From the very first moment of this production—an audible exhale in a pitch-black theater—you know it’s going to be different. Then comes a scattering sound, a bit like rain, that’s harder to pinpoint, but it comes and goes in waves. As the lights come up, the source of the sound becomes clear: Three women—Andrea Burkholder and Sharon Witting of Washington, D.C.-based Arachne Aerial Arts and Mara Neimanis of Baltimore’s In-Flight Theater—are scattering seeds pulled from burlap bags slung round their shoulders