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Giving Mountains a Voice Through Dance

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As the lights come up on Dance Exchange in Cassie Meador's evening-length dance theater work How to Lose a Mountain, Zeke Leonard, perched on a porch, plays a slide guitar while Shula Strassfeld, a 66-year-old dancer with a slight frame, pushes a 700-pound piano across stage. The instrument Zeke plays was made out of wood from the piano; the piano was saved by Cassie, who found it under a pile of junk in a basement.

Why would a choreographer buy a busted, broken piano? I asked the same thing when Cassie first told me about her find, but as she explains in this email sent last February:

Somewhat impulsively, I bought a piano today at an estate sale. Not just any piano, but one that we plan to repurpose into instruments and possibly some set elements in Mountain. The plan is that part of the process of making this new work together will be to actually build these instruments together. The piano could be a way to look at what it means to use our bodies to take something apart and build something new.

How to Lose a Mountain confronts our notions of risk and reward, or the things we lose when we gain, and gain when we lose. The evening-length work is a commentary on mountaintop removal, on why it's important to remember what has come before us, on what lives around us, on the resources we take for granted. The stage work is rooted in storytelling.

Now the piano has become not just one new instrument, but four so far: two mountain ukuleles, one slide guitar, and one tenor guitar. These gorgeous creations were made by Zeke, who we met just prior to buying the piano while we were in residency at Syracuse University. A furniture maker by trade and a professor at Syracuse's design school, I doubt that he thought when he met us that he'd become a long-distance cast member and would be performing onstage alongside our company a year later. With these new instruments have come new songs -- written and performed by the cast using "found object" lyrics, in the way that the instruments have been made using found materials. This means that phrases are borrowed from stories and articles, and the tunes are build on the bones of other older tunes.

So, what does an old broken piano that has been repurposed for instruments have to do with mountaintop removal, you ask? Directly? Not a lot. But thematically, the story of unearthing, destroying, rebuilding, and repurposing is what Cassie is trying to address when it comes to what we know (and what we don't know) about mountaintop removal.

A year ago this April, Cassie and her walking partner Matt Mahaney set off into the woods, along riverbanks, and down highways to walk 500 miles from Cassie's home in Washington, D.C. to West Virginia, to trace one of the sources of its electrical power: a range of mountains that once stood and now have been blown apart to get at the coal through mountain top removal. Cassie slept outdoors, hiked through an April snowstorm, collected water from streams to drink, walked an average of 18 miles a day, and encountered wildlife on the Appalachian Trail, including bears, snakes, spiders, and owls. Cassie and Matt completed the full journey -- which actually turned out to be 600-plus miles -- and Dance Exchange members joined in along the way to help lead movement workshops (partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, see more about these "Moving Field Guides" here) collect stories from communities the hikers passed through, and to bring supplies and encouragement. And just as the instruments were built from found objects, and the songs from found stories, along the walk Cassie and the dancers built dance phrases from experiences and inspiration found along the way.

On the homefront, we'd receive short, and at times cryptic, texts from a device, called a Spot Locator, that enabled us to know the location of the hikers at any given time without relying on spotty cell phone signals out in the woods. Some days, we'd get messages like this:

"First warm clear day this week!" Or, "High of 50. Low of 30. Snow is melting." Or, "Reports on the wildlife being spotted: Hot and the snakes are out. Yikes!!" And "Second bear sighting!"

The heart-stopping spot texts started coming near the end when we got a message saying: "Cassie is experiencing overuse injury." And then "Need extract -- Instructions to follow."

It wasn't an easy two months for any of us, especially Cassie who sustained an ankle injury 450 miles into the journey. The "extract" text meant that we'd head out to the trail, pick them up and take them to Woods Hole Hostel where Cassie was forced to rest until she could continue.

While Cassie and Matt were walking on their own for more than half of the journey, they certainly weren't alone or without resources from the homefront, be it food or supplies or help when need be. Dancer Sarah Levitt (who dances the feisty role of a fast-paced disbeliever in nostalgia who confronts Zeke throughout the piece doubting the need for salvaging old memories and objects) headed to West Virginia near the end of the walk to bring the hikers home. "I drove out to West Virginia in a rented Mercury Mariner on Tuesday, May 29. I brought five books, my leftover protein bars from the first part of the Walk, and my ukulele. I planned to read and sleep and learn how to play the Carter Family's version of 'Wildwood Flower.'" Her plan went awry when Google maps guided her down a road that was no more than a muddy footpath and her car got stuck. Without cell service, she managed to flag down a friendly man on an ATV to help get her out of the mudpit, adding to the stories we were collecting from the trip.

At the final weekend of the walk, Cassie found the site of where the mountains once stood that power her home, but she found something else there, too -- or someone, rather. A man named Larry Gibson, who lived on Kayford Mountain. (Learn more about Larry's legacy at mountainkeeper.org) He invited Cassie and Matt into his home and talked about how his last remaining 50 acres of land, which had been in his family for generations, was constantly being threatened by the folks strip-mining the mountains surrounding his land.

For 30 years he'd been fighting the fight to keep what was his. "At the end of our conversation, Larry pounded his fist against the kitchen table, shook the floorboards with his feet, and told me that I had to make this dance and convey the voice of the Mountain," Cassie says. The piano is one voice of the mountain. At times her voice is eerie and slightly off-tune. At other times, she is angry, intense. At one heated point in the piece, Zeke wails on the harp strings inside of the pianos belly while cast members Sarah, Matthew Cumbie and Paloma McGregor fall and leap and spin, explode like they are rigged to dynamite, and slam their bodies to the floor.

Larry passed away this past September, one day before the dancers started rehearsals for How To Lose a Mountain. Cassie had hoped he would tell his story joining the company in the work. Though that didn't happen, his story has become central to the work. Kayford Mile, a song inspired by Larry's family's land and mountain, comes at the climax of the performance. And Larry's voice is present too, through interview clips about his work to save his land.

Walking 500 miles and constructing instruments from discarded pianos is a bit outside of the norm for a typical dance company, but Dance Exchange is anything but typical. Based just outside of D.C. in Takoma Park, MD, our intergenerational modern dance company has been partnering with unusual movers and makers for more than 36 years, and our "nonfiction" dance projects have included physicists, health practitioners, geneticists, farmers, lawyers, and park rangers.

Dance Exchange performed How To Lose a Mountain two evenings at Dance Place in D.C. (March 16 & 17) to over-sold audiences who lingered in the lobby to talk about what they'd just seen far longer than the usual dance crowd. On April 23-25, we'll perform the work at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. May 3-5 we'll perform selections from the work at the Trillium Performing Arts Collective in Lewisburg, West Virginia. We're hoping to bring the work to communities we met along the 500-mile walk, and far beyond. For us a premeire doesn't signify the end result of a project, but the start of a new chapter. In the piece, Zeke says "If you do something like cut down a tree, you want to get as much use out of it as you can." The same could be said for the process of building this work --if you're going to walk 500 miles and have this many people contribute to making the piece, you want that work to reach as many people as possible, whether that's in a full stage work in the theater, a pop-up version in the Virginia countryside, or through sharing the stories, videos, photographs, and interviews on 500miles500stories.com.

But for now, in the days after such a busy, buzzing weekend, the piano is on a dolly, sideways, and under a moving blanket in our studio. It's been a busy year for her, and she deserves the rest. It's been a busy year for Cassie too, but she's already got a biography of eco-writer Rachel Carson tucked under her arm and is ready to get started with her next project.