By Sharon Hoyer
Since the advent of the nuclear family and the relegation of our nation’s elderly to nursing homes, we rarely see multiple generations in the same room, much less on the same stage. In “We Hope, Conspire,” Annie Rudnik engages a primarily invisible population. The conspirators: a combined ensemble of non-professional dancers ranging in age from seventeen to late-thirties and residents of Norwood Crossing senior assisted-living home. Performances span three weekends: the last two at Norwood Crossing and this upcoming weekend at the new Links Hall. The change of venue will surely affect the feel of the show, but Rudnik has, without a doubt, created a piece unlike anything you’ve seen. One performer said that being on stage and being in the audience are exactly the same experience. And that experience is tremendously tender, authentic and humane. Rudnik talked about the piece before last Sunday’s performance.
What was the inspiration for this project?
I’ve been the biographer for a vaudeville performer named Harold “Stumpy” Cromer for the last ten years and he really sparked my interest in the aging population. Out of college I began working as a personal trainer to senior citizens. Through that work I started doing some athletic-type classes and I had the desire to be more creative with my clients. My friend and ensemble member Molly Whedbee works at Norwood Crossing; about a year ago I approached her about this particular project, working with Norwood Crossing and using Links Hall as a resource, a project in which all members agree to perform. That’s the threshold for participation.
What were the challenges of working with these groups separately?
So much of this process is about coming together—we even say in the piece that it’s a healthy thing for us to breathe together, that sharing the air between us is a way of communing or conspiring. Each group was so interested about the other but because of time and distance and the limitations of the Norwood Crossing ensemble they could only be together a handful of times. I bridged that gap with audio, recording conversations and bringing them to the other ensemble. We would do our warm-ups listening to the conversations and get to know each other that way.
How many Norwood Crossing performers are there?
Usually a dozen. It’s varied week to week because of health, or because of fear. Several have come in and then left and then come back because they don’t think of themselves as a performer. It’s frightening to present oneself on stage ever, but more so when you’re partially paralyzed or have other challenges.
What changed when you brought the two ensembles together?
It was really electric. The first week they got in the same room, more seniors came then ever. In the weeks following, there was talk around Norwood Crossing about the wonderful young dancers that visited. And the juniors—I call the two groups my juniors and my seniors—the juniors, many of whom have never performed and don’t consider themselves professional, amazing dancers, got such a kick and confidence that someone else could see their talent even if they themselves didn’t realize it.
How did first performances go?
Really well. Each of these seniors live in this home for a reason, so certainly there are a lot of memory lapses. It’s a surprise each time; the piece allows for a lot of surprises and some structure. I think each performance is going to be very unique and magnificent.
How do you see the change of venue affecting the dynamic?
I think it will certainly heighten it. I love the excitement. Even if an individual has no memory of ever rehearsing—though we’ve been rehearsing for seven months—and they have no memory of it, something happens from practicing the embodiment. They get on stage and think “I’ve been here before.” They follow each other and when it’s their turn, step up.
There are a few organizations in the U.S. and the world that work with aging dancers, but none I know of that is working within the nursing facility. I can understand why; there were a lot more challenges than I anticipated. When I presented my project to Links Hall, it was suggested that I work at an independently living senior day center with seniors who are much more active and with-it, but I insisted on being in the facility, and it’s wonderful.
Why did you insist on working with the Norwood residents?
Because there’s all sort of activities for independently living seniors; they can go out and take dance classes. Many of these seniors don’t leave this building ever. To bring something that challenged mind and spirit and body and give them an opportunity to interact with the public seemed so crucial.
At Links Hall, 3111 North Western, (773)281-0824. Saturday, April 20 at 3pm. $15, $12 online. Purchase tickets at LinksHall.org.