Cara Hagan. Photo by Zoe Litaker.

were we birds?  | The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham  |  Tuesday, Aug. 22, 7 p.m. & 9 p.m., $16 

If you’ve seen a dance film in the state of North Carolina, odds are that Cara Hagan had something to do with it.

A prolific dance filmmaker herself and the former longtime director of the American Dance Festival’s (ADF) Movies by Movers, Hagan has long shaped the North Carolina dance scene with her thoughtfully curated dance film festival programs and her own fascinating films (plus, she recently literally wrote the book on screendance, with her 2022 Screendance from Film to Festival: Celebration and Curatorial Practice).

You could see the medium of dance film as a relatively controlled setting. Without the unknowns of a live performance, audiences sit in their seats and generally see what the filmmaker wants them to see. 

Hagan’s latest work, were we birds?, a site-specific live dance piece at the Nasher Museum of Art, which closes out this year’s ADF on August 22, pivots firmly in the opposite direction, handing the reins back over to audiences and allowing them to shape their own experience of the work—from where they choose to watch it to the music they choose (or not) to listen to.

For Hagan, who is now based in New Jersey while teaching at the New School in New York City, giving audiences the agency to choose “echoes the choices we need to make as human beings in these chaotic situations,” she says. “Do I go over here or over here? Do I listen now, or do I choose not to listen? What is my role in all of this chaos, and how much of a choice do I really have?”

By “all of this chaos,” Hagan means the COVID-19 pandemic and everything that’s come with it. Her own chaotic pandemic experience—she was apart from her husband for a year, moved three times with a small child, and had an international job opportunity fall through—partly inspired were we birds?, which explores migration and displacement, upheaval and reorganization.

“I began thinking of all the ways that people are displaced—not just because of COVID, but I think COVID brought to light a lot of ways that people are disenfranchised and the ways that we don’t make space for the chaos in people’s lives,” she says. “We live in a society where we just have to keep going like everything’s fine—we’re moving, we’re shaking, we’re doing what we’ve got to do. And meanwhile, everybody is having these huge experiences in their lives that we’re just glazing over.”

“We just have to keep going like everything’s fine—we’re moving, we’re shaking, we’re doing what we’ve got to do. And meanwhile, everybody is having these huge experiences in their lives that we’re just glazing over.”

were we birds?, which was commissioned by ADF, is arguably Hagan’s largest-scale presentation in this state, after she spent many years here on faculty at Appalachian State University and High Point University, where she created the dance program. For Hagan, though, that framing is complex, as she’s long orchestrated screendance projects of equal or larger scale but in the sometimes-forgotten role of curator. 

“Curating is such an invisible kind of work—people see the thing that you put together, but they don’t necessarily equate you with it,” she says. 

But in were we birds?, Hagan will be highly visible, both as the piece’s author and as one of its three performers (alongside fellow NC School of the Arts alums Laura Gutierrez and Tammy Carrasco), who will be up close and personal with audiences as they wander throughout the Nasher’s lobby, observing from whatever vantage point they choose. Audiences will also be in charge of using their own devices to scan QR codes throughout the museum to access the music, a dreamy original jazz score by composer Amanda Addleman, via headphones.

This was partially a logistical choice. “The Nasher is sonically really challenging,” she says. “We want people to hear this beautiful music—how can we do that and make sure everyone is having the experience they want to have?”

But since audiences will be able to decide when to start and stop the music—or when to watch in silence—they’ll inevitably end up on a journey that is entirely their own. 

“I’m interested in how people will see the same sections to very different music, and how that will change their perception of what they’re seeing,” says Hagan, who is not rehearsing to the music. “The way each audience member interprets the piece will be very different depending on where they choose to stand, what they choose to listen to, who’s around them, how they’re navigating other people.”

The ADF premiere will be something of a test run for were we birds?, which Hagan hopes to someday tour to spaces like train stations, where performers and audiences must navigate not only one another but masses of other bodies coming and going. It’ll be an added layer of chaos—and one that Hagan will welcome. 

“How do you reconcile chaos and create some sort of order, only to know that there’s chaos on the horizon at some other point?” she asks. “We never actually get out of it.”

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