Beyond the walls of the studio

Film in progress captures Bellows Falls women and their community

By Richard Henke/The Commons

BELLOWS FALLS—Choreographer Victoria Marks and filmmaker Ann Kaneko said they believe dance can become a civic conversation that can participate in the life of the town.

On Thursday, Aug. 2, at 7 p.m at the Bellows Falls Opera House, Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) will be screening their work-in-progress documentary Action Conversations: Bellows Falls.

The presentation is the culmination of a six-week Vermont Performance Lab residency led by Marks and Kaneko with teen and adult women from greater Bellows Falls. The event will include an informal presentation and segments of Action Conversations, which captures the stories and reflections of these women and their community.

The VPL presentation is free and open to the public, and is wheelchair accessible.

Located in Guilford, Vermont Performance Lab is a new type of performance incubator that takes the creation of new work — in the words of Marks and Kaneko — "beyond the walls of the studio and into the community by fostering experimental approaches to research and performance."

It provides performing artists with research-and-development residencies, where artists have the resources to create new work and to engage rural communities around the creative process.

This year's project, Action Conversations, captures the stories and reflections of a group of women and their community. The work aims to bridge the gap between adults and youth.

VPL Founder and Producing Director Sara Coffey explained that the goal of the project was to engage Bellows Falls' teenagers in conversation with the community's adults mediated through dance and film.

Marks had told Coffey when the community-based project discussion began two years ago, "Listen to your community and find out where there needs to be a conversation."

After much "amazing conversation" with Youth Services of Windham County, with whom it is co-producing the project, VPL ultimately chose a community of women in Bellows Falls.

"Five teenagers and five adults, who have limited interaction with each other and therefore many misconceptions, met for for four mornings each of six weeks as choreographer Marks translated their intense civic dialogue into movement, which ultimately was filmed by Kaneko," Coffey said.

For the five teen women, this project served as part of their job training with Youth Services' summer youth employment program. With the help of an advisory committee, VPL recruited five adult women to donate 60 hours of their summer to participate with the youth on the project.

Youth Services Youth Development Director Bianca Barry said, "We were especially excited to be able to work with VPL to place this project in Bellows Falls, where the gap between marginalized young people and the community-at-large is particularly wide."

"We're thrilled to provide an opportunity for these young women to experience working with two powerful female artists like Ann Kaneko and Vic Marks," she added.

Kaneko is a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker who has produced numerous award-winning shorts and documentaries that tell the stories of what she called brave individuals trying to survive the odds. She participated in the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women and received an MFA in film directing from UCLA.

Marks is a professor of choreography in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, where she began teaching in 1995. Over the course of her career, she has been the recipient of multiple grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Marks employs movement as a powerful tool for self-expression, claiming she "enjoys being inserted into a civic dialogue." Her "action conversation" methodology offers "avenues of self-exploration and positive expression to help participants frame their relationships with themselves, their families and communities."

She has used dance in similar ways before. In her last project with Kaneko, which culminated in a film also called Action Conversations, Marks employed movement as a way to bring veterans of the Iraq war, and those opposed to the Iraq war, into conversation with one another.

"I like to get two groups of people together in a room who wouldn't usually be there and see what develops," Marks said. "I know it is a huge responsibility to be at the center of these discussions. People are giving me the gift of trust and I have to live up to this responsibility."
Difficult conversations

She said that while the conversations among the women in Bellows Falls this summer have been very rewarding, they seldom have been easy, and often have been raw.

One of the adult participants, Laura Simoneau said, "It's been really...how should I put this...I mean it's been great. But it's been intense and exhausting since it's about living and our experiences here in Bellows Falls. What I really love is that we are talking about issues that don't get talked about on a regular basis."

As conversation among the Bellows Falls women developed, Marks would translate their issues into gestures of dance.

"Talking yields movement, and movement yields talking," Marks said. "Tiny dances are created to tell the story of what has happened among the women in this room. I am asking what is this thing called choreography, for this project pushes the boundaries in certain interesting ways."

"Unlike many projects I have worked on," she added, "this does not end up with a live public performance. It did not make sense to me to have the ultimate outcome of this choreographed experience take place on the stage, but rather on film. We are doing something unusual here."

Simoneau agreed that something special was happening. "We are engaging in a civic dialogue filtered through an art framework," she said.

Barry spoke on behalf of the teenagers in the program, saying, "The Vermont Performance Lab project was an amorphous evolving process that was deeply felt by the youth participants, which changed the lives of the five young women in significant ways."

The complete documentary Action Conversations: Bellows Falls is intended to be shown locally and nationally.

VPL plans to present the premiere of the completed film of Action Conversations: Bellows Falls in 2013, in Bellows Falls, perhaps in conjunction with the Women's Film Festival in Brattleboro.

The Action Conversations: Bellows Falls project is made possible in part with funding support from the Vermont Arts Council, the Copper Beach Foundation, the Oswald Family Foundation, and VPL's Creation Fund donors.