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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Flyaway Productions, If I Give You My Sorrows, October 6-15 2023, Space 124, San Francisco

Flyaway Productions’s If I Give You My Sorrows is an impactful reflection on women in prison. Artistic Director and choreographer Jo Kreiter and her many collaborators, the dancers, composers, and designers have crafted an experience worthy of the unjustly incarcerated women, whose experiences they seek to amplify through their artistry.

The production revolves, physically and metaphorically, around the motif of beds. Beds should be places of refuge and restoration. But what if your bed resides in a chaotic almost-public space? A place with concrete slab floors, steel beams, and high ceilings able to house layers of inhabitants, like Space 124 where Sorrows is presented. Unlike much of Flyaway’s aerial dance work which unfolds against monumental vertical cityscapes, Space 124 offers us an up-close experience of this awe-inspiring artform.

Playing off the inhospitable textures of the venue, Scenic Designer Sean Riley’s set revolves around a custom-built simple planked bed with a bedstead of metal tubing, which begins attached vertically to the rear wall, like a picture. Over the course of the hour-long show, dancers climb over, around, and through the bed. When released from the wall, it dangles and spins vertically before assuming its final position hung parallel to the floor, able to swing through space, magic-carpet style. Metaphorically the bed becomes a place of freedom where imaginations may soar.

“Twenty-seven years, I don’t remember ever being comfortable on that bed,” a woman’s voice matter-of-factly states. The sound score created by composers Carla Kihlstedt, Kalyn Harewood, and Pamela Z, includes nursery rhymes, the voices of incarcerated women, original songs and the aural textures of prison life, including scraping metal doors and dripping leaky pipes. Text is provided by poet Tomiekia Johnson, currently “wrongly incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility”.

Kreiter and her collaborators think a lot about scale. For Sorrows, rather than examining the frailty and power of a human body against a monolithic building, we see a body in interaction with one of the meal-tray sized toy beds. Amplifying what it is to be sentenced to live within spaces too small for human existence, a dancer lays on her side, her large head resting within the mini-bed. Others hold the metal beds to their faces and peer through the spokes of the headboards, reminding us that they, and their bright curious eyes, live behind bars.

Nightmarish shadows of orange and turquoise skim across the white concrete surfaces (Lighting Design Jack Beuttler). As if crucified, Jhia Jackson, tethered at the waist, is positioned inside the twin-sized wall bed. Her arms splay through the bed’s side rails and her ankles thread through the footboard causing her feet to dangle below. We watch her toss and turn atop the unforgiving surface. Pretzeling her body in strange and unusual shapes, Jackson’s search for comfort is unrelenting and unfruitful.

Jhia Jackson struggles to sleep comfortably in her prison bed; Photo J. Norris

Dancer Megan Lowe slides open a heavy industrial side door through which light now streams, washing her in ghostly blue. She climbs the door frame and assumes a gravity-defying perch between the open door and the corner. Using her strength to remain wedged there, she gazes longingly out into the yard. Meanwhile, MaryStarr Hope mounts the wall bed, laying her stiff body awkwardly across its foot board; and natalya shoaf, a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Laura Elaine Ellis, climbs quakingly up the metal rungs of a ladder. She perches perilously atop a high horizontal beam. In their isolated areas, the trio whisper to themselves before lifting be-quiet-fingers to their lips.

Megan Lowe hangs from the doorframe at Space 124 Lighting Jack Beuttler; Photo J. Norris

With the single bed now suspended vertically in the center of the room in a stark white downlight, Sonsherée Giles performs a striking aerial dance within and upon its constantly twirling surface. The momentum allows her to thrillingly extend herself out from the bed as they rotate in tandem. This dance has a stop-motion quality as the spiraling bedstead repeatedly eclipses brief segments of Giles’s movements.

Accompanying Giles, but worlds away in a garish red wash, performer Razelle Swimmer lounges. Dressed fetchingly in slinky robe and lace-trimmed satin sleep set (Costume Design Jamielyn Duggan), she assesses her body. “I’m a trans woman recently released from San Quentin after 25 years,” resonates, as Swimmer draws her hands sensuously up her bare legs, and then suddenly discomforted smooshes her hands across her face.

Accompanied by long eerie vocal notes and recorded sounds of exhalation, a spiritual trio for Jackson, Giles, and shoaf, is augmented by the performers’ own vocalized breaths. They cycle from clasped hands, to a fanning of fingers and crossing of wrists before returning to clenched prayerful hands. Arms scoop, gathering from the floor, then box and rock like cradles, before reaching worshipfully heavenward. Bringing focus to the communal nature of religiosity, this faith-based reflection is notably the only unison sequence in the dance.

The bed now hangs horizontally, several feet above the floor, a willing and able partner for Lowe’s flying stunts. As a woman’s voice fondly remembers how her childhood bed, small as it was, was a place she could fly into like Superman, Lowe’s body elegantly arches parallel to the floor her feet pointing toward the bed whose swinging path echoes her own. Shortening her tether length, Lowe soars over the bed. Moving in opposition she swings right, as it swings left, their moments of overlap centerstage are breathtakingly beautiful. This is aerial dance at a new level, where the object the artist is moving in relationship to is also in motion. The risks are great, as are the visual rewards, and Lowe makes it look easy.

Megan Lowe and the flying bed in Flyaway Productions "If I Give You My Sorrows"; Photo J. Norris

A sorrowful dance follows as Hope sits astride the cot; her taunt legs spread wide. She is a woman in labor, knees jutting angularly as her feet grip the sideboards. Tomiekia Johnson’s text recounts a horribly abusive husband and a pregnancy lost to the stress of forced incarceration. Hope’s anguish is writ large upon her face, as she shifts to look at us, becoming the figurehead of a boat surfing over swelling seas. Dismounting to the floor Hope launches her body on and off the swaying apparatus. Suddenly dropping to the ground, she lies face up as the swooping cot clears her head by mere inches.

Flyaway Productions dancer MaryStarr Hope atop the flying bed designed by Sean Riley; Photo by J. Norris

As they have done at the conclusion of each section, the dancers pause and place their hands high atop their chests. They take deep inhalations. Each new breath represents a moment of rebirth, an infinitesible unit of time closer to parole, a necessary act of self-care. Incarcerated women are the most under-resourced and vulnerable individuals in the prison system. Kreiter and her cast render the truths of these precarious existences superbly, and hope that we depart with renewed motivation to help dismantle the injurious and ineffective carceral system.

Review by Jen Norris, published October 9, 2023


Link to program and more information here.

Production Credits:

Flyaway Productions presents

If I Give You My Sorrows

October 6-15, 2023 Space 124 401 Alabama Street San Francisco, CA 94110

Artistic Collaborators

Artistic Direction: Jo Kreiter Choreography: Jo Kreiter in collaboration with the dancers Dance: Sonsherée Giles, MaryStarr Hope, Jhia Jackson, Megan Lowe, natalya shoaf, and Razelle Swimmer Music: Carla Kihlstedt, Kalyn Harewood, and Pamela Z Text: Tomiekia Johnson Community Partner: Empowerment Avenue and Museum of the African Diaspora Set Design: Sean Riley Lighting Design: Jack Beuttler Costume Design: Jamielyn Duggan Rigging Design: Dave Freitag Stage Manager: Ariana Boostani Production Manager: Matt Leonard Special Thanks: Laura Ellis for her essential creative contributions to this project

The Performance Unfolds in Seven Sections

1. Skewed

2. Where Betty Can Go Find Betty

3. Secrets

4. Closure

5. Prayer

6. A Lesser of Evils

7. Salve

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