Transcendence doesn't come easily, of course. And, in the case of Haigood's latest piece, there were greater hurdles to overleap than physical strain. According to Philip Bither, curator of performing arts at the Walker, which commissioned the silo dance, preparations for Picture Powderhorn began two years ago (after the Minneapolis performance, the piece will travel, largely intact, to grain elevators in Brooklyn and San Francisco). "There were lots of people to convince of what we were trying to achieve. We had to tell people who Joanna is and how she works. Then we had to explain the concept of taking dance off the stage and elevating it." Among those initially unconvinced: police, lawyers, insurance company representatives, and Con Agra executives who wondered, reasonably, why anyone would want to hang by ropes from the side of their grain silo.
After the expenditure of "lots of money" and many carefully worded assurances that there would be no lawsuit-inspiring accidents, Bither continues, Con Agra was won over. High school students were then recruited through the Walker and the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, and asked to contribute suggestions and video footage--later worked into montage form by the New York videographer Mary Ellen Strom.
Under Haigood's tutelage, the students were sent out into Powderhorn to observe the physical language of people on the street, then to incorporate their movements into choreographed steps. "I don't want to sound all goofy and spiritual," says Maggie Majewski, a senior at South High School. "But I never really stopped and observed how beautiful something like water dripping, or people hanging out on their front stoop, or a little girl on a swing can be. Now I observe stuff like that all the time. It's something I can never, ever take for granted again."
On a windy and warm afternoon, with the logistics smoothed away and the dance choreographed, Haigood and her troupe are ready to begin rehearsal. "It's a sense of floating unlike anything else," explains a friendly, sun-freckled young woman who, minutes earlier, had scampered Spider-Man-style over the silo's horizontal plane. "Time just stops as you float away from the wall. It's like you're flying."
Haigood, a still center in the flurry of activity, is watching quietly from a director's chair set directly in front of the silo, with a megaphone placed strategically on a folding table in front of her. As she takes a cell-phone call, a gaggle of workers--who look very small and fragile atop the enormous cylinders--make adjustments to the rock-climbing gear and winch-rigged zip line that will lift the dancers 100 feet above the audience. A second coterie of rigging technicians and assorted assistants squats in the shadow of the scaffold that will eventually support the enormous, enormously expensive video-projection array.
Another of Zaccho's dancers goes over the lip of the silo for the first time, and bounces tentatively down, obviously struggling to overcome the natural instinct for self-preservation. The company, the freckled woman says, is spending the day acclimating themselves to the texture and curvature of the silo. Though the troupe has worked at such precarious heights before, the idiosyncrasies of the structure mean hours of practice before they'll be able to navigate it comfortably. "It's like watching a fire or a waterfall," she remarks as her colleague executes what looks like a zero-gravity Olympic high-dive. "Endlessly interesting." The unused ropes dangling along the length of the terminal thrash violently in a sudden updraft.
As a graffiti-covered freight train thunders into the yard, the dancer, whose rope was briefly entangled in a set of power lines running along the silo's side, reaches the ground. "How was it," the woman asks. "Scary," he grins as he wobbles toward a Port-a-Potty installed a few yards away. After some consultation, Haigood rises from her chair and heads for the elevator that transports the dancers to the top. A few minutes later, she appears on the roof with a rappelling harness wrapped snugly around her waist. Her disciples gather silently in a circle near the base of the terminal. "Our fearless leader's going to show us how it's done," someone whispers.
With the coterie watching from below, Haigood does a series of graceful back flips across the silo's concrete face. "That's your mama up there," one of the dancers informs Haigood's infant son, who is in attendance for the afternoon rehearsal. As the baby coos his approval, Haigood does a slow somersault and lands softly with her knees tucked against her stomach and her pile of corkscrew black hair bouncing in the wind. "How was that?" she calls down to the watching crowd, who are momentarily spellbound by the fluid elegance of her acrobatics.
A man driving a yellow tractor stops below the silo and tips his hard-hat away from his eyes. "Looks like fun," he says. The man shakes his head, then goes back to work, his tractor kicking up a cloud of dust as it rumbles away.