Fuse Dance Feature: Kelley Donovan — “The Body Becomes the Messenger”

Fresh from a New York City premiere, Kelley Donovan & Dancers returns to Boston with a production that challenges the emotional and physical resilience of the human body.

A scene from Kelley Donovan & Dancers' "The Body Becomes the Messenger." Photo: Charles Daniels Photography.

A scene from Kelley Donovan & Dancers’ “The Body Becomes the Messenger.” Photo: Charles Daniels Photography.

By Merli V. Guerra

Kelley Donovan is one of the Boston area’s arts movers and shakers. Since 2012, her Third Life Choreographers Series in Somerville has showcased more than 80 choreographers hailing from Boston, New York City, Connecticut, and Vermont. Her decades of work as a dance instructor and choreographer have made her instrumental in the development of the Boston dance community.

This weekend at the Dance Complex in Cambridge, Donovan presents the Boston premiere of her latest production, The Body Becomes the Messenger. It is a work inspired by two years of personal illness and the passing of her parents. Physical and emotional strain deeply informs the piece’s choreography. “Our bodies’ wisdom recognizes when we are carrying trauma, grief, fear, sadness or anger and how to transform these emotions before we really understand them,” Donovan explains. “Often, when we don’t know how to transform these emotions, they can turn into physical symptoms.”

Together with the dancers, Donovan has channeled these challenging experiences into an evening-length production full of ever-shifting trios, partnering, and full-bodied articulation.

Watching Donovan’s work can be described as watching birds dip and dart as a flock along an electrical wire. Her choreography brims with fluidity, yet it repeatedly contains moments of calculated precision. It is refreshing to watch examples of modern dance that give us performers who combine introspection with a determination to connect, to open the stage wider through their gaze and attention to each other. Their connective energy is palpable through both their visual attention and physical motions as they play with relationships during the performance. Fleeting moments of unison bring pleasing bursts of synchronicity.

In 2008, Donovan began working in both Boston and New York City simultaneously. As a result, the company now performs successfully in both cities, helping to bridge the gap between the two. Many of her dancers are relatively new to her work (most joined as recently as September of 2015), but a pair of Donovan’s performers have stuck by her for many years. One, Allison Vinal, is the only member in this new production that performed in Donovan’s debut project in New York, 2007’s All Forgotten Now. Donovan credits Vinal with being highly integral in the process of creating The Body Becomes the Messenger.


A scene from Kelley Donovan & Dancers’ “The Body Becomes the Messenger.” Photo: Charles Daniels Photography.

The Body Becomes the Messenger‘s New York City debut in January featured an impressive cast of 14, yet due to travel and scheduling conflicts Donovan has reduced this number to 8 for the Boston premiere. Produced as part of The Dance Complex’s Integrated Artist Residency program, the piece has had the benefit of feedback sessions, collaborative showings, subsidized rehearsal space, and modest production support. Donovan encourages fellow choreographers in the region to look into this and other choreographic programs currently offered by the Complex.

“Since being ill and returning to dancing I have had to relearn many ways of using my own body and have learned a lot more that has built my skills in this area,” says Donovan. That knowledge has informed the way she teaches, as well as choreographs. As an instructor, Kelley shifts her students’ focus to longevity, strengthening, and understanding their bodies. “I am more interested in this kind of teaching in terms of how people dance so that they can have a long and healthy dance career,” she explains, “more so than virtuosity or fast-paced athletic movement.”

Choreographically, Donovan openly credits her dancers for helping much of the stage material. She first adopted this approach to making works after a foot injury in 1995. Her inability to dance fully at the time prompted her to use movement concepts and thematic prompts to guide the dancers. The result was a striking kinetic vocabulary generated collaboratively between the dancers and director. Donovan quickly discovered that “the movement looked better when it came from the dancers who were actually performing it and their investment is much greater because it is ‘theirs’ as well.” While this strategy is now commonly employed in the dance world, many young choreographers fail to properly credit their dancers for this mutually-inclusive work style. Donovan, on the other hand, commends her performers, as witnessed even in the company’s name, Kelley Donovan & Dancers.

The final inspiration for The Body Becomes the Messenger stems from a series of quotations Donovan pulled from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s book A Long Letting Go: Meditations on Losing Someone You Love. During the creation process, each of the selected concepts was translated into a movement. One of the quotes summarizes the completed work: “The Body is an instrument on loan. We receive it, live in it, with it, by it, know what we know by means of its five senses, and finally let it fall like a leaf when it is time to move into another intensity. Our freedom lies in obedience to the way of all creation, to live into the seasons we are given: to rise, crest, and ebb; to consent to the terms of time for the duration of this journey, and then, when the time comes to let it go.”

Merli V. Guerra is a professional dancer with a background in ballet, modern, and classical Indian dance in the Odissi style, and an award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, writing, and graphic design. She is co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company, art director of Art New England magazine in Boston, and selects The Arts Fuse’s weekly coming attractions for dance.

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