Courtesy of Kirk Donaldson

The only sounds you hear as you cut across the verdant lawn onto the faded wooden bridge are the babbling of the river below and the footsteps of your fellow audience members. The midsection of the bridge hides in the shade of the quiet overpass above. 

As you cross the bridge, your companions stop and gaze down into the water, and you can’t help but do the same. Your eyes are greeted by three figures clad in blue, planted knee-deep in the river and facing the concrete pillars supporting the overpass. Breathlessly, you shiver in anticipation, as if you had stumbled upon a grazing doe while on a walk. The figures’ arms slowly rise toward the sky and the dance begins, the dancers’ movements weaving water as if it was yarn.

Even though I watched this moment unfold over a video on my computer, I was awestruck nonetheless. This event was part of MFA candidate Melissa Brading’s thesis performance, titled “Interior Castle: the dance.” Based on 17th-century nun St. Theresa of Avila’s eponymous novel, Brading divided the performance into seven “dwellings” — representing the inner rooms of our souls — and explored the expanse of the human emotional experience, from surrender and humility to pleasure and pain. But what heightened the impact of Brading’s event was that it was one of the first local in-person dance shows since the pandemic started.

Courtesy of Kirk Donaldson

The performance was incredibly immersive: a blend of solo dances and movement activities for the audience, “Interior Castle” took viewers across a local park, with a different location for each “dwelling.” The result was an atmosphere in which the audience felt naturally more in touch with the music and dance. This, according to Brading, was the intention: “I really wanted them to leave finding a new connection to their body, because I feel like we’ve all kind of lost a little bit of that with the pandemic … There’s a frustration with the body. People (often say), ‘Oh, my COVID body,’ because they haven’t been exercising like they used to, and all of those things that can feel kind of negative or like we’re lacking. And so I wanted to kind of remind us that most of what we’re looking for is with us … and in our body.”

One audience member even told Brading that the “permission to move” given by the warm-up exercises helped him feel more connected to the work. Although I watched a recording of the dance, I too felt this bond between the dancer and the audience. As the performance began, my body was lulled into relaxation with the stretching exercises that the dancers led the audience members in. Even digitally, I felt as though I was a part of the performance. As the cameraperson followed the crowd from one location to the next, I felt deeply connected to these performers because there was a certain intimacy in the silence of nature. However, Brading isn’t sure that a performance like this — with such levels of audience participation — would work as well if not for the pandemic. After months of quarantine, many of us are desperately touch-starved, and sharing a space with new faces is now an especially welcome experience. 

That might be why Brading’s thesis performance was so powerful; even merely existing in the vicinity of another human being and creating an experience with them can be rejuvenating. The participatory aspect of Brading’s performance lent to the feeling that the audience and the dancers were creating a piece of art together. Whether it was a discordant vocal warm-up or a socially distanced stretching exercise, the shared experience was raw and powerful. In the recording, one audience member was singing a bit out of tune during a warm-up. Yet, that little imperfection added so much depth to the viewing because it was so human. There was no embarrassment or discomfort. This was simply a group of people immersed in art.

Courtesy of Kirk Donaldson

That being said, the dance industry itself has been dramatically reshaped in the wake of COVID-19. With the suspension of in-person performances, productions have either been shut down entirely or retrofitted to be Zoom-compatible. Even so, in spite of the limitations of digital performances, the pandemic has forced many to adapt and grow beyond who they were before COVID-19 hit. Quarantine provided ample time for soul-searching, and we were all stripped bare of the distractions of the outside world. We were forced to confront our own interests and hobbies, and whether we really cared about them.

For Melissa Brading, this sort of spiritual recalibration changed the way she looked at dance. Zoom classes pushed her to realize that she only “danced for other people,” and that, when dancing over Zoom classes, she’d often feel disconnected and unmotivated. But art, first and foremost, is supposed to be an expression of the self. Through novels, films, music and live performances, the consumer can connect on a deeper level with the artist who put their heart and soul into the work. 

“I had these really beautiful rituals all last summer … because I had nothing to do,” she told The Daily. “I was taking risks because I was by myself, so I wasn’t embarrassed … I also could go to U of M and use the studio by myself. I just tried a lot of different things, and things that, even though they might be cheesy or stupid … I was like, ‘Well this feels good to me.’” She finished definitively, saying, “I feel like this is (the most) holistic work I’ve ever made in my career.”

Courtesy of Kirk Donaldson

Because of this positive experience, Brading has started to trust her own experiences and intuition more than before. She plans to continue trying things outside of her comfort zone (such as choreographing a dance with audience participation). Even if they don’t pan out, that’s okay. Maybe this pandemic can push the dance industry as a whole to innovate and come up with new ways to connect with audiences. As awful as it has been, at the very least, there have been some who have rekindled their passion for the art.

At one point toward the end of “Interior Castle,” a dancer swishes through the air as a pair of butterfly wings start to inflate on the dancer’s back. Grand and multi-colored, these wings represented a metamorphosis of the soul, but after talking to Melissa Brading, they also reminded me of how this pandemic has transformed us all.

Daily Arts writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at