The stream in the Baker Woodlands on Emory's campus no longer resembles the sparkling brook D. Patton White remembers from his time as a student in the late 1970s. He and other members of Beacon Dance recently visited the stream, but, "We got down there, and the amount of algae and muck was astonishing. The stench was overwhelming," he says.
White's original vision for Beacon's latest performance, Water Study, called for dancers to be in the stream for a piece about water as the origin and sustenance of life, but when disgusted dancers began asserting their health concerns, the vision had to change. Hazmat suits have replaced the original dance costumes.
Site-specific performances have become popular on the Atlanta arts scene recently, but artists often discover that a site can assert its own agenda in spite of the artist's original vision. White says flexibility in approaching such work is key. "My approach to site-specific performance is to really involve the site," he says. "With each rehearsal we make new discoveries, figuring out the assets and the liabilities of a space."
For the piece, audience members will follow the dancers — eight students and six professionals — on a journey across the Emory campus. Visitors will be guided from the benches at the intersection in front of the Rich Building to a grassy hillside where the stream emerges from underneath the Woodruff Library. The audience follows the stream both underground and aboveground, as the dancers play scientists studying the water. The movement in the piece explores spatial relationships between bodies and the water, set to the music of a live violinist under the bridge and the sounds of nature put through computer processing by composer John Ciliberto. As the dancers follow the water downstream, the water gets cleaner and the hazmat suits come off.
Water Study marks the beginning of a return to a series of site-specific pieces White and his 20-year-old company began in 1998. Like its predecessor, the new Elemental Project will examine each of the four elements in a different site around Atlanta. Beacon performed the original Water Study in 1998 in the basement of City Hall East, which was built over the site of fresh water springs. Beacon took on each of the elements in subsequent years, one for each year: Earth followed in 1999 on City Hall East's first floor; Fire was performed at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center; and Air at B Complex, an artist's complex in Southwest Atlanta.
This go-round, the projects will fall more quickly on each other's heels and each will end with an invitation to the next: Earth will be performed as part of the Art on the Beltline series November 12-13; Fire will take place in March at a location to be determined; and Air will again conclude at B Complex the first weekend in May. White says the performance cycle is meant to mirror the phases of life: Water represents the beginnings of life, earth stands for the corporeal existence between birth and death, Fire is the transition of death itself, and Air represents whatever lies beyond death.
Beacon's performance of Water Study fits into a larger series of Emory events taking place during the 2011-2012 academic year that all focus on the theme of water. In mid-October, dance faculty member Lori Teague will lead participants in an improvisational experiment passing water from vessel to vessel across campus. Environmental artist John Grade comes to campus in November for a residency; he will integrate water elements from Emory's natural environment into outdoor public art. That same week, Emory students will participate in a public workshop production of Out of Hand Theater's Without Which Nothing, a play that follows three water-related narratives. The series also includes films, lectures, visual art exhibitions, academic classes and other projects all focusing on the subject of water. Most of the artists, like White and his group, take the opportunity to emphasize water as a vital but threatened resource.
"I had been contemplating a return to this concept for a number of years," says White of his own return to the theme. "Water is still the giver of life. But our experience in this situation is at odds with that. We, as a society, are killing this stream. It's now a story of a tragedy unfolding."