Composer John Cage believed music is everywhere in the ordinary moments of life — we just have to learn to hear it. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins said pretty much the same of poetry. Great musicians, artists, and choreographers have the gift to tune in and share it with the rest of us.
The D&R Greenway Land Trust, an organization tuned in to the art of land preservation, has selected a group of performing artists who hear the sounds and feel the movements of the earth to perform in three inspirational venues.
DanceSpora, the resident dance company of Passage Theater in Trenton, will perform a commissioned contemporary dance about the land on Saturday, September 22, at St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell, and again at Cadwalader Park in Trenton on Saturday, October 6.
Six-time Grammy winners the Paul Winter Consort will interweave music with the soul-stirring words of poet Jane Hirshfield in Music and Poetry of the Earth on Wednesday, October 10, at the Princeton University Chapel, followed by a meet-the-artists reception in Firestone Library.
The common thread is the search for a kind of Shangri-La, a place where animals live off native vegetation, where the sounds of nature can conduct their own music, a space where poetry can be inspired.
“I am very excited about performing in the magnificent chapel, with its magical acoustics,” says Paul Winter, whose music embraces the cultures and creatures of the earth. “I have admired the work of D&R Greenway since I had the privilege of playing at the opening of the Scott and Hella McVay Poetry Trail there in 2010. My collaborations with the McVays goes back to the ’70s with our mutual interest in whales and poetry, which we then celebrated during 25 years of collaborations at the Dodge Poetry Festival.”
Winter has been listening to the songs of the humpback whales since the 1960s, and refers to them as “the greater symphony of the earth.” In that spirit, wolves, eagles, elk, loon, and others not only become part of the Consort’s chorus, but help awaken music lovers to the plight of endangered species.
Winter has traveled by raft, dog sled, horse, kayak, and tug-boat to 52 countries and wilderness areas on six continents to record the symphony of the earth. As artists-in-residence at the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, New York’s St. John the Divine, the Consort has for three decades presented annual Winter and Summer Solstice Celebrations, as well as its ecological liturgical work, Missa Gaia/Earth Mass. Winter has performed at major venues around the world, including Washington’s National Cathedral, the Grand Canyon, and the Negev Desert.
There should be a warning on the Consort’s 2010 release, Miho: Journey to the Mountain: Do not listen to while operating a motor vehicle. The sounds of soprano sax, keyboard, various string instruments, and calls of the wild can send the spirit soaring in a way that can be more mind-altering than alcohol. The first 11 tracks are titled “Many Paths to Paradise,” and the final two, “Shangri-La.”
With the songs of cicadas, elephants, birds, even humans, the album is a tribute to the I.M. Pei-designed Miho Museum just outside Kyoto, Japan. When Pei first visited the mountainous site, it reminded him of the landscape of his native China and the story of “Peach Blossom Valley” –– a Shangri-La where the villagers were peaceful and hardworking, a land where peach trees filled the air with fragrance. In the tale, the fisherman who discovered this magical place returned home, yet could never again find Shangri-La.
In his design for the Miho, Pei sought to create a kind of Shangri-La, with a curving road lined with weeping cherry trees leading to it. It was only after the museum was completed that Pei learned the valley it looks over is named Peach Valley.
“My experience of the Miho was one of exaltation, the kind of feeling I’ve usually known only from places in nature,” Winter writes. “I have never before fallen in love with a building. The antiquities of the museum’s collection come from ancient cultures throughout Asia and represent a kind of chronicle of the human journey.”
The museum had just the kind of acoustic spaces in which the Consort specializes in playing. A kiva –– an octagonal stone room with a large open air hole in the ceiling –– had a similar reverberation to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The album reflects the museum’s interweaving of ancient and contemporary, of art and nature, East and West.
The voices serve as spirit guides for the listener’s imaginary journey across the vast landscapes of Asia, writes Winter. “These introspective soliloquies are meant to awaken a mode of deep listening in which the journey can be realized.”
Paradise, by any other name, is not so much a space, but a state of being, concludes Winter. The ensemble includes oboe, sarangi (a short-necked 42-string cello), English horn, saxophone, koto (a 16th-century stringed instrument, the national instrument of Japan), keyboard, and more.
The Consort’s newest work launched in spring, Flyways, celebrates the miracle of the great bird migration from Africa through the mid-East to Eurasia. It explores indigenous musical traditions from each of the cultures over which the animals fly, interwoven with the vocalizations of some of these 350 species of migrating birds.
Winter and Hirshfield first performed together at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival. This year Hirshfield will be a featured poet at the Festival at NJPAC in Newark, October 11 and 12, making a stop in Princeton to perform in Music and Poetry of the Earth.
Born in New York City in 1953, Hirshfield graduated from Princeton University in the first class to include women, in 1973. After publishing her first poem, she put aside poetry to study for eight years at the San Francisco Zen Center. “I felt that I’d never make much of a poet if I didn’t know more than I knew at that time about what it means to be a human being,” she has said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life.”
She uses short forms, spare lines, and imagery of natural and domestic settings, and her poems find the sacred in the everyday and frequently hinge on a turning point or moment of insight.
“My primary interest has always been the attempt to understand and deepen experience by bringing it into words,” she has said. “Poetry, for me, is an instrument of investigation and a mode of perception, a way of knowing and feeling both self and world.I am interested in poems that find a clarity without simplicity.”
Hirshfield has written nine collections of poetry, an anthology of women poets who throughout history praised the sacred, and a group of essays on entering the mind of poetry, among other works. She was featured in two of Bill Moyer’s PBS television specials, Fooling With Words and Sound of Poetry, and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012.
