Improvised dance, like life, changes on a whim. Participants move in a whirlwind or hesitate as they try to decide what actions they should take next to make the best of their situation. Each movement has the potential to change the tone of a performance, whether on stage or as part of day-to-day life.
When Human Nature Dance Theatre performs Dying 2 Wake Up this weekend, they will explore what it takes to live a meaningful life and how to accept the inevitability of death through improvised and choreographed dance.
The idea for the show’s theme was borne out of a discussion between co-founder Paul Moore and lighting technician Eric Souders, who also works as a financial planner and helps people prepare for retirement.
“He started to get interested in end-of-life choices so he was saying how we all would like to live a long time and then die really quickly, ideally, in our sleep,” Moore explains. “He was trying to say only four percent of people die in their sleep, but what he said was four percent of people wake up dead, so the title of the show became a little play on that.”
Many members of Human Nature have experienced the passing of loved ones and understand the grieving process never truly ends. Through performance, they take their experiences and turn them into a cathartic conversation about where to go from here.
“There’s a sort of getting used to it, but you’re never used to it,” co-founder Jayne Lee says. When her dad died two years ago, she says it felt like her world had fallen apart. “People tell you that [feeling] goes away, but it doesn’t ever go away, you just grow bigger around it.”
Frederica Hall, who will be providing live music for some of the pieces in Dying 2 Wake Up along with Will Duncan, says she has learned to process grief by embracing the entirety of the person’s life after they have gone. While some may focus only on the good things about a person, essentially idolizing them in death, it’s important not to erase the undesirable aspects of their character.
“I lost my sister when I was 21. She ate a poisonous plant and died there in Yellowstone with me, but it was OK because I’ve been able to embrace the light and the dark,” Hall says. “I noticed other parts of my family that have not been able to do that—embrace the life fully, embrace the person fully—it was harder for them to accept the death.”
When Sarah Haas was 11, her mother passed away and she remembers her family pretended nothing was wrong at Christmas several days later which led to intense feelings of isolation.
“It is like a death to be that disconnected from people and I spent most of my childhood into my adult—literally until maybe this past six months really isolating myself from people because I feel alive with people and I think there’s something about that that is actually frightening,” she says through tears. “It almost feels safe to feel dead. If I’m alive, then what do I do?”
The seemingly simple act of being alive comes with a heavy burden of responsibility and philosophers like Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant have been pondering the meaning of it for millennia. For some people, there’s a constant worry in the back of their heads about whether or not they are living enough to fully appreciate this gift they never even asked to receive in the first place; for others, it’s simply a background thought.
“I cannot be aware of death every single moment,” Eriko (Okugawa) Starley says. “It’s easy to forget until something happens and you start thinking about death coming close.”
No matter which camp someone falls into, completely avoiding discussions about death turns it into a scary and unknown thing, but it’s the fate of every living being and should be approached with more openness in order to remove the veil of uncertainty surrounding it.
“I do think as a society we tend to pretend it doesn’t really happen,” Lee says.
“And that’s what happened in my family, is we didn’t talk about it,” Haas says. “I think the reason it’s so hard to talk about it even now is because there wasn’t a celebration of her life, a grieving together, an acceptance of death.”
In the piece titled “Listening,” the idea of being open about what each person is experiencing is explored through spoken word as the dancers talk over each other, none listening to what the others are saying as their voices crescendo into a wall of indistinguishable sound. They then begin to wander around the stage, falling intermittently. Some announce it and are picked up or caught before they reach the ground while others crumble silently on their own.
“Recognizing that you are falling is really important because then you can ask for support,” Helen Goodrum says. “If you don’t acknowledge it, then no one’s going to help you.”
In the final part of “Listening,” the dancers come together to walk across the stage. A few begin to fall but, because they are now connected, the others anticipate and catch them before they hit the ground, lifting each other up and relieving some of the burden of living a meaningful life.
Human Nature Dance Theatre will perform Dying 2 Wake Up Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 or $18 at the door, $10 for students and children ages 6-16, free for children under 6. Visit www.humannaturedance.org for more information.