By Thea Singer
The 51-minute piece represents a digital time capsule. It comprises 16 short episodes — reflections in movement of lives caught inside the pandemic — crafted by dance-maker collaborators.
Postcards from the Front, director Peter DiMuro’s now eloquent, now jarring new dance-video collage, is both a meditation and a call to action, a coming to terms with where COVID-19 has landed us and a revolt against that place.
The 51-minute piece represents a digital time capsule. It comprises 16 short episodes — reflections in movement of lives caught inside the pandemic — crafted by dance-maker collaborators from DiMuro’s company, Public Displays of Motion, and shot mostly by them in the hallways and kitchens and yards of their homes. The dances are paired with the words written by frontline workers to their future selves, among them, nurses, doctors, teachers, and community workers.
Some juxtapositions are more successful than others, but together they pack an emotional wallop: you swing from pandemic leadenness to being set free.
A sampling of some pairings that resonate most:
In “Postcard 3,” choreographer Lonnie Stanton sits atop a tall cabinet, legs dangling, then slumps over her knees, slaps the ceiling, and drops to the floor, her arms streaming like rain, or perhaps tears, over her head. There is pathos here but also anger as she stomps a foot and bends an elbow to cover her nose and mouth, trapping breath.
The words of Joanna Stumper, an occupational therapist in an adolescent group home, underscore the complexities of our confinement during those early months. “[T]he early evening brought out the real fears,” Stumper says, quoting some of her charges. “ ‘If everything is closed, how are we going to get food?’ ‘What happens if I get sick?’ Each question is a punch to the gut when you remember these are not hypothetical queries. These kids have lived through loss, abandonment, food scarcity, and more.”
Olivia Blaisdell captures how COVID-19 both separates and unites us. She merges her training in ballet, modern dance, and pole fitness in a pellucid whirl of air and light tinged by shadow in “Postcard 10.” She hooks a knee around the pole etching a crisp equilateral triangle, then arcs back and spins her legs loose into now back attitudes, now a stretchy arabesque. She’s a gazelle on a carousel, grounded but also taking flight through the words of a labor and delivery nurse recited by collaborator Kara Fili.
“I want you to remember how it was more than just so much,” says Fili as Blaisdell rises and descends. “I want you to remember the bright spots, the funny ones. How the hospital had someone dancing in a hot pink unicorn suit at 6:15 one morning in May just to make us smile…. They called us heroes but we were doing pretty much what we had always done, just in different outfits…caring for people, making the best of every situation, and finding laughs wherever we could.”
“In Postcard 11,” J. Michael Winward, from behind a wrinkled translucent scrim, shows us the face of fear and the reach of uncertainty, without ever looking us in the eye. Head bent, side or back to us, he rakes a yard initially at a regular pace but faster, then wildly, as the emergency in the accompanying words accelerates. The text, by Paul Currier, a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, recounts the delicate act of balancing hope against that fear.
“A patient with particularly severe respiratory failure had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2; it was the first case of a positive patient in our ICU,” says Currier, citing with pride how the hospital had set up its own testing site within a week when the CDC tests never showed. “[I]t left me with…a feeling of hope that we were going to bring the entire power of our hospital to bear against this disease.… I remember then putting on protective equipment to go into that patient’s room with a whole new perspective. The same patient, the same room. But now it was like we were suiting up to go into outer space, where one breach in the equipment could lead to our own death.”
Given the weight of the subject matter, not to mention our closeness to it, 16 vignettes is a lot to take in at one stretch. The dances were created over a nine-month span and originally released, one by one, through social media twice a week from January 26 to March 19. Now edited and stitched together with insight and compassion by videographer Lindsay Caddle LaPoint, they exist in a stream, intercut with images from one another and the handwritten testimonials of the frontline workers.
It’s a brilliant concept: the contents of a time-release capsule gathered together for safekeeping in a time capsule itself. The pandemic, and our reactions to it, are part of our shared history and deserve to be remembered. But if the whole of Postcards feels like too much at once, consider watching it in pieces, revisiting those that speak to you.
For me, “Postcard 16” made the whole greater than the sum of the parts, even if some of those parts didn’t fully hold my attention. As snippets from each of the dances float in and out of the frame, Irene Lutts sits at a table lost in a reverie. Shot in black-and-white, she arcs high, sternum to ceiling, plants an elbow on the table, touches a palm to her cheek, brings her face to the table’s flat surface. Her movements are slow and deliberate, an homage to not only all we have lost but also what we have unwittingly gained. Set to Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” performed by Brian Patton and Mary Callanan, the video warms your heart.
“If you’ll only grant me the right/To hold you ever so tight/And to feel in the night the nearness of you.”
Thea Singer is a longtime dance critic and science writer based in Brookline, Mass. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Scientific American, MORE magazine, O the Oprah magazine, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, Boston magazine, the Daily Beast, and Nature Outlook.