In 1915, a young orphaned woman fled England, the only home she knew, trying to escape the violence of the first World War. Alone, she sailed to Montreal, and took a train across the continent, arriving at Cascade Tunnel, just west of Leavenworth, Washington. That first night, she slept in a cabin amongst the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
This woman is named Lily Isabel Bunny—the grandmother of Dr. Kaley Lane Eaton, a Seattle-based composer and singer who conceptualized lily[bloom in my darkness], a 35-minute electroacoustic opera that opens Karin Stevens Dance Company’s show. lily[bloom in my darkness] explores the dreams and fears of Lily her first night in her new home. According to Stevens, this piece seeks to understand how intergenerational pain writes itself in our bodies, and how through movement, we can heal together to create a better world.
lily adorns five live musicians on stage: a violinist, cellist, harpist, clarinetist, and soprano singer djing with a macbook, each bringing a rich musical accompaniment to the performance. Karin Stevens carries a large suitcase, confusion hanging on her face. Her hands are in fists and fingers twitch. A light plucking on string instruments turns into violent loudness—a blaring bass clarinet shrieks, monsters and white noise gurgle from the computer, and the violinist forcefully picks at her violin with bare hands. Soon we are all in a nightmare, in the turmoil of Lily’s migration.
Conceptually, lily peaks interest. It examines a local history in a truly innovative medium. The story is relatable—weren’t we all immigrants at one point? The live musicians freshen the stage, especially the electroacoustic-soprano-singing, djing-wizard Eaton. The piece is even set to an original poem turned libretto by Canadian author Felicia Klingenberg. By most measures, lily sounds phenomenally cool.
In practice though, lily[bloom in my garden] has shortcomings. A 35 minute dance piece, with only one dancer, is incredibly hard to do well; it can easily drag, leave the audience behind, and become inconsistent with impressive dancing. Stevens spends a large amount of time walking around the stage, pedestrian-like. She takes great time stretching through her arms, her fingers, in a way that is unquestioningly beautiful, but there’s only so long the audience can be absorbed in the twirling of fingers. The piece cycled predictably through sudden but repetitive mood changes, seemingly without intention. Stevens would fluctuate between chest pounding anger when the clarinet barked, seizing spasms, and graceful, sad, port de bras to the harp.
Important to note, lily also absorbs the audience in sympathies for a pioneering woman. We’re surrounded in her pain, carried through her journey. Though I don’t want to underestimate Lily’s suffering, I do find it worrying that the piece seems to gloss over the suffering of first nations people happening all around Lily in 1915 Pacific Northwest. Karin Stevens even brings to light these questions. In the expanded digital program she encourages the audience to read on her website, she writes:
What happened to Europeans that came to this “new world” and brought with them so much mental disease and environmental degradation that has written a story on this land of complacent and complicit movements of harm that are still blaring and resonant today? What needs to be done to transfigure white misery within and white misery drawn egregiously upon others? Even as “allies,” what is the work we still need to do within our body-spirits to be effective movement makers for change?
These questions are so important, especially when exploring your own family’s relationship to colonial genocide, as Eaton and Stevens do with lily[bloom in my darkness]. However, Stevens and Eaton seem to bury this historical context deep in the digital program, instead of addressing it during the show itself. If Eaton and Stevens’ work had acknowledged the impact of European colonization on indigenous Americans surrounding Lily’s own journey, they could have brought the audience deeper into a complex historical reality.
Leaving out troubling parts of the past is especially notable in lily[bloom in my darkness] considering that during her mid-show speech, Stevens called on the audience to reaffirm our allyship through healing movement. If we are truly going to “cultivate movement to make a better world,” as Stevens suggests, we need to hold ourselves truly accountable to our history and be consistent in our words and our actions.
All in all, lily[bloom in my darkness] was an honest attempt to explore the particular agony of a young woman’s journey. Though there were drawbacks, Stevens and Eaton did create an avant-garde dance show that illuminated the body’s capacity for holding pain, and movement’s ability to heal trauma.
The program also included LUNG, a collaborative duet of dancers and six musicians, exploring finding breath and voice. Karin Stevens Dance Company presented lily[bloom in my darkness] & LUNG, October 11-14, 2018 at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway.