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Dance Exchange

'How to Lose a Mountain'

by Carmel Morgan

March 16, 2013 -- Dance Place, Washington, DC

A lot of time and effort went into making Dance Exchange’s “How To Lose a Mountain.” I’m not talking about studio time. I’m sure there was a lot of that; however, I’m talking about a 500 mile walk. How many choreographers use a hike of that length to kick start their creative juices? The preparation behind “How To Lose a Mountain” is mind boggling. Cassie Meador, Artistic Director of Dance Exchange, walked those 500 miles from her DC area residence to a cleared mountaintop in West Virginia to visit one of the sources of the electrical power her home uses. Her curiosity about all sorts of issues spurred her inspirational trip – from a specific question about the origin of her electricity to more general questions of “where we come from and how we sustain our lives.” In addition to the arduous physical task of a two-month walk, there were countless communities and people met along the way, and innumerable experiences of beauty and destruction, and discovery and loss. Meador, in a Program Note, wondered whether it’s possible to capture or do justice to her journey through a performance. She acknowledges that it may not be possible to do so, and that maybe that’s ok.

While watching “How To Lose a Mountain,” I reflected on the difficulty of creating a work from such big passionate ideas and experiences. “How To Lose a Mountain” reveals some of Meador’s heart and story, but there’s much, necessarily, that the audience is missing. That’s indeed probably unavoidable. Photos, poems, songs, and yes, dance, can only capture so much, and yet at their best they’re capable of getting emotions exactly right, in a snippet. “How To Lose a Mountain” strikes some of those right notes, but I longed for more of them. I hope Meador continues to mine her experiences to relate more of what she encountered along her impressive trek.

Dance Exchange’s performance model uses a lot of spoken word. If you were expecting a ton of technically brilliant and virtuosic dancing in “How To Lose a Mountain,” frankly, you’d be disappointed. There are brilliant dancers among Dance Exchange’s current company, but more important to the group’s style, the performers have strong stage presence, and none more so than Sarah Levitt, who lit up the stage like the electric bulbs she danced beneath. Despite being notably diminutive in stature, she has kept growing as a performer. Being small, she is the perfect size for carrying and lifting, which comes in handy. Plus, she can warble a lonely country tune with sweet conviction. Who knew?

According to family lore, Meador’s great-grandfather lost an entire mountain in a poker bet. Accordingly, she incorporated playing cards into “How To Lose a Mountain.” Over and over again, Levitt snatched cards from the hands of seated dancer Shula Strassfeld and sent them careening through the air. The floor became littered with dozens of decks of cards. The visual impact was actually quite lovely, but I’ll bet the sea of cards was slippery to dance across. It seemed to me that Meador choreographed a number of purposeful human splats just in case, and moments when the dancers grabbed each other, wrist to wrist, to avoid accidental tumbles.

Among other performers in “How To Lose a Mountain” was newcomer Zeke Leonard who took the role of a storyteller and musician. In “real life” he is a former theatrical set designer who now, more conscious of resource usage, employs salvaged materials in making heirloom objects. He banged and plucked a forlorn long-abandoned 150-year-old piano that was part of the set. The decrepit legless piano very nearly stole the show, especially when Leonard practically attacked it, scratching it and pounding it with his fists, and when Levitt danced on top of it, her feet sliding perilously close to the wires.

“How To Lose a Mountain” danced around its environmental themes. I was thankful that it didn’t ever approach uncomfortable preachiness, yet I wondered what I may have failed to “get.” The performance came across as rather meditative, and it allowed questions to linger. While the 5 performers (which was more like 4 dancers, since Leonard didn’t really dance), dedicated themselves to the piece, I often felt a little lost as to what was taking place, and what messages were being conveyed. The narrative was extremely loose and, at times, perplexing. I understood when Levitt loudly proclaimed, “It’s all ours to have and take” that she was portraying the greedy attitude that many of us have toward our surroundings. I didn’t understand well a lot that followed. In any event, I suspect Meador meant to provoke thoughts rather than provide answers. In that she succeeded.

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