“Bird Lady” transforms photographs into movements

On Thursday, April 3, and Friday, April 4, Rebecaa Salzer Dance Theatre presented the premiere of “Bird Lady,” a multimedia dance piece conceived by Salzer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance, and Kristine McIntyre. The piece is inspired by the work of Chicago nanny and street photographer Vivian Maier, who took over 150,000 photographs throughout her life in New York and Chicago. Never seen in her lifetime, Maier’s work, full of period charm and arresting portraits, was popularized posthumously. The creators of “Bird Lady” view their work as a “choreographic tone poem in response to Vivian Maier.”

Maier’s work spans decades, but many of the photos that have been released focus on the ‘50s and ‘60s. Many of her photographs are portraits, often centered on women, and many also explore femininity and its trappings. Salzer and her fellow choreographers and performers, Liz Burrit and Kristina Fluty, concentrated on photographs from these eras and explored the themes they found there in order to create “Bird Lady.” Each dancer chose one of Maier’s portraits that spoke to her and worked out the movements from there. Much of the choreography was done independently, so while “Bird Lady” is a coherent, interconnected piece, each character (or portrait) has its own storyline.  While most of the piece focuses on dance, there are also film aspects and interludes, and at one point the dancers also include recorded monologues and costume changes. While the piece proceeds mostly as a series of solos, the dancers come together for the monologues, dressing themselves in elaborate period outfits only to throw them off minutes later.

Aside from the femininity of their subjects, one theme that the dancers explored in their choreography was that of permission and privacy. The dancers “wrote and choreographed in the voices we imagined the subjects to have, and also imagined the moments of interaction with Maier. Did Maier ask permission?” Following this theme, each character’s monologue addresses the idea of being watched, of being intruded upon. Burrit’s character appears to go through some kind of breakdown, writhing on a park bench, mentioning a woman whose piercing gaze looked right through her. Fluty’s character deals with a bad relationship, lamenting being seen at a bad moment with the wrong man. Salzer’s character, on the other hand, acknowledges Maier’s gaze, accepting it, and stares straight back, comfortable in her stationary pose.

“Bird Lady” serves as an admirable tribute to a woman whose oeuvre the world is only just beginning to understand and comprehend. The creators say that they “responded to the ways she juggled economic reality with her drive for artistic mastery,” and that struggle and divide come through in their artistic response. As a last word, the program notes that the dancers “hope that [“Bird Lady”] reaffirms the complexity of life and work, and raises questions about the private self in an increasingly public world.” “Bird Lady” certainly accomplishes these goals, honoring the life of a long-ignored artist while simultaneously raising important questions about both her work and the application of her work to life.