Imagine dancing upon a beautiful, wooden dance deck that lives among a lush landscape of gardens and trails on a warm summer afternoon. The sun kisses your skin as you move across the floor and through the space exploring the connection between your body and the landscape. While this has all the makings of an exquisite dream, the reality is that this dance deck exists and it was created by the imaginative, awe-inspiring dance company, Tori Lawrence + Co.
Founded by director, choreographer and filmmaker, Tori Lawrence, this collaborative of dancers, musicians, filmmakers, and multimedia artists is exploring the relationship between the body and landscapes through site-specific dance performances and dance films. In looking to create a space where dancers could build community and create work that explores what lies at the heart of dancing with the environment, Tori imagined a dance deck as part of their Western Massachusetts landscape.
Dance maker Anna Halperin and her husband and landscape architect, Lawrence, had created a dance deck among the redwoods of Marin County, California in 1954. Inspired by this idea, Tori, Ellie Goudie-Averill, dancer and company manager, and their student intern began to look into how to fund a deck of their own and found the Pollination Project.
“Working on the grant application was one of my favorite parts of the summer,” said Ellie. “It helped us to articulate what we were doing and the importance of dancing upon the same beautiful land that you are working on. We were new to applying for grants and needed help to build this deck so when we received The Pollination Project grant it was such a wonderful moment for us.”
With the grant, the dream became a reality in which dancing bodies were carrying wood and building the floor – the very foundation – they would create upon. The deck was designed by Tori Lawrence + Co sound designer and carpenter, Seth Wenger, and built with the help of Kevin Lips, Josh Doster, Sha Harrell, Jenna Riegel, and six work exchange residents. From putting each piece of the deck together to dancing in the garden and on the trails, the experience of creating a space in which to be with Nature had a powerful effect on everyone.
“One student who was both a botany and dance major made a physical catalog of the plants and then brought that energy – inspired by the plants – to a dance. It was actually the first dance that happened here on this deck,” Ellie said.
Throughout the summer, this team was not only working together, they were learning together and all the knowledge they were acquiring was integrating itself into their dances.
“The work became more intimate and attuned as the summer progressed. It took on more of an improvisation-based approach. We were seeing the similarities in how Nature is arranged – the textures and sounds of it – and we were empathizing with it, not trying to destroy it but instead looking to build with it. People started taking more risks and they were becoming more sensitive to their environment,” Tori shared.
After being inside during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a new sense of joy within each member of the community and a deep appreciation for being able to be outdoors. The creation of this deck brought people together in jubilant celebration of bodies observing, respecting and dancing among Nature; it became a celebration of what it means to be alive.
“We are expanding our practice, expanding the idea of what dance can be. Having lived through this pandemic, I think we are learning how to pay attention in a different way, how to go outside with the body and explore places. Dance training doesn’t really take the students outside but in creating dance films and now this dance deck, I hope to illustrate that there isn’t a divide between dancing and living,” said Tori.
Tori Lawrence + Co are partnering with the town of Chesterfield, Massachusetts on an upcoming film screening project with community classes and – much like the dance deck – this is another illustration of the way they are building bridges within communities and between nature and people. These abstract, other worldly dances are an invitation for an audience – one that does not sit the way one might in a theater but instead travels around the space along with the dancers – to explore and celebrate what it means to honor our environment and our bodies while living on this stunning planet we all call home.