Risa Jaroslow & Dancers premiered ‘Talking Circle’ at Counterpulse theater in San Francisco in May 2022. Featuring a multi-generational cast of six, choreographer Jaroslow and her dancer/collaborators created a compelling world on stage. This past week I caught the final performance of the January2023 reprise, a co- presentation with Oakland Theater Project at FLAX’s Community Room.
The change of venue type, from tiered theater seating to flat-floor surround-seating, doesn’t serve the piece well. Sitting eye level with the dancers obscures the patterns and lines of the movement. This is an intimate piece. Seeing the signed conversations between the characters and their reactions to what is being conveyed is central. Too often one body blocked another obscuring the message. The overall movement patterns were also more difficult to understand without sufficient distance.
Talking Circle was inspired by Miriam Toews’s novel Women Talking, the same novel upon which filmmaker Sarah Polley has based her award-worthy movie currently in theaters. The program notes don’t refer to the novel, but having read Toews’s novel I felt the connection immediately.
Chelsea Reichert & Sharon Dalke in Talking Circle; Photo Robbie Sweeny
The novel is about a group of women and girls who must decide whether to stay in their homes or leave en masse after having been repeatedly violated by the men of their very isolated and regressive religious community. They discuss what will be lost, what will be gained and how they might fare in the outside world. Jaroslow left her reading asking herself “what does freedom mean?” and “what is its cost?” These questions are the framing queries of the dance. Talking Circle captures the tempest of feelings and spirit of the female debate and its outcome.
Women enter in the darkness, the younger ones guiding the elders to safe purchase in a circle of chairs. They wear simple tunic-like long-sleeved dresses in a variety of warm solid colors. Wide-legged ankle-length pants peek out underneath. Designed by Callie Floor, they are utilitarian and sturdy, slightly feminine but never sexy.
A conversation develops using a gestural language. From the talkback I learn there are forty-six gestures in their lexicon. The signs do not translate to specific words. But I find myself assigning a sentiment or idea to them as I watch. A finger pointed at one’s forehead is perhaps about thoughts and a finger at one’s heart may reference a feeling. A determination is felt when a woman, her hands in fists, thrusts both arms down to her sides. Seated with legs spread wide, hunched with hands on thighs and knees, we envision the men they are discussing. We recognize mutual understanding when dancers mirror or repeat another’s movement.
Composer and vocalist Amy X Neuburg’s original score is a sound collage featuring cello, banjo, sounds of the natural world, such as wind and lapping water, as well as some vocals. The textures of the sound score enhance the piece with the transitions in sonic mood reinforcing the movement. Each time I heard it I discovered something new. In the 2023 version the lyrics “now she’s not crying,” “freedom is good” and “forgiveness is good,” catch my ear.
There are also beautifully danced lyrical solos and duets where we get a sense of the subtle differences of personality of the characters. Erin Yen’s persona is the quickest to smile. Her steps bounce and her limbs are loose as she skips and leaps like a fawn. The others must at times rein her in when she gets ahead of herself, running toward the edges. Cauveri Suresh’s personality seems the most volatile, a nervous energy bubbling under the surface. They dance with abandon, as they twirl around the space stretching its boundaries with arms extended. We feel the tension held tenuously in check as their hand quivers violently behind their back.
Anna Greenberg embodies the most circumspect of the women. With introspection, she moves judiciously, placing her steps carefully and softly, moving to the floor gracefully. Everyone needs a good friend, a generous person who supports and sees the best in others. Phoenicia Pettyjohn, new to the cast for this 2023 version, replacing Chelsea Reichert, felt like this character. Her face open, inquisitive and cautiously optimistic, she is quick to join unisons and happiest when all take to the stage to march in formation.
Pamela Wu Kochiyama and Sharon Dalke, members of The Elders Project at Oakland's Destiny Arts Center, are patient and watchful matriarchs. They provide counsel and grounding for the more impulsive young people. Dalke cuts a commanding figure as she opens her arms to the skies or scoops them in toward her chest as if gathering everyone.
Standing on one foot as the other leg swings about creates the necessity of constant rebalancing for the dancers as they explore what freedom might mean. They tip and wobble, clinging to each other to prevent falls, only to disrupt the careful balance of another tottering sole. We feel the great risk in choosing freedom and seeking change, as they practice this new way of standing. They become more adept and soon we see them each balancing on one leg with confidence. As their sureness grows, the joy in their movement increases. They explore the edges of the stage as a group, sashaying about, arms arcing over heads. They move forward and backward with ease, working as a single unit anticipating the changes in direction and speed like a well-rehearsed marching band.
Do they stay or do they go? It isn’t mine to say, but I am so glad they have each other. Talking Circle is a potent authentication of the power and importance of feminism.
Artistic Director/Choreographer | Risa Jaroslow
Bay Area vocalist/composer |Amy X Neuburg
Dancers | Anna Greenberg, Phoenicia Pettyjohn, Cauveri Suresh and Erin Yen joined by Pamela Wu Kochiyama and Sharon Dalke of The Elders Project at Oakland's Destiny Arts Center
· Lighting Design | Allen Willner and Stephanie Johnson
· Costume design | Callie Floor