WESTPORT — It’s not every day you see young girls dancing to a voiceover that references fish fossils, blood cells and losing babies.
But that’s what’s happening at Erin Rae’s School of Dance in Westport, where a competitive dance squad is interpreting a somber piece written by Portsmouth author Kelly Kittel and choreographed by Pamela Mateus.
“I said to Miss Pam, ‘Can you dance to words like placenta and fetus?’ And they are,” said Kelly, whose daughter and niece — Bella Kittel and Ava Aguiar, also of Portsmouth — are among the 35 girls rehearsing the piece that will debut next month. The troupe, which also includes girls from Tiverton, Little Compton and Barrington, will have its first meet March 4 at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
Kelly wrote and recorded the voiceover for the four-minute dance, which is partly based on her 2014 book, “Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict.” The memoir details how the family coped with two back-to-back tragedies — the sudden death in 1997 of her 15-month-old son, Noah, and the subsequent loss of another baby, Jonah, who died in utero only nine months after Noah left them.
It’s pretty heady subject matter for young girls, some of whom aren’t yet in their teens, but then again this dance studio has tackled topics such as concentration camps and Ellis Island.
“Kudus to this studio,” said Kelly. “They don’t just do ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Cinderella.’ They keep it real.”
Inspired by book
The idea for the dance took shape after Pamela read Kelly’s book. She was moved by Kelly’s grace and strength and was particularly struck by one passage.
“There’s a line that says, ‘When someone asked me which one of my sons I missed more, I asked them what would you miss more, your left hand or your right?’” said Pamela. “I wanted to do something that conveyed that so I thought, what if half of the group could only move their arms and the other half could only move their legs?”
Kelly agreed to write something, but she was flummoxed as to what would be appropriate for such young dancers.
“I wasn’t about to write a story about losing kids and family conflict,” she said. “One day I sat down and my daughter gave me Neil Shubin’s ‘Your Inner Fish.’ I’m part fish so I thought I’d somehow work that into this: ‘I’m part fish, you’re part fish, too.’”
The 2008 book by the famed paleontologist examines fossils and DNA to show how humans evolved from fish. Mr. Shubin discovered the 375 million-year-old Tiktaalik fossil, known as the “fish with hands.”
Kelly worked in bits about Mr. Shubin’s book, microchimerism (the presence of fetal cells in the mother’s bloodstream) and losing babies, too. Other than working with the same instrumental piece that shares the dance’s title — “Epilogue,” by Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds — the author and choreographer worked separately, “in a complete vacuum,” said Kelly.
But when she showed up to a rehearsal in November, Kelly was amazed by what she saw. “I had my words in my head and I looked at what they had done and it matched almost exactly, to the point where when they talk about microchimerism, that’s right when my daughter Bella and my niece Ava do their little duet — and they’re probably both carrying my blood cells.”
Pamela agreed. “When we put the narration to the music, it just happened really organically and it really evolved from there,” she said, adding that “Epilogue” is her favorite piece in a decade of being a choreographer.
‘Crazy case of serendipity’
Despite her strong involvement with the dance, Kelly is a supporting player in a wider program tying together modern dance, classical music, scientific illustration, fish fossils and more.
In what she calls “a crazy case of serendipity,” one dancer’s mom is Terry Wolkowicz, education director for the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. It just so happens that while “Epilogue” was being rehearsed, the orchestra was also focusing on fish. The two paths intersected during one of the dance rehearsals.
“(Kelly) started talking about Tiktaalik and my daughter went, ‘Wait a minute,’” said Terry, adding that the fossil’s name had been
Each year, the orchestra picks a classical music concept and connects it with other subject areas to share with local students, said Terry. “This year our concept is adaptations in motion. We studied classical music but also connect it to biology and scientific illustration,” she said.
The orchestra chose Mr. Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” for this year’s educational program and showed students how a fish’s movement in water could be graphed so it appears as musical notation, said Terry.
“All those melodies are being collected from 140 classrooms and we’re scoring it for a new piece for orchestra that’s going to be premiered at the end of February. It will take us from life swimming in water to moving onto land and finally to flight,” she said.
The Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford also got involved by setting up designated TRAM stops throughout the zoo. Parents can scan a symbol through a QR reader app on their phone to view NBSO “playing music that moves just like that animal,” said Terry.
Also joining the program was Kalliopi Monoyios, a scientific illustrator originally from Chicago who worked alongside Mr. Shubin and whose artwork appears in “Your Inner Fish.” She traveled here recently to lecture on “Your Inner Fish” at the zoo and led presentations on scientific illustration to students in Tiverton, Little Compton and elsewhere.
“This whole thing is about communicating science through art,” said Terry. “We can communicate science concepts through classical music, but we can also communicate the same type of science understanding through dance.”
Last week Terry, Kalliopi, Kelly and Pamela all sat down with the dancers during a break in rehearsing “Epilogue” to talk about how all the different topics were related.
“It’s really wild how the whole thing came together,” Kelly said while watching her daughter Bella rehearse “Epilogue.” The epilogue in her own book, she pointed out, is entitled “The Book of Bella.”
“There are no coincidences,” she said.
PS Here’s the link to the article online to see more great photos!