This past summer I worked at an amazing performing and creative arts camp as a choreographer for their 2 musicals, and a dance specialist for their dance department.
During the first session of camp back in early July, a good friend of mine, Aaron, who happens to be the husband of one of my favorite people in the world, Lu, approached me with an idea.
"I have this song, called ‘The Crane Wife’ by the Decemberists. Have you heard of it?"
Eyes lit up with excitement, he proceeded to explain what the song is about from the lyrics, and his vision for this dance piece.
After playing me the song and explaining his ideas, he looked at me and said, “All I need is… a choreographer…”
So despite having too much (or what I thought was too much) on my plate already, I agreed to do it. He had such a solid idea, and was so enthusiastic about it, I couldn’t not help him!
The rest of the first session continued to fly by, and I’d receive periodic updates about the project. The head of performing arts was going to construct a projection landscape for the cyc. Costumes was going to provide wings for the crane wife. A sound designer had already cut the music.
Aaron mapped out the entire trajectory of the piece.
A lone woodcutter leaves his house to collect firewood. He is rugged, independent, and strong. One cold night, he leaves his house to collect more wood, and sees a shooting star. As he follows the star, he comes across a white crane. She was a helpless thing, with a red stain, an arrow in her wing. She could not fly. The woodcutter tried to help her, but she feared him and tried to escape. Gradually she began to trust him, and he carried her back to his house to heal her wounds. He helped to lift her beneath the rising moon. And as she stood to fly away, he released her, and she was healed! Away she flew, and with her, took a piece of him. He returned to his house, filled with sadness. He was drawn outside once more, and returned to the place where he found the white crane, and as he did this, the white crane returned to his house, just missing him. And on it went like this, just missing each other, until finally they found each other once more, reunited, and flew away together as equals.
Then auditions for the second session dance show were upon us, just like that. Aaron could not be there, because just that day his wife and my very dear friend Lu was admitted to the local hospital with what was thought to be a serious infection.
I cast the dancers, and scheduled the rehearsals to fit both of our schedules, and the schedules of the dancers.
The next day I learned that Lu’s infection was not an infection at all, but leukemia.
It was a complete shock.
The entire staff at the camp was in a state of utter stillness and silence, it seemed. Yet, we all had deadlines, and had to keep working.
It was then that I realized the story of the piece was becoming strangely like the story of Lu and Aaron. It was too relevant, too real, the metaphor was too close to reality. I didn’t think I could do it.
The first rehearsal came, and my wonderful dancers entered the room. Aaron came. He needed a distraction and a respite from reality. Lu was really sick.
As I explained the piece to the dancers, we touched briefly on his Lu’s illness. We couldn’t go into detail to any of the kids at camp, so all they knew was that she had a serious illness and was getting the help she needed.
They didn’t know the severity, or the relevance to the piece, or how terrifying the reality of the situation was.
As I communicated the movement both verbally and non-verbally, my two dancers seemed to read my mind. On the first try, they would not only perfectly execute my ideas, but take them a step further. I was astonished, inspired for the first time in days, and overwhelmed with emotion. I made eye contact with Aaron, and saw the first glimpse of a smile in a week. Something incredible was happening before our eyes.
Within 2 hours, we had finished setting 2/3 of the piece.
At the next rehearsal we finished.
And so it went. Between the hours of constant work, I’d visit Lu and Aaron at the hospital. Aaron would rarely make it back to camp except for rehearsals, but the dancers would inspire us, and a beautiful tribute was emerging.
I decided I needed a quote to put in the title sequence, because we decided to dedicate the piece to Lu. In looking for that quote I came across something called the 1,000 paper cranes project.
It is a Japanese legend that someone (or a group of people) who fold 1,000 origami paper cranes are said to bring good luck to someone in need, or even heal someone from a serious illness.
I had to do this for Lu. During a time when I didn’t know how to be helpful, this was a way.
The next day, I approached people at camp, and organized a process. The camp director told me that the 1,000 paper cranes used to be a camp tradition for Peace Night, a night on camp commemorating the events of Hiroshima, as well as world peace. The tradition had fallen by the wayside in recent years, and each time someone would attempt it, they would barely get to 500 cranes. Coincidentally, Peace Night is one of Lu’s favorite nights at camp.
After spreading the word to a few people that the cranes would be for Lu, within 24 hours we had almost 2,000 cranes. (We never continued counting after the first 1,100 were tallied, and people kept making them for days!) Counselors, staff, CITs, and campers folded for hours on end.
We strung them, hung them for Peace Night, and then moved the cranes to the summer theater to be hung for The Crane Wife. This project was becoming so much bigger than a dance.
Meanwhile in the rehearsal process, because my dancers are so young, they were having trouble getting into character. They were supposed to be in love, but in rehearsal seemed a bit distant emotionally, and had on their resting “dancer faces”. The lifts and partnering was becoming choppy and disconnected.
As tech approached, I sat them down (without Aaron present) and told them how relevant the piece was to the reality of the situation. I didn’t tell them the full truth, but I did say the piece was about Lu and Aaron. I told them, “You have the technique, you’re doing all the right steps, but your intention is what’s missing. The best dancers aren’t the best technicians. The best dancers are the ones who can go beyond their technical strengths and tell a story through movement. Who can connect to their audience and make them feel something. If all you care about is the steps and being ‘correct’, then what the hell is the point of dance?”
I then reinforced how important this piece was becoming, with all the people collaborating on it. Projections, 1,000+ paper cranes, just that week the program design was made and featured a paper crane, etc.
This all seemed to strike a chord in them, and I saw in their eyes they were ready to bring it. The last run through of the piece at our last rehearsal was nearly perfect. I had tears in my eyes. They were ready.
Tech night was the first time I got to see the projected landscape on the cyc. Stars filled the sky, a moon slowly rose in the distance. The music cue for the shooting star came, and a bright star flew across the cyc. My heart leaped at the sight. The lights continued to inform the piece perfectly, without ever overpowering the dance. It came to life.
Dress rehearsal came, and the crane wife got her wings for the first time. Literally and figuratively. I couldn’t wait for Aaron to see it.
The night of the performance came, and as the quote filled the screen, I heard a collective reaction from the audience.
"We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces.” – C. Joybell C.
The lights came up, and stars filled the sky. The crickets chirping outside the theater added to the ambiance.
The dancers were emotive, buoyant, and just a little ahead of the music.
"Slow down my dears. There’s no rush tonight."
Adrenaline was behind them.
As the piece grew to a close and the music faded out and the dancers walked off hand in hand, I heard the audience burst into applause.
Minutes after the show ended, Aaron found me and crushed me in a hug. There were no words needed. The piece had transcended our hopes and dreams. Was it perfect? No, nothing ever is. It was a 2.5 week long process, and at summer camp, and danced by young teenagers (albeit young pre-professional immensely talented teenagers)! But it was moving, relevant, and a metaphor for life.
*This has been one of the most incredible processes I’ve ever been a part of. Thank you Aaron for creating such an inspiring concept. I have never been more proud of a process and product. It meant so much to me that we made this thing come to life. So much love! Thank you so much to my lovely dancers, to Sam, to Matt, to everyone who folded cranes, and countless others. So much love to Lu.*
***Please consider donating to help my friend Lu, at http://www.gofundme.com/cfscwo
She’s doing much better, but still has a journey ahead of her. ***