Telling, and dancing, the immigrant story

supper-people-600
At Crane Arts' Icebox space, Bethany Formica is supported by other dancers during a dress rehearsal for "Supper, People on the Move," a multimedia project on the immigrant experience. (BEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer)

Would you know the moment when you must flee your homeland? Where do you think is the safest place to go? What do you do once you find it isn't a welcoming haven? How do you navigate the roadblocks of immigration, citizenship, language?

These are questions choreographer Silvana Cardell and artist/sculptor Jennifer Baker asked themselves and their collaborators a year ago when they began work on Supper, People on the Move. The multimedia project runs Thursday through Sunday in Crane Arts' Icebox space, with a free simulcast Friday evening on Independence Mall.

Cardell has her own immigrant story. In the mid-1980s when she left Argentina for Philadelphia, she was not fleeing persecution or seeking asylum; she came to study dance at the University of the Arts, and returned to Buenos Aires to direct Armar Danza Teatro and her own company, S. Cardell Danza. Then, in 2002, she and her architect husband, Pablo Meninato, and their two children moved permanently to the Philadelphia area. With a master's degree in choreography from Temple, she now directs Cardell Dance Theater and the dance program at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, Ocean County.

In her sunny Fairmount living room, she talked over a carafe of strong coffee about her family's experience. Her children "had visitors' visas until we had a green card in 2007," she said of their long path to citizenship. "Pablo, Lorenzo, and I became citizens in 2013. Paula is still on a green card." (Both children are now in college.)

But the family's journey, though lengthy, did not involve the crushing hardships many endure in order to get to the United States and make their way in their new home. Contemplating those stories is what planted the seed for Cardell's ambitious performance piece - specifically, an invitation to speak at her own citizenship ceremony.

"I looked at all those faces yearning to be made Americans, and the enormity of it all finally hit me. I'm interested in performance theory and how you create social art, so I talked with [choreographer] Merian Soto, who has done a lot in that field, and invited her to be in the piece as a guest artist."

Cardell is a collaborative artist. At UArts, she wrote her thesis with feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia and studied with other humanities professors because "I didn't want to just study dance or choreography. I wanted to learn about philosophy and analysis of art and criticism. I did a lot of arts research, for example, on installation art."

Jennifer Baker, Supper's visual artist, has worked with Cardell before, most remarkably in NOW!, in which she drew life-size impressions of its cast in real time as they danced. She is designing the "Supper Table" and the costumes, and curating Portraits of People on the Move, a companion exhibition displaying individual photos and stories of immigrants in the Philadelphia region based on her interviews with 52 people.

"The shortest time I spent with anyone was an hour and a half," Baker said. "I was so focused on how they wanted to tell their own stories. All of them will be on the blog [supperdance/supper-blog] and portfolio, and 14 will be in the exhibit. I took 11 of the portraits, but mostly used photos they sent me, because it's not an exhibit of my photographs, but how these people want to be seen."

It was sometimes difficult to get people to talk, she said. "For many, it was very painful to revisit their experience. Some came forward only at the last minute."

Their stories, told with wonderful candor, range from an Ecuadoran woman's description of her harrowing, months-long odyssey to a Canadian's conflicted feelings about living in the U.S.; from accounts of being driven from home by fear and misery (Nigeria, Albania) to tales of domestic and economic woes at this end - or, just as often, hard-won success and satisfaction.

For a soundscape, Cardell sought a composer who could work with the resonant qualities of the echoing Icebox Project Space and create the right sonic atmosphere. A Pew funder suggested Nick Zammuto, founder and onetime half of the band the Books, an inventive duo invested in found sounds and folk melodies. Now based in Vermont, he creates dada energy, international vibes, and contemporary incisiveness with his eponymous band, Zammuto. In Supper, you'll hear sounds like the creaking of a ship's hull.

"He came to Philadelphia to investigate the acoustics of the IceBox space," said Cardell. "I gave him a Bach partita we'd been working with, just to give him an idea of the tempo and beat we wanted. I love what he's created, especially the sonic imagery of the heartbeat during the duet" with Bethany Formica and William Robinson.

At a recent rehearsal, the hour-long work brought to mind the body formations of Bella Lewitsky's work, once described as "docu-dance." Clusters of dancers crash together, uplift and crawl over one another, then explode away from the group as individuals - the dynamics of the dance mirroring the dynamics of immigration.

"I was looking for an essence," Cardell said, her hand groping the air. "I didn't want to use texts." But she does use a number of props, including eight large and dangerous-looking folding tables. "The objects that I use have to be super emblematic. I have to find objects that can be many things. There is nothing in the performance that is not used more than once. I have to figure it out why it is there and use it until I have no more use for it."

Because food is a major component of the immigrant experience - the lack of it, memories of family meals, elaborate farewell dinners - it's a component of Supper, as well.

During the performance, at the supper table - a place of solace and community - the bodies twist away from one another. But at the end of the journey, the dancers and Merian Soto, who holds together the space that everyone else has left, will distribute supper - empanadas and burritos - to members of the audience, inviting them to share a meal. And, perhaps, a story.


EXHIBITION

Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, noon-8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, Gray Area, outside Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts, 1400 N. American St.

Free

DANCE

Supper, People on the Move

8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday at Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts, 1400 N. American St. (free simulcast Friday on Independence Mall).

Tickets: $15-$20.

Information: supperdance.com.