The first live, in-person dance performance I’ve seen in more than six months took place in Oak Park last Sunday, in the garden of Cheney Mansion. Winifred Haun & Dancers presented a physically distanced and masked one-hour performance by six company members, who danced as an ensemble and in a series of solos and no-contact duets at spots around the spacious grounds. I confess having been nervous to attend a live dance show under the current circumstances… Not out of fear of contagion—I trusted Haun and company to take all the proper precautions—but of how those precautions might compromise the artistry or detract from the audience experience.
Turns out there was nothing to worry about. Choreography and presentation decisions were adapted to restrictions from the CDC that we can all recite in our sleep, and happily treated them as constraints one might find in any venue. The audience was split into three groups which traveled through the stations in the garden separately, then reconvened for a finale. Markers on the ground cued audience members to remain spread out at each station and chairs were spaced in groups of two or three on the lawn for the finale. These measures were organized in advance and unobtrusive to a performance that was refreshingly un-preoccupied with restrictions or bogged in anxiety, but instead absorbed in the beauty of the location and the grace of bodies in motion.
The opening and closing ensemble sections were accompanied by composer Barry Bennett on drum, vocalizations and, in the last section, electronic score, the solo and duet sections set only to the chirp of insects, the bubbling of a fountain, and the hum of passing cars and occasional planes overhead. Dancers were dressed in earth tones mimicking the clay brick and soil of their surroundings. Haun’s choreography complemented the Cheney Mansion grounds: Ariel Dorsey’s stately solo on the terrace referred to the brick and glass framing her limbs, and dancers in the garden moved playfully, turning upside-down on benches and grasping high branches. One of my favorite moments was during Vernon Gooden’s solo near a small waterfall-fountain that turned into a tender and meditative duet with a tree. The closing ensemble section was marked by gathering-like arm gestures that seemed both an invocation and a celebration of the harvest season, the magic-hour light splashing the garden behind in gold and green.
The location was not without its challenges—irregular paving stones can be unfriendly to balance, and grass is a real enemy of turns, particularly on one leg and in sneakers—but none of this detracted from the long-awaited experience of, with a group of friends and strangers, witnessing live dancers practice their art and together, though spread out and muffled by gloves, break out into applause.
“Steps in the Garden: Dance at Cheney Mansion” by Winifred Haun & Dancers, Sunday, October 4 at 4pm. Will be presented as a livestream Saturday, October 17 at 4pm. $15-$20. amilia.com/store/en/park-district-of-oak-park/shop/activities/2908076.