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Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

Tell Me How You Breathe

By Jenny Wonderling | August 16, 2023

Come to the Stone Ridge Orchard next weekend to experience Tell Me How You Breathe, a story of hope expressed through interactive theater, dance and music! Performed outside, it viscerally re-connects the audience with nature and elicits powerful reactions and engagement. This is easily gauged by the open tears, laughter, singing and yes, dancing by most audience members who speak gushingly one-by-one-by-many about the experience during the follow-up Q + A after every show. The relevance of the piece in the face of climate change has been amplified in the Northeast where the show has been touring, and would resonate anywhere.

Neva Cockrell, the show’s director, expressed it this way: “We arrived in Vermont days after the largest flood the state has seen in over 500 years. For our opening two weeks of shows, it continued to alternate heavy rains with polluted skies and bad air quality. It has been humbling and poignant to be touring a show about the climate crisis to communities that are in the middle of responding to a climate crisis.” One audience member in Vermont whose town has many parts now covered in toxic mud said that while they had lots of emergency support, the piece offers “a spiritual emergency response.” Though the show is not religious or even overtly spiritual, she was touching on how this inspirational show reflects the capacity of the human spirit and what can happen when we merge that with action, love and creativity. Earth-honoring, the show expresses the urgency for humans to recognize our interconnectedness and how our healing of both the planet and ourselves cannot be mutually exclusive.

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

Through a co-creative process called Devising Intensives, Tell Me How You Breathe is the result of many voices and creative explorations woven together. In more concrete terms, many performers and creatives came together monthly to produce the end result. This has elicited a complex piece that offers a multilayered solution both individually and collectively through creative expression, the importance of grief in true healing, the need to challenge institutional thought through counter-cultural ideas, creating effective policy and research, as well as acting from a place of personal truth. Neva explained,

“Participants create material on a particular theme or exploration. They might create a scene with dialogue, a movement piece, a song, a moment of audience participation, or a set element. After something is created, we sit as a group and talk about how it impacted us and how it could be different.”

The result: something fresh, dynamic and engaging. And Tell Me How You Breathe is great for all ages! Bring a picnic blanket or a folding chair, enjoy the gorgeous Stone Ridge Orchard, its 350-year-old trees and winding paths, eat from their delicious food truck offerings or bring a picnic, and be sure to try their organic hand-pressed apple ciders on tap. There are even llamas to say hello, too!

See you next weekend at the orchard!
(More info below on the When, Where and How.)

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

INSIDE+OUT: What inspired the story of Tell Me How To Breathe?

Neva Cockrell: At the height of the pandemic, we created a piece about the lungs called “Twenty-Twenty / Twenty Twenty-One” about how the intersecting crises of 2020 met in the lungs – COVID, wildfires, and racist police violence, in the collective conflict of “I can’t breathe.” Now we are seeing these conflicts play out more clearly than ever with air pollution and deadly heat waves. Meanwhile, more subtly, in many traditions, the lungs are considered the organ of grief. So what does it mean for us as a global culture to have so many different things impacting the lungs, perhaps impacting our ability to healthily express grief?

As we toured our performance piece across New England, we carried the intention to bring communities back together, to heal through song, laughter, and dance in order to collectively imagine a more just and beautiful world. The audience response was astounding. People needed this work, needed to gather and grieve, laugh and dream.

So with the support of the New Work New England Grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) we have embarked on a new piece drawing from the same thematic material and the audience feedback from the last show. What has emerged is Tell Me How You Breathe: A New Musical About Climate Justice. With the nourishment of participatory ceremony and dance, story and song, we return to our rightful selves, knitting together audience and performers as we live into being the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

You work in a very collaborative way in terms of your creative process. Please explain why you choose to create this way. What are your greatest challenges working in this format and your greatest rewards?

We collaboratively devise interdisciplinary theater. So, instead of one person writing a script alone in a room or making choreography alone in a studio, we create the show as an ensemble. For Tell Me How You Breathe, we worked one week a month from September 2022 – May 2023 to create the basic script, musical score, character, story arc, and design ideas. With this strong template and starting point, we then entered into five weeks of intensive rehearsal with the performers to finish the piece and add a dance ensemble.