Hirshfield’s most recent volume, “Come Thief,” evokes a common theme of Buddhist parables: Welcoming the thief. “Come, thief, the path to the doorway agrees,” she writes in the title poem.
“All paths welcome whatever wants to walk on them. The person delivering the mail comes down the path, the thief comes down the path,” she said in an interview taped by Voice of America. “Your beloved comes down the path. Your enemy comes down the path, and the path never chooses. The path says yes to it all.”
The real thief is time. The passage of time includes falling in love, weddings, lost love, death. “Time which brings us everything that we will ever experience and takes from us everything that we will ever experience, and one of the main threads of this book is simply saying ‘yes’ to that process.”
The work of poetry, she says, is to make us permeable not only to the experiences inside us, but what goes on all around us.
Dancescapes New Jersey is a world premiere contemporary dance about and on the land. It will begin with a choice of three walks focused on nature, history, or poetry through the landscape, as well as the sounds of live acoustic music and bird song.
“People are inspired to care about the environment in different ways,” says Linda Mead, president and CEO of the D&R Greenway. “Some respond to scientific facts; others respond to the beauty and experience of nature. D&R Greenway has always connected to the aesthetic in bringing people to our work. Art, dance, performance, and experiences on the land feed the soul –– and open up creative ways of thinking about how we as individuals can make a difference.”
Passage Theater Company producer Kacy O’Brien and executive artistic director June Ballinger say they enjoy the partnership they have had with D&R Greenway since 2007. “It’s a win-win,” says Ballinger. “The conservation groups and land trust partners give us access to new audiences, and this gives them something different to offer their constituency.
“DanceScapes is a further installment in Passage’s continuing attempt to show that the arts — particularly live performance — offers an accessible and immediate delivery system to reach more marginalized folks to learn about conservation,” Ballinger adds. “I know I don’t go out of my way to learn about the latest updates and news on the environment, but if I learn something from a story — particularly a live, well told story or something I can watch and be delighted by — I will definitely learn and remember and talk about it at dinner parties, where I’ll have more ears than if I recite facts from an article or a white paper.”
“This year, we had a desire to bring environmentally themed art back to the land that inspired it,” says O’Brien. “It spurred us to unite town and country by performing in both Trenton’s historic Cadwalader Park and the St. Michaels Farm Preserve, which D&R Greenway helped to protect. The partnership with D&R Greenway allows us to work together to share the story of conservation in an entertaining way, and offers the opportunity for all ages and backgrounds to enjoy these wonderful parks.”
DanceSpora choreographs original works that fuse ballet and contemporary movement. Artistic directors Heidi Cruz-Austin and David Austin met when she was dancing for the Pennsylvania Ballet (the two are married and have four children who sometimes perform Hip Hop with them).
David Austin, who grew up in Trenton, was familiar with Cadwalader Park, Trenton’s “central park” designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. He remembers when Ellarslie Mansion, now the home of the Trenton City Museum, was a monkey house, and he recalls seeing “the oldest living bear in captivity” in a cage near the building.
Heidi, who grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and David took a tour of St. Michaels Farm Preserve with Greenway vice president Jay Watson and learned about its history as an orphanage and the effort to save it for open space and recreation.
In conversations with O’Brien, Austin learned about his own values of the land and its beauty: his relatives all had farms, which exposed him to the land as a child, and he fondly remembers playing in creeks.
To choreograph DanceScapes, Heidi spent time at Cadwalader Park, finding the right spot, observing the elements of nature. “Dancers will portray Wind, Water, and Vine in a trio,” she says. “Each dancer approaches movement in a different way to convey the character.” There will be a duet of trees coming to life. “It’s the first time they’ve moved,” she says.
In an opening section, “Seed,” women will be planting and paying homage to the land while a man is fertilizing. Another section, “Sun and Moon,” will show the male-female balance. “It’s a celebration of everyone coming together,” she says.
Speaking of coming together, DanceSpora recently displayed its blend of ballet, modern dance, jazz, contemporary movement, Hip Hop and house dancing this past summer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Beckett, Massachusetts. The performance was also on an outdoor stage, one against the Berkshire Mountains.
Additionally, Heidi recounts how she and David were professional partners before they became romantic partners. “Our two styles were so different, but I believed we could create something out of that,” she says. Her father, from the Dominican Republic, was a professional Dominican dancer, and David’s mother, Wanda Austin, ran the Capital City Dance Company in Trenton. In the 1970s Austin was one of Trenton’s B-boys, and from 2003 to 2007 danced with renowned Hip-Hop troupe Rennie Harris Pure Movement.
“DanceScapes will take on two different energies,” says Austin. “But both will show that the land is beautiful.”
Music and Poetry of the Earth, Princeton University Chapel. Wednesday, October 10, 7 p.m. A meet-the-artists reception in Firestone Library follows from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. with drinks and dessert to benefit the D&R Greenway’s programs. $15 general admission to concert, $35 reserved seating, $75 reserved seating at concert and reception. Call 609-924-4646 for reserved seating at the reception. For tickets: 609-258-9220, www.princeton.edu/utickets, or in person at the Frist Campus Center Ticket Office, Monday to Friday, noon to 6 p.m.
DanceSpora, St. Michaels Farm Preserve, Hopewell. Saturday, September 22, 2:30 p.m. Rain date is Sunday, September 23. $20. www.passagetheatre.org or 609-392-0766.
DanceSpora, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Saturday, October 6, 2:30 p.m. Rain date is Sunday, October 7 $20. www.passagetheatre.org or 609-392-0766.