The Body Never Lies: Dancers Use Age in Art
Powerful performances of amateurs 60+ drawn from life experience
It started as a flash mob in a tiny Nova Scotia town — something fun to celebrate a civic day at the local farmer’s market. To make the event happen, esteemed choreographer and dancer Randy Glynn, who lived nearby, recruited volunteers, mostly his friends, “all seniors like me,” he told me in a recent interview.
The flash mob got him thinking: What if instead of practicing in a parking lot for something “silly and not very successful,” he could work with this group of amateurs — ages 60- 76 — in a theater? What if through them he could tell a story of the ups and downs of aging?
“I thought I could make something interesting,” said Glynn, 65, whose 40-year career included forming his own dance company.
So he got a grant and created Dancing in the Third Act, performed by six women and six men who between them had zero dance experience but 800 years of life experience. Glynn wanted his work to show their collective wisdom.
“Martha Graham said the body never lies,” said Glynn, whose art stems from Graham’s groundbreaking approach. “Whenever you move, walk or talk, you bring with you all your life. Even though these volunteers were not dancers, they could bring their lives into the performance.”
Dedication And Success
Staging a professional dance performance with non-dancers seems a daunting challenge. But the Company of Angels, as they named themselves, was willing to work hard. They gathered for three-hour sessions three times a week all summer of 2013.
Glynn created a class specifically for seniors new to the stage and movement. He didn’t want to build technical skills as much as performance proficiency. They began with walking across the floor to music; even that was challenging for some. But over 125 hours of rehearsals, their skills grew — and so did their confidence.
“They look so good,” Glynn said. “I’ve been told by other people: ‘What a great group you have to work with.’ In some ways it’s been better to work with them than with professional dancers, because they are grownups, they show up on time, and they take care of themselves.”
The rehearsals led to three sold-out performances in Glynn’s and the dancers’ home base of Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. Positive reviews generated buzz, and the Company of Angels was invited to bring the piece stateside to Atlanta, Ga. and to open a prestigious festival in Montreal.
A Show About Life’s Cycles
The hour-long show is a series of vignettes, some lighthearted and joyful, some taking on darker subject matter. It presents the range and depth of experience that comes from simply living into one’s “third act,” the 30 or so years at the end of life.
One section in particular struck me. It shows the dancers coming on one at a time, agitated and angry, until they are a frustrated, muttering mob moving back and forth across the stage. Then one woman drops to the floor and the others keep moving. She is forgotten until the rest, much subdued, return to her and comfort her. Then they lift her and she is carried, as if by pallbearers, off the stage. I told Glynn that segment had poignancy.
“When they carry her off, it’s clearly indicating death,” he says. “A lot of people reacted to it very emotionally. When the dancers return, they are thinking, mourning, wondering what happened, and it moves gently into a section of tai chi-like movement. It’s a cycle of confusion, anger, loss, contemplation, rebirth.”
The audience feels the cycle the dancers are enacting.
Extending The Work
Glynn has now brought the dance to other communities, where he selects volunteers from auditions and uses the class he created to train them. They then perform locally.
He would love to take the original company on the road to perform, if funding made it possible. “We are on the market,” Glynn told me, “and my method of teaching and bringing the dance to local communities is also on the market.”
No matter what, the experience has been life-altering for Glynn and his dancers. For Glynn, after suffering the loss of funding for his namesake company and becoming disillusioned, Third Act made him excited about dance again.
As for the dancers, each was asked to use one word to describe the experience. The list included: Fortunate, honored, inspired, privileged, humbled and grateful.
Perhaps one summed it up best in a letter she sent to Glynn and all who worked on the production:
“Alongside the physical were the unexpected spiritual and emotional benefits. I notice myself in the last few weeks re-evaluating my perceived limitations. I feel less fragile, less stodgy, less reconciled to the inevitability of old age. The funny thing is that I hadn't even realized that I had so fully surrendered to some erroneous and premature notion of myself as old.
“Throughout this project, I have watched as everyone seemed to shed years both physically and mentally. (One dancer) wore a pedometer for most of the time we rehearsed and I often wished that there was such a thing as a laughometer, since laughing was a major component of most rehearsals and I think laughing is a salve for almost anything.”