Through dance, love and loss at the Glass House
“It’s kind of overwhelming to be here,” she said. “There’s so much you want to do and there are so many possibilities. You have to keep paring down because it’s the simplest things that are really beautiful and work best on the property. You keep distilling, which is interesting because that’s exactly what Philip Johnson did: distill to what’s absolutely needed.”
Even pared down, “Keen” is an emotionally charged work that, in just over an hour, transforms much of the Glass House property — from the area around the pond, to the house, to the vast front lawn — into a stage. The scale is such that 20 minutes after rehearsal, dancer-choreographer Baldwin, her ensemble Ivy Baldwin Dance and their producer each wandered separate areas of the grounds in quest of rogue props and costumes discarded in the course of the run-through.
“Today is the first day we’ve tried it in this order, to see what happens, what works, what doesn’t work. So there’s a lot of stuff that will change between now and May 22,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin will perform “Keen” twice on Sunday, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m., with a trio of her company dancers — Anna Carapetyan, Eleanor Smith and Katie Workum — set to an original score of ambient music by Justin Jones.
The movements and vocalizations in “Keen,” Baldwin said, are inspired by the Irish and Scottish funeral rite known as “keening,” in which women wail or weep in grief. The choreographer, whose soft-spoken thoughtfulness and youthful appearance give the impression of a young sage, first witnessed the phenomenon several years ago, when she chanced upon a YouTube video of women engaging in the practice.
In Baldwin’s new work, her dancers first emerge from the woods surrounding the pond dressed in scarlet caftans, make their way up the hill to the house and in slow procession join the blue-clad company leader — writhing alone in the house — in ritualistic moaning, clapping, jumping and shaking. At moments, they appear to be collectively possessed by some invisible convulsive force.
At the time of her initial encounter with the keening video, Baldwin attempted to replicate the practice, but was artistically and emotionally unmoved. It wasn’t until the recent loss of Lawrence Cassella, her creative collaborator of 12 years, that the act of keening took on meaning and resonance for her and became the basis of the choreography for “Keen.”
The dance work, which Baldwin began to develop in September, was the first piece she choreographed since her friend’s death. It became an outlet for the full spectrum of emotions she experienced in the aftermath of her loss.
“One thing that’s interesting to me is the idea of varied responses to grief that people have and how individual that is and how it changes over time. There is the wailing, but then there’s also the weird thing where everyone sits around telling stories and laughing about this person,” Baldwin said.
Indeed, in the work as the dancers move out of the house — after a costume change from blue to red for Baldwin — and onto the lawn, there are instances of levity that come across most often as nods to Glass House’s architect-owner and the merry company he kept.
In the summer of 1967, Johnson hosted a celebration of advanced architecture, music, art and dance at his weekend home. Dubbed “Country Happening” by Vogue magazine, the now legendary event showcased choreography by the premier modern dancer Merce Cunningham and music performed by the group the Velvet Underground, which had just released its landmark first album. There is little archival material documenting the event, save for a Vimeo video of Cunningham’s performance, followed by a dance party, during which the screen is filled with revelers and guests twisting 60s-style.
Baldwin has examined that video and infuses her choreography with moods and movements inspired by the footage.
“The process of making it and making something with these three women — we’re the ones left of this dance company — that has been very important in getting through it. To think of him and make something and perform it, it did lighten something inside of me a little,” Baldwin said.