber Players, a network of musicians founded by Hannah Lynn Cohen, a Berkshires native.

This month, they’ll return for the newest in a series of collaborations, first at French’s historic house and studio in Stockbridge, and then in Chatham, with the Neave Trio and film and installation artist David Michalek, at PS21.


Dance in a distanced summer
As the pandemic has forced indoor performance spaces to remain closed this summer, dancers in the Berkshires have begun to move outdoors.

Berkshire Pulse is holding dance classes on the lawns at Chesterwood and at The Mount.
BodySonnet has spent much of the summer at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass., where it created “Arena,” an evening-length work to perform in the fields on the school property.
ParkeHarrison said she is 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.
But in Natick, the group could rehearse “in a beautiful studio, and we could partner and touch,” ParkeHarrison said. “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, with insects and 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 operatic.

They also created a shorter work, “Volta,” on Walnut Hill’s 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, explaining that the music and the dancers’ 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.

In Natick, 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, Clarke’s Viola Sonata was one of the top works in a competition at the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music, a precursor to Tanglewood, and in 1921 her Piano Trio again won acclaim.


Sculpting bodies with Berkshire Pulse
In the Berkshires, BodySonnet will create a new work and perform outdoors in French’s gardens at Chesterwood, in the long evening light around sunset on Sept. 4 and 5.

ParkeHarrison said she looks 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.

Designing a dance in the round is a new exploration, ParkeHarrison said. 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,” she said.

But working with 360-degree perspective means “letting go of control,” she said. “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 will draw influences from French’s sculpture, 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, and the abstract shapes they form with their bodies.

They will perform to live music presented by Stockbridge violist and composer Bram Fisher. As BodySonnet talked with him about this project, about contemporary dancers stepping into French’s 19th-century studio, ParkeHarrison said, Fisher suggested the concept of music moving through time. Fisher will pair works by the contemporary composer Gyorgy Kurtag with Bach’s cello suites transcribed for viola.

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


Exploring stillness
Overlapping and following their work at Chesterwood, BodySonnet will explore stillness in another field, improvising dance to live music in the apple orchard at PS21.

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. The 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 its own skill, different from agile speed, ParkeHarrison said.

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

She added that 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.”


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


ParkeHarrison said 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 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,” she said. “There can be time for reflection and real conversation, and audiences that understand, and audiences that don’t understand.”

That feeling is part of what 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 locally. 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.

BodySonnet will perform at Chesterwood at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 4 and 5 at Chesterwood and at 11 a.m. Sept. 6 and 12 and 5:30 p.m. Sept. 7 and 11 at PS 21. The PS21 shows will last for three hours, but members of the audience may come and go during the performances.

Berkshire Pulse will hold outdoor classes at Chesterwood and at The Mount into the fall for as long as the fall weather allows.