Natural High

Fabulous ferns: Cynthia Stevens (left) and dancers
Cynthia Stevens

Forget the museum: What better spot could there be for Middle America to confront surrealism than that most banal of places, the parking lot? That's where choreographer Cynthia Stevens and her troupe had a recent showdown with a bewildered security guard. Stevens and Co. were gathered outside Bryn Mawr Elementary School, preparing to trek into Theodore Wirth Park to rehearse Leonora's Dream, Stevens's site-specific work inspired by the whimsically surreal words and images of Leonora Carrington. Some wore plastic cones on their heads, others were spinning about as dancers are wont to do. Arwen Wilder recalls the guard approaching, cautiously, describing the goings-on into his walkie-talkie. "I don't need backup," he reported, concluding that the artists were no threat to his young charges.

Not a threat to their physical safety, certainly. But the young'uns couldn't help but be captured by the spectacle of the group's return to the same parking lot on a recent weekday morning. This time Wilder shimmied into a pair of chest waders. Stevens pulled yards of tulle out of bags. The cones were back. Better to forge ahead quickly, they laughed, before the guard returns. If, on that day, he had followed Lisa Carlson, Barbara Meyer, Stevens, and Wilder down the winding path, over the exposed tree roots, and along a pond sparkling in the sun, he would have encountered even more strange doings to talk about.

The women, all in waders, grabbed hands and picked their way through the muck until they were hip-deep in the water. They removed their cone hats, converting them into megaphones or "hearing trumpets," a nod to Carrington's book of the same name. "Yoo hoo!" the women shouted. "I can see myself!" They chanted text written by Stevens and local poet William Reichard. Carlson trilled like a tropical bird. The frogs, who were already singing lustily that morning, seemed to welcome the competition and increased their volume accordingly.

Stevens relishes such encounters--and even conflicts--between the everyday, creative, and natural worlds. A choreographer who has performed both within traditional theater settings and at Gooseberry Falls State Park, the University of Minnesota's Civil Engineering Building, and the Landmark Center, she has spent the past 20 years combining modern dance and contact improvisation with a lifelong passion for environmentalism.

"I'm creating dance in order to see a place in a new way," Stevens explains, gesturing widely to make her point. "To be in a landscape you have to be larger than life, so you go through a sort of short-term evolution. Your body eventually adapts to the environment and you shift your expectations to a different frame of reference. The work has to evolve because the site constantly changes with the season."

This formula for site-specific work is particularly important, Stevens continues, in the case of Wirth Park, a place feared because dead bodies tend to turn up there. With Leonora's Dream, Stevens, a longtime Twin Cities resident who recently moved to Ames, Iowa, hopes to focus positive attention on one of her favorite public spaces.

Stevens was drawn to Carrington because the British-born artist (now age 85 and living in Mexico) incorporates layers of natural influences, animal imagery, and feminist philosophy into her work. A member of the French surrealist movement, Carrington aligned herself with the likes of Salvador Dali, Henri Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and onetime love Max Ernst. Also a noted author, Carrington writes in The Hearing Trumpet of an elderly woman's experiences in a nursing home where Alice in Wonderland-style antics reign. Stevens employs this story as a thread for the audience's journey to five locations in the park. (Prospective audiences are encouraged to bring picnic blankets and bug repellent.)

"The hearing trumpet is symbolic," she says. "As you get older you lose some senses but develop others." Stevens, for instance, seems to have lost a sense of modesty about being seen in public with a plastic cone on her head--which is our gain.

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