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Danceworks brings handcrafted wooden figures to life in historical production

The story of Levi Fisher Ames unfolds in a room in the Madison Veterans Hospital in 1923, but Levi’s memories and fantasies take the audience through his return from the Civil War, his post-war healing, his emergence as an artist, his conflict with his troubled son, his evolution as an entertainer, and finally his fond farewell to his loving wife and his life’s work.

Danceworks Artistic Director Dani Kuepper choreographed the dance movements to tell the stories inside Levi’s head, and help them interact with Kym McDaniel‘s video and photography. As a filmmaker and choreographer, McDaniel has collaborated with Danceworks previously, and most recently project managed Danceworks DanceLAB’s Movement Media Lab.

“The dancers are an extension of Levi’s memories and imagination, and ebb and flow along with his state of consciousness,” explained Kuepper. “They’re like his companion ghosts, transforming from soldiers to animals to children and silly townsfolk as he looks back over his life from his hospital room. It’s quite a ride with plenty of humor and creative joy to balance out the more serious moments. It’s also a wonderful tour through Wisconsin history.”

Writer and director Edward Morgan had always imagined “Against the Grain” as being a theatre and dance piece, but he brought in the concept of using film sequences later in the process. McDaniel’s nuanced, evocative film style was the perfect match for Levi’s world.

“It came to me that film sequences could visually merge the carvings and the dancers, and that the screen could at times become a window into Levi’s mind and creative process,” said Morgan. “It’s an extraordinary mix, artistically speaking.”

The poem “Homecoming,” written by Edward Morgan, accompanies the second dance in the show.

“It was one of the first things I wrote when I started the first draft of this piece. I wrote it in one sitting and it hasn’t changed much since.,” added Morgan. “The notion of Levi as a veteran, and his return from war as the starting point of our story was in my mind from the beginning. Likewise, his last days in the Soldiers Home was always the the endpoint.”

Homecoming

“When I saw the gate
And the white fencepost
And the dust fell
From my gaze
When my uniform was laid away
Like a folded corpse
And that clear cold water
From the well
Spilled down my chest
And soaked the floor:
I could not raise my eyes
And look my father in the face.

And later when I dressed
As if some other man
Unbathed in smoke
Unscarred, unknown
As if no fields were laid to waste
As if farm boys were not piled high
As if there were no battle cries”
And bullets only summer rain
As if victorious home I marched
As if not full of shame:
I could not raise my eyes
And look my father in the face.

These video segments were filmed live during the private rehearsals at Danceworks, and present a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process involved in bringing Morgan’s idea to the stage.

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