Murielle Elizéon and Tommy Noonan: They Are All

Tuesday, Jun. 25 & Wednesday, Jun. 26, 8 p.m., $33

Von der Heyden Studio Theater, Durham

In the premiere of They Are All, the new work by Murielle Elizéon and Tommy Noonan, you’ll see a multigenerational cast of fourteen dancing to an original soundscape by Shana Tucker. You’ll see them moving through relations and formations that suggest turning spirals, crisscrossing tracks, and tributaries flowing into a river. You’ll see biometric data about one dancer’s breathing projected behind the cast, externalizing their internal experience in real time.

What you won’t see, if the show comes off as intended, is that some of the dancers are professionals, while others have never set foot on a stage—let alone at the American Dance Festival—and that more than half of them have Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s is a nervous-system disorder that affects motor control, speed, and balance; about sixty thousand Americans, most of them sixty or older, are diagnosed with it annually. In recent years, research has shown the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s. Mark Morris Dance Company (which performs its Beatles extravaganza, Pepperland, at ADF this week) started its “Dance for PD” classes in Brooklyn. They soon spread across the country, including to Durham, where they were eventually taken under the auspices of ADF, as Byron Woods detailed in our July 4, 2018 issue.

But if you’re familiar with the highly personal and path-breaking work of Elizéon and Noonan, who co-direct the internationally inclined performance lab Culture Mill in Saxapahaw, you won’t be surprised to hear that they’re carving their own lane through this context in three important ways.

One, they’re viewing Parkinson’s through an “artistic perspective on movement as opposed to a scientific one,” as Elizéon says. Two, the participants aren’t dancing choreography in a repetitive, mastery-based sense, but helping to devise choreography that emerges from their own movement palettes, their personal virtuosity. And three, it’s been as much about providing the choreographers with new tools as the opposite.

You might assume that Elizéon and Noonan have a personal connection with Parkinson’s—which, of course, they now do. But initially, their focus was simply on multigenerational, untraditional dance work that minimized artifice and control. They spent years working in Europe before they moved to Noonan’s home state, and their friends in Germany’s Theater Freiburg were working on a Parkinson’s-centered university project involving dancers, choreographers, neuroscientists, philosophers, and more. 

“What was really revolutionary was that researchers were dancing and experiencing their bodies in collaboration with people with Parkinson’s, who are considered experts in their own movement, creating a common experiential framework,” Noonan says. “We wanted to build on that and create a project with dual aims: seeding the ground for new conceptual approaches to research and giving us a whole different set of conditions to create work. Working with people who are experts in loss of control aids us in thinking about how to produce dance differently.”

The cast of They Are All consists of five professional dancers and nine people with Parkinson’s or other movement disorders, all of whom have been in Elizéon and Noonan’s weekly classes at ADF, alongside scientists and researchers, since March.

“The neuroscientist at Duke we’ve been working with, Dr. Jeff Hoder, said, ‘Wow, the way you structure improvisation around imagery in a nonjudgmental way and use an artistic framework to create a relationship to movement is totally different from a standard physical-therapy perspective,’” Noonan says. “In his view, for people with Parkinson’s, any movement is good. All that matters is their emotional and cognitive investment.”

That can come from doing a familiar activity in a new way, or just from loving what you’re doing, Noonan says. He and Elizéon are already prone to working from improvisation rather than a predetermined form.

“Even if we are engaging in the same tasks, there is another way to approach them every time, while a physical-therapy approach is, do this twenty times,” Elizéon says. “We are interested not only in what we are doing, but how we are doing it.”

Because of the way art involving people with disabilities is often marketed, it’s easy to read the show description and get the wrong idea: that the piece is about Parkinson’s, or, worse, that it’s supposed to be “heartwarming” in a condescending way. That couldn’t be further from the work’s aims.

“The piece is formulated so that it’s not entirely clear who has and doesn’t have Parkinson’s,” Noonan says. “It’s rigorous, but it’s the rigor of connecting your own story and humanity and vulnerability to being embodied on stage. Parkinson’s is a very particular disease, in that someone may have incredible difficulty walking from here to there, but if they dance or their motor neurons are primed with a metronome, everything becomes possible. The whole thing is mutually beneficial: the tools we have to offer and the experience they have to offer.”

In short, it’s an extension of Culture Mill’s efforts to reframe virtuosity away from the technical idea of what a body should do and toward a personal idea of what a body can do.  

“As a dancer you are told you need to be the best—but compared to what?” Elizéon says. “We’re working with how to bring the whole of ourselves into the room, and that’s what being the best is. It’s the body being the repository of its own complex, layered history, being transparent to all of ourselves.”

“It’s incredible what some of [the amateur dancers] are doing, and I don’t mean that in a patronizing sense,” Noonan adds. “When work is framed around inclusivity, there can be a false sense of lowering a bar. But according to our reference points of courageously bringing your whole self on stage, I’m truly impressed by things a lot of highly technical dancers are not capable of.”

This isn’t the only uncharted territory in the piece: Though Elizéon and Noonan are married and frequently appear in each other’s works, usually only one is the choreographer. This is the first evening-length piece they have co-choreographed, seeking to unite complementary approaches. Noonan tends to work from the outside in, starting from ideas about staging and composition. This makes the process of They Are All newer for him than for Elizéon, who always tends to work from the body outward, which this piece, in order to open an authentic path from class to stage, necessitated.  

They Are All is built around personal relationships, some longstanding, some developed in the classes. The professional dancers include local stalwart Matthew Young, whom Noonan has known since childhood, and Angelika Thiele, a longtime friend and collaborator of Elizéon.

“As this river or community builds, it builds as a network of real relationships instead of working from fictional images of a couple,” Noonan says. “Matthew and Angelika didn’t know each other, and so their duet works from the reality of not knowing a person, and as they start to know each other, their duet is changing.”

Elizéon and Noonan credit ADF director Jodee Nimerichter, who commissioned the piece, for extending them an extraordinary amount of trust and freedom as they developed a work that, owing to its nature, was difficult to preordain in terms of cast and content. The result is something that slips along the margin between the festival’s modern-dance center and Culture Mill’s radically vulnerable approach.

“Instead of exploding the conventions of dance, we’re trying to work right on the edges,” Noonan says. But for all its innovations, the work is traditional in one sense: It aspires to beauty, which Elizéon characterizes as “the transparency to all that is there.”

“If beauty is taking the complexity of humanness and putting it in a relational space, I think it does that,” Noonan says. “Hopefully, it transcends Parkinson’s, which was a vehicle in the process.”

If that vehicle intends to travel into new modes of research, it also goes where art always goes: into the heart of your own personal experience, writ large in a diverse constellation of unique bodies on a stage.

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