By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Picture a scene staged like an outdoor symphony, but the members of the orchestra aren’t holding instruments, and when the conductor raises her batons, their bodies become the instruments.
A continuation of last summer’s “WaterWorks,” an innovative public art series that explored the waterways of the Gallatin Valley, “The Symphonic Body: Water” is an orchestral piece where the “score” is made up of movement—the everyday gestures of area residents with a connection to the watersheds of southwest Montana.
The public, outdoor performances—conceived, choreographed and conducted by Ann Carlson—and presented by Mountain Time Arts, will take place at 7 p.m. July 18-21, with a reception following each event. The first two nights will be in Gallatin Valley on the riverside property of the executive director of Gallatin Valley Land Trust, and the final two nights at Mountain Sky Ranch in Paradise Valley, in the shadow of Emigrant Peak.
Incarnations of the community-adaptive project have been performed at Stanford University, UCLA, and in Minneapolis and New York, but Carlson said the Montana project is unique, largely because it is subject-driven, around the theme of water.
Mountain Time Arts gave Carlson a short list of area conservationists, politicians, ranchers, recreationists, and Native American leaders—individuals representative of the diverse group of stakeholders in the management of the region’s water resources.
Carlson met with each of these individuals, invited them to be part of the performance, and asked who, locally, inspired them around the subject of water. She then extended the same invitation to these individuals, eventually growing the web of inspiration to 50-plus people.
“The [performers] are gathered not by my authorship, not even Mountain Time Arts, but by the community itself,” Carlson said. “And what happens is people [will be] sitting in concert with people that inspire them.”
Carlson has created performance pieces with lawyers, nuns, security officers, fly fishermen, university communities, and said “The Symphonic Body: Water” is a natural outgrowth of her experience working with non-performers and making art out the mundane gestures of their lives.
The Montana production of “The Symphonic Body” will be the first performed in an outdoor venue, augmented with a sculptural set component by Ben Lloyd of Comma-Q Architecture. Carlson said the reflective “spikes” act similarly to a bandshell—drawing the audience’s focus into the performance space.
The lack of manmade music is part of the work, she explained. “It invites people to watch the people as music,” Carlson said. “There’s almost this sort of synesthesia that happens … like you’re seeing the music.”
Carlson spent weeks studying and working one-on-one with policy makers, ranchers, representatives of the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council, Native American scholars, scientists, outdoor adventurers—even a group of synchronized swimmers—studying the movements that define their day-to-day.
“Instead of instruments they are performing gestural portraits based on their everyday gestures, everybody has individual, custom-made ‘dances’ that come together in concert. It’s very much a tapestry of these everyday gestures, a celebration of the everyday.”
But Carlson said while there will be moments of recognizable activity, for instance paddling a canoe, the movements often shift quickly to an abstract gesture, such as winding a clock or reaching for a computer mouse.
Will the performance effect change in terms of water-related issues? Carlson isn’t sure.
“This performance isn’t about trying to change policy, but about coming together as a community in a very general way,” Carlson said. “I see it as a big thank you to water and also to the people who are charged with stewarding it.”
She also hopes the production raises consciousness more generally. “Part of the fun of this work is taking up the invitation to live more deliberately in the body,” she said. “Our body is mostly water, and water is life. So in some sense, it’s a celebration of being alive.”
WaterWorks 2018 continues on Aug. 23 and Aug. 25 at Missouri Headwaters State Park with “Cherry River,” a live music and art event conceived of by indigenous scholar and musician Shane Doyle, and artist Mary Ellen Strom. Live musicians will perform on drift boats floating on the three rivers toward the confluence of the Missouri in an exploration of the history and ecology of the waterways.
All events are free and open to the public, but space is limited and registration is required. Visit mountaintimearts.org for details.