In New Dance Work, Jo Kreiter Explores Ascension as Metaphor

by Jean Schiffman

Give a Woman a Lift empowers dancers to use their own strength and will and skill.

On a hot, late-September afternoon at the Joe Goode Annex, a rehearsal for Flyaway Productions’ world premiere, “Give a Woman a Lift,” is underway. Three of the six dancers—all of whom are women, with an age range of 24 to 48—are on the long, high, narrow platform of a steel structure that’s against the wall.

A quarter-inch wire cable forms a railing. Two of the dancers are absent today; one of them, Jennifer Chien, will hang from a rope in a harness at the end of the 45-to-55-minute piece.

Off to the side, Patricia Jiron is practicing her solo on a diagonal, two-inch wire rope recycled from one of Flyaway’s large-scale productions, “The Ballad of Polly Ann.” Jiron is in a harness for today’s rehearsal, and holds onto a quarter-inch cable as she slowly dances her way up and down the tightrope.

“You walk up a diagonal and there’s a sense of journey and arriving and leaving something behind and going somewhere else,” says the company’s founder/artistic director Jo Kreiter. During the course of the piece, the dancers ascend from the ground up, in various expressive physical modes, to reach almost to the ceiling.

“The concept and the space and the possibility of an experimental process all kind of came together,” says Kreiter. She found herself thinking about how in her company, rather than women lifting men or vice versa, a lot of the work is self-propelled. With that thought in mind, she had a residency, through CHIME, with “action mechanics” choreographer Elizabeth Streb, which gave her a chance to study the science of ascension and motion.

Over Flyaway’s 18-year lifespan, its acclaimed aerial, site-specific work has included performances on outdoor walls of buildings and billboards, on fire escapes, on bridge replicas and more, all with themes that reference social and political issues, all exploring female physicality. But Kreiter’s concept for “Lift” led her back to some of the questions she had when she first began as a choreographer: What are the underpinnings of ascension, of going up—how is that a metaphor? “I feel like I’m almost 20 years into that question and I want to go back and isolate it,” she says. “I wanted to do something smaller and more experimental than taking over a city block.” She contacted the Joe Goode Performance Group, and Goode agreed to a period of on-site experimentation.

By today’s rehearsal, all the sections have been sketched out, and some are being fine-tuned. “We haven’t done the emotional layering yet,” explains Kreiter. “That comes through repetition and through developing relationships between dancers to get to where it’s not a series of movements but time for the dancers to really own the material and invest their own narratives.” At just under age 50, the award-winning choreographer is a sort of sprite: youthfully petite, energetic, barefoot, with a high, bouncy ponytail.

For “Lift,” Kreiter specifically wanted dancers, not aerialists—“I’m less interested in the acrobatics and gymnastics and more interested in the subtle expression within an off-the-ground vocabulary”—so it’s not surprising that when Kreiter tells the dancers to run backward on the platform, one says, “That terrifies me!” (These dancers, says Kreiter, are willing, but haven’t spent, for example, 10 years in a circus school.)

In the middle of the room three ropes dangle from a ceiling beam, clumped together. For the performance, they’ll attach by a winch to a 400-pound steel I-beam, which will be raised to swing like a pendulum, with dancers atop. “A lift is not always up,” observes Kreiter. “Sometimes it’s a ride. So we wanted something that had horizontal access…. Structurally and aesthetically we wanted to integrate all the choices we made into the space, and these beautiful steel I-beams were here, and that’s what inspired that.”

Kreiter, who has been watching the trio on the platform, now turns to Jiron. “Can you bounce back and forth? Is there potential there?” she asks. “There is, but not much,” says Jiron. “There’s the danger of flipping backward.” She stands one-legged, arms hanging, hugging the wall, places her cheek against the wall. “That’s great!” says Kreiter.

In the piece’s finale, as Kreiter is envisioning it during this development period, all the dancers will have arrived at a height of 15 feet. What that feels like is something each dancer must internalize, and express, individually.

Back with the trio, Kreiter climbs up the steel structure—by way of a series of carefully placed pipes spaced far apart—to show them how to swing themselves, seated, under the wire, one leg out, with a fluid motion. “Pretty good. Not there yet,” she says finally, and the dancers descend, very slowly, like shoeless rock climbers. Jiron, stepping off the tightrope, says, “I’m whipped.”

Kreiter’s primary collaborator is visual designer Sean Riley. He’s often designed rigging for her but for this project is designing lights and set. His 14-year career has made him a specialist in aerial, site-specific and experimental performance, and “Lift” offered a unique chance to work with moving lights. He describes the technique as using traditional, single-source, incandescent lights that actually move in space, left and right, up and down. They can trick the brain into seeing movement where there is none—for example, between two static objects, or when a dancer is stationary. In some sections, Kreiter—who has never worked with moving lights before—must adjust the choreography to the lighting; in other places, the lighting adjusts to the choreography.

The design elements won’t be heavy-handed. “I want everything to blend as much as possible into the room so the audience has a sense of surprise and discovery,” Riley says. The room itself gave him the cues he needed for the set design—you can’t ignore the biggest I-beam, part of an earthquake retrofit, so he chose to use such elements as a starting point to encompass the theme, incorporating not only the biggest I-beam but the swinging I-beam and some smaller I-beam pedestals. “Jo describes movement in terms of number of people, emotional quality and speed, and I go about trying to build a platform for what she’s looking for,” he explains. “So if she says she envisions three or four dancers in a long, lilting, slow piece, that will lead me to something like the swinging I-beam—heavy, ponderous.”

For both Kreiter and Riley, the idea of “give a woman a lift” involves empowering the dancers to use their own strength and will and skill, as Riley says. “What we’re notdoing,” he explains, “is magic winches from the sky lifting the women up, or women magically gliding up the sides of the walls. Willpower and imagination are key to women giving themselves and others a lift. The power is coming from within.”

Kreiter has also worked often with composer Jewlia Eisenberg, an ethnomusicologist with, says Kreiter, an international perspective, a valuable asset for a narrative about women. Because the movement is in such an organic relationship to the space—the all-steel set was already there, with no new materials introduced—Kreiter knew Eisenberg was a perfect choice for creating a score; she works with very organic sounds, says Kreiter. The music will be introduced to the dancers only after the choreography is set, because aerial dance can never adjust its tempo to the music; rather, the tempos are proscribed by external elements and actions—the harness, the swing of the pendulum, the climb up a ladder. By the time the music comes—and Eisenberg composes independently, not attending rehearsals—it’s a welcome new texture for the dancers and re-opens the material, says Kreiter.

“Lift” is more abstract than Kreiter’s recent work; there is no narrative component. That’s a little scary and challenging for her. “But I also feel like there’s nothing more communicative than movement as a conveyer of experience,” she says. Nov. 8-16, Joe Goode Annex, 401 Alabama St.