What was it like to be in your body this morning? What was it like to be in your body when you were a child? What was it like to be in your body yesterday? What is it like to be in your body?
KT Niehoff asks these questions and more as she floats around the room, weaving through the audience with poise. Metallic blue lipstick and eyeshadow match her floor-length sequined gown and make her expressions pop. Her eyes widen in wonder as she sings us into a curious journey. Rather than an out of body experience, Niehoff invites us to question what it’s like on the inside. White helium spheres float around the space like fellow audience members, carefully weighted by straw structures filled with sand. One frequently floats by my head like a good friend coming over to say “hi.” Another pokes the back of my neck like it’s trying to get my attention. I spin in my seat, which is attached to a rotating base, to gently bat them back into orbit. Scattered throughout the space are three large platforms, while an open X-shaped path carves through the middle of the room.
Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds explores four bodily accounts – those of a professional inline speed skater, a paraplegic rower, a survivor of a near death experience, and the first South Korean astronaut to go into space. Without much of a background story, Niehoff interviews each person, her live voice chatting with fragments of audio interviews, cut and composed by Zeke Keeble. She looks toward the ceiling as if talking to a higher power, listening to their fascinating answers. Speed-skater Maurice Hall explains “how to turn left” while dancers Liane Aung and Thomas House illustrate his inflections and tempo of speaking. While the passion in his voice vibrates my skin, the actual physics explanation flies right over my head. Niehoff asks how it felt for him to reach 40 miles per hour, commenting that she didn’t think she could ever go that fast. Hall responds, “I think everyone has a 40 miles per hour in them.”
Dancers Alia Swersky and Wade Madsen perform a seated duet on one of the platforms, their hands wrapped in small strings of light. They sit on revolving stools, built similarly to the audience chairs. They mimic rowing and intertwine their upper bodies as paraplegic rower Michael Grady talks about his daily training. Throughout the show, the dancers pass VR headsets around. I am hesitant to take my eyes away from actual reality to visit a digital environment instead, but what I find makes the interviewee’s voices ring ever more true. A 360-degree view reel plays, and Grady’s is especially entrancing. I am sitting in the row boat with him—the paddles push us through the water and I am transported.
Soyeon Yi, the first South Korean astronaut in space, tells us what it’s like to blast away from earth. An incredible weight pounds on your chest, making it hard to breathe. Yi laughs as she describes bruises she gets on her elbows and knees from needing to stop herself when gravity’s force disappears. A common theme of “a body in motion stays in motion” pervades throughout the stories, and my eyes are drawn back to the helium “stars,” wondering what it is like to float so freely. “It’s complete freedom…you can do whatever you want with your body,” Yi says.
Niehoff disrobes her role as narrator, literally, by removing her gown to reveal a simple black slip. Here we see all of Niehoff’s talents coincide—she’s sung to us, sported her own costuming designs, theatrically conversed with her invisible subjects, and now she dances. She moves to the sound of Shevanthi Daniels’ voice, telling the story of her unexpected heart attack. The audience tenses in their seats listening to her detailed memory of being in the hospital. Niehoff moves with soft intensity as Daniels explains how she had to give in to her emotions to find strength in a moment of near death. She mentions how her physicality had to take over, while psychology followed—a phenomenon that as physical beings, we are likely to experience at least once in this life.
Dancers constantly consider what it is like to be in their bodies, but by bringing different testimonies into our understanding, Niehoff broadens the discussion of physical existence. Combining multiple disciplines, Before We Flew is compellingly biographical while also inquiring universal questions. A final interview between Niehoff and Madsen gives a touching account of what it’s like to grow older as a dancer. Madsen’s eyes show a mourning that every person has to deal with as they age, and we’re left reminded that while the body may be finite, the spirit can never stop growing.
Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds performs at 12th Avenue Arts March 9 – April 1, 2017, produced through Velocity Dance Center’s Made In Seattle New Dance Development Program.