Photo: Ken Falk
Sarah Hixon on the literary roots of her company's new poetry-inspired presentation, 'A Harrowing World,' which runs March 25-27 at Columbus Dance Theatre
Andy Downing, Columbus Alive
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
The process of bringing “A Harrowing World” to the stage at Columbus Dance Theatre has been a long one. Initially set to premiere in April 2020, the show was delayed nearly two full years by the coronavirus pandemic, and the roots of the concept actually stretch back to the early spring of 2019, when Sarah Hixon, artistic director of Hixon Dance, started to immerse herself in the poetry of Columbus writer Maggie Smith.
At the time, Hixon was working with an astrophysicist on a piece that bridged the worlds of science and dance, which led her to explore texts centered on the concept of transformation, including poems by Smith about personal transformation. “And I loved the poems, even though they weren’t right for that project,” Hixon said. “But I kept them in the back of my mind, and after that project ended … I wanted to go back and explore [Smith’s work] a little bit deeper.”
Gradually, as Hixon worked her way through Smith’s catalog, an idea for a new show started to take shape, one rooted in the local author’s poems. The resultant work, dubbed “A Harrowing World” and taking place at Columbus Dance Theatre Friday to Sunday, March 25-27, finds a team of five dancers and four musicians performing a series of six interpretive modern dance pieces, each inspired by one of Smith’s poems, including: “See No Evil,” “Heart,” “At Your Age, "I Wore a Darkness,” “Harrowing,” “Good Bones” and “Rain, New Year’s Eve.”
“I think what I like about [Smith's work] is she has these strong, almost visceral images that you can emotionally respond to, but at the same time the language is actually really sparse, at least in the poems I selected,” Hixon said. “She doesn’t give the full story about who she’s talking about and when it was and where it was — and some poems do that, where there’s a lot of painting of scene. But she doesn’t do that, and I love it. I love how scarce the language is because it allows me to come in and add how I’m responding to it emotionally or narratively.”
When reading Smith’s “See No Evil,” from 2005's Lamp of the Body, for example, Hixon was transported back to childhood, when her older sister, the middle of three children, died of leukemia at age 8.
“And the poem, again, there’s lots of room for interpretation, but the narrator is looking at an old photo, and describing things in the photo, but not giving you a lot of information,” Hixon said. “But what is clear is that it’s a family photo. And it’s also clear that one of those people is no longer alive. And so, it immediately made me think about my background. … I’ve always wondered how that trauma affected my parents, my older sister. I was quite young, so I don’t necessarily remember the difference in my family before and after the event. … It made me think about loss, about parenting, about grief. And it was interesting to go back and reflect on it, and almost give this event some light.”
In transforming the poems for the stage, Hixon said she started by pulling the poems even further apart, taking specific words or turns of phrase to create “a score,” or a set of potentials for the dancers, who would then collaborate with Hixon in creating a series of movements meant to capture the feel of Smith’s prose. “And then we’d work together to pull those apart, to change them,” Hixon said. “We’d change the dynamics, change the facing, change the tempo — all sorts of things to polish it. And by doing that, we end up having a kind of language for the work.”
While Hixon received Smith’s blessing to bring her verses to the stage, as well as approval from her publisher, the artistic director refrained from having in-depth conversations with Smith about the selected works, preferring to explore her interpretations of the poems via the movements of the dancers.
“I’ve never asked her, like, ‘Tell me what this is all about,’” said Hixon, who was nervous when Smith attended a January rehearsal. “I felt like I was taking her work and hugely adding to it, putting in my ideas and stories, and I was a little afraid, because I wasn’t sure how she was going to respond. But I think she totally got it.”
Following two years of pandemic life, which Hixon Dance navigated by pivoting online — a move Hixon described as almost antithetical to the form and that consisted largely of dancers filming solo videos of home performances — “A Harrowing World” and its explorations of grief, loss and transformation have likely taken on new dimensions, though Hixon wasn't yet sure how these added layers might reveal themselves.
“Coming back [to in-person rehearsals] there was a little bit of, ‘Is it OK to touch you? Can I get this close?’ There was that negotiation because we had been socially distancing,” Hixon said. “I’m really curious to see how different the piece reads now than it would have two years ago. I definitely think that’s going to have an effect people feel.”