We call these week-long work sessions Devising Intensives. We’ve been working this way for many years now. In a Devising Intensive, participants create material on a particular theme or exploration. They might create a scene with dialogue, a movement piece, a song, a moment of audience participation, or a set element. After something is created, we sit as a group and talk about how it impacted us and how it could be different. In between intensives the core creative team processes what gets made, scripts scenes that are working well, and prepares for the next intensive.

The benefits of working this way are many! It’s a way to have many voices, life experiences, and opinions in the piece. We think it makes for rich and nuanced work. It’s not just one perspective. It also puts the material through many filters before the show opens. By opening night, many people have already seen all the elements of the show and given feedback. So in that way, we can tell if the material is generally working well or not.

One of the challenges of working this way is that you really can’t tell exactly what you are making until it’s done! For example, we thought we were making a physical theater piece for this show, but what has emerged is a full-on musical! It’s an authentic expression of the people who are in the room and the material that is alive in the moment. In that way it’s like life – you can have an idea where you are going, but you can’t really know how that place will really look until you arrive.

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

The combination of dance, connection and honoring our grief is the antidote for the particular environmental catastrophe that is being faced in your piece. How much do you think this formula would actually help change the world if we could offer it as medicine near and far?

While this piece is set in the future and contains elements of magical realism, it also speaks directly to our current moment as we face the climate crisis. This piece is in part inspired by a framework of thinking about societal shifts and changes called “Movement Ecology.” Here’s a passage about Movement Ecology from The Ayni Institute (a training organization based in Boston):

“As fish in water, we sometimes forget not only the culture we’re swimming in but also the larger ecosystem we’re part of: beyond our organizations, there are many campaigns, movements, cultures, communities, and institutions that are trying to make change in their own ways. The dominant culture of isolation and individualism can confuse us into thinking that we are alone at the center, rather than integrally connected to a network of change-makers with diverse theories of change. Ecology shows that diversity and mutualism — rather than monoculture and antagonism — are the conditions for strength and survival. If we saw our work ecologically, we would be more supported and more successful.”

As we were creating this piece, and considering how we might be successful in fighting climate change, what came forward was that we are going to need every angle. We’ll need dominant institutions to change policy, we’ll need counter-cultural movements to bring forth new ideas, we’ll need personal transformation, and perhaps most importantly, we’ll need to acknowledge and nurture our interconnectedness.

We follow four main characters through this show, each representing different approaches – government policy, western medicine/science, holistic healing/embodiment practices, ancestral wisdom, community organizing, and grief practices. We believe that in order to meet the magnitude of this moment on our planet, there are key elements in each of these arenas (and others not represented in the show).

Of these pathways, embodiment practice, ancestral connection, and grief practices are probably the least represented in mainstream culture. Though it is our belief that these are integral to both individual health and societal health. Honoring our bodies, our spirits, and our emotions can bring forth health. We are part of our ecosystem and an integral part. When we turn to the body, we cannot deny our connection to the earth or our responsibility to be of benefit to our broader ecosystem. When we turn to the spirit, we cannot deny our connection to our lineage and forces that are moving through us. When we turn to our emotions, we cannot deny that there is a need for healthy, non-harmful expression to keep ourselves from getting overly anxious, angry, or depressed.

I believe if there were more of a focus on nurturing the body, the spirit, the mind, and the emotions in our daily lives, as well as the earth – sometimes prioritizing these over productivity and gain – that immense healing would take place. I believe these are a necessary part of the path of entering back into the right relationship with the earth and the “more-than-human-world” and hopefully reversing climate change.

When did you first know you “wanted to be” a dancer and performer? What made you sure? Greatest inspiration?

I am the director and choreographer of Tell Me How You Breathe. My background is in dance. I played sports growing up and was also a gymnast. My first love of dance was probably country line dancing in the clubs in high school. I grew up in southern Colorado, and was always asking my parents for a later curfew so I could stay out dancing!

