Containments -- a visionary, four-part dance piece conceived by local choreographer Julie Gillum -- offers an intense evocation of self-imprisonment and psychic release.
"I got to thinking about the actual word 'containment,' and when I looked it up, there were all kinds of wonderful descriptive terms," says Gillum, offering these examples: "'To hold,' 'to have within,' 'to keep from' -- really good action words that fit well into movement."
She lists others, too: "embody," "embrace," "subsume," "devour." (Obviously, the word itself "contains" substantial room for exploration).
Dana Davis, co-director (with Gillum) of the Asheville-based dance troupe JD Project, talks about the piece's treatment of codependency issues. "It deals with the various ways we are contained in our emotions and in our bodies," she explains. "We're [taught] to be really codependent, and we're always beating each other up, and returning to be beat up, over and over. ... If you're an artist, you're a vessel for whatever's happening in society, whether you realize it or not."
Davis dances solo in "Word," the first section of the program. The piece is Davis' personal interpretation of the various definitions of the word "containment."
Despite the show's insular scope, however, Containments is far from a self-indulgent project -- as both artists are swift to point out. The troupe will road-test Containments, as it does with all its productions, at schools and other venues throughout the Carolinas and Florida. Here at home, they've embarked on a plan to bring aspects of the work to senior citizens through a program at Haywood Community College.
The workshops, which will be improvised from material within Containments, will explore how, "more often than not, senior citizens feel confined, because their bodies have shut down [while] their minds are still active," offers Davis.
The original inspiration for Containments came from a series of abstract paintings Gillum saw by artist Constance Humphries.
"I loved these big, wall-size pieces of hers, which [featured] ... introspective figures hunkered over inside boxes and cubes," the choreographer recalls. Over the next few years, Gillum toyed with different ways of expressing a similar theme in dance, eventually molding her vision to its present form (with a little 11th-hour help from her friends).
Don Baker, a theater technician who teaches at Warren Wilson College, built the unwieldy prop that is the center point of "Cage," the production's dramatic final piece. Dancers slither and snag upon the 60-pound steel construction like mermaids hovering around a sunken galleon, but Baker reveals a decidedly earthy inspiration for the cage.
"It seemed to me that the gates used to hold livestock were very close in size and shape to what Julie and I wanted," he explains, "and the pipe would be lighter than if I cut and welded it myself." So he made a trip to a local farm-supply store and then went to work. The finished cage -- a three-sided construction with a kind of slide on one side -- was painted a murky, "primordial-ooze"-inspired hue, in keeping with the dance's theme of profound transformation. Although the source of the sculpture's raw materials isn't immediately apparent, Gillum and Baker hope audiences will notice.
"If someone recognizes it [as part of a livestock enclosure], it's sure to add another layer of meaning to the dance," Baker observes.
Also essential to the feel of "Cage" is the music of guitarist Tyler Ramsey and percussionist Teal Brown.
"When you work with a composer, things can happen on many different levels," remarks Davis. "We like a true collaboration, so that the artist's expression comes across, rather than us dictating it. That way, you come up with a much better work."
Ramsey -- who composed an original guitar score for "Cage" -- agrees that setting the mood of a dance is, of necessity, a fluid endeavor: "The dances change, [so] it's an evolving thing," he explains.
That's particularly fitting for this piece, which Gillum describes as a "collage of images exploring aspects of human evolution." At a recent rehearsal of "Cage," the dancers showed varying degrees of affinity for Baker's sculpture -- some unfurling slowly from its confines, while others broke away with a vengeance. Still others explored the barrier in earnest -- skimming down its smooth glass slope, or clambering up its bars. Ramsey and Brown accompanied the dancers' journey with subtle, emotional rhythms that intensified as the movements expanded -- an apt soundtrack for their intimate metamorphoses.
"'Cage' is about how we, as humans, have a need to categorize things -- a need to put things into boxes and label and organize them," Gillum declares. "'Cage' says that we have to put everything in a zoo, that we're not really living, but just surviving."
Despite that grim assessment, however, Gillum's ethereal costuming for "Cage" suggests a tacit optimism. Fragile-looking and indefinably pretty, the gauzy, wing-bedecked outfits the choreographer created (to evoke questing, single-celled creatures, she says) appear fashioned for one purpose: freedom.
Containments, an evening of modern dance featuring the music of Tyler Ramsey, will be performed at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 6 and 7. The production showcases dancers Tracy Bishop, Anne DeLoach, Yoko Myoi, Katherine Grear, Dana Davis, Stephanie Bell, Stephanie Clark, Julie Gillum and Barbara Metz. Another work -- Cement Pointe Shoes, which the JD Project commissioned 10th St. Danceworks founder Charlotte Armstrong to create -- will also be premiered. Tickets are $12 (general admission), $10 (seniors and students), and $6 (children). Call 257-4530 for tickets and more info. (Containments was partly funded by a Grassroots Arts Program Grant.)