I then went to Oberlin College. I remember seeing a student showcase of modern dance pieces and I cried the entire time. The next semester I signed up for my first modern dance class and was hooked. During college, they took us all to see Pilobolus perform in Cleveland. It was the first representation of professional dance that I had seen that wasn’t ballet-based. I thought to myself, “I could do that.” I graduated with a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in dance in 2009.

After college, I moved to NYC to pursue dance. I probably auditioned for more than 100 things in my first few years. I got into a few small companies, before landing the audition with Pilobolus. I proceeded to dance with Pilobolus, sometimes serving as Dance Captain, all over the world from China to Germany, Brazil to Saudi Arabia for four years before the pandemic hit.

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

My partner, Raphael and I formed Loom Ensemble in 2010 with Sasha Bogdanowitsch and Michael Bauer. For the past 13 years, I both enjoyed creating my own pieces with Loom as well as dancing for many other companies.

One of my mentors, KT Niehoff, once told me, “I would really recommend you do something else with your life. In dance, you’ll never make any money, people will constantly judge your art, and you’ll have to fight every step of the way. So if you can do something else, I recommend you do it. And if you can’t, you’ll know it, so you’ll dance.” Turned out that the latter is true for me.

What is the greatest challenge of this path for you and that other dancers face who choose to make it a career in 2023?

It is definitely an incredibly challenging career to make a living in. I think until there is significant government funding and investment in art and cultural capital, that is unlikely to change in the US. So in order to dance, one often needs to have another job that can bring in income when there is no work, or self-produce, which is in itself another job. In our case, we turn to grants and also supplement by running Wildheart, a creative retreat center in Wallkill.

You toured Vermont and Massachusetts and now the show is in the Hudson Valley. What has been the most moving thing about performing this piece at this particular time on the planet and in the Northeast?

We arrived in Vermont days after the largest flood the state has seen in over 500 years. For our opening two weeks of shows, it continued to alternate heavy rains with polluted skies and bad air quality. It has been humbling and poignant to be touring a show about the climate crisis to communities that are in the middle of responding to a climate crisis.

Our first reaction was to cancel these shows. But after much communication with local producers and sponsors, we decided to go forward with the shows. We toured Montpelier, the state capital, which was hit by 21-foot-tall flood walls and much of the downtown was destroyed. The city supported us to change our planned performance location on the State House Lawn, which was now covered in toxic mud, to an Arts College on a hill that had been spared from the flooding. The energy during the show was palpable. But the impact of the show became apparent during the talkback. People cried as they shared their current experiences and the poignancy of this piece. Someone said, “You know there are all these emergency response crews here helping us recover from the flood. You are one of those. This piece, the work you are doing, this is a spiritual emergency response. We need this so much.” Then it was my turn to cry.

Tell Me How You Breathe by Loom Ensemble

Can you share some of the feedback about the impact of this particular story? (Not a written testimonial.)

As I write this, we are halfway through our tour and have performed the piece for hundreds of people. What I can say so far is that this piece touches people differently based on the moment they are in their lives when they see the show. Some people have spoken about the somatic intelligence of the piece and how much they felt in their bodies. Others have commented on both the hope and the urgency to take action that they feel after the show. Many have cried during the show and resonated with the importance of acknowledging grief. Across the board, people have said they are glad the show isn’t offering “a solution” but rather bringing us together to feel and move, sing and dream.

Overall it is a story of hope. Hope that somewhere in the incredible intelligence and integrity that is available in the world and within humans, we can find a good way forward together.

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WHEN: August 18 and 19th at 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm (Rain Date: Sunday, August 20th)

WHERE: Stone Ridge Orchard
3012 NY-213, Stone Ridge, NY 12484

HOW: Suggested ticket price is $20. Pay-as-you-can/ pay-it-forward.

AMENITIES: Dedicated parking available on-site | Bathrooms accessible onsite | Talkback after the show
BYO: Your own picnic blankets or lawn chairs (Folding chairs available for those access needs).
Volunteers needed! Contact us HERE to come early + stay late in exchange for a free ticket.
For more information or to purchase tickets click HERE.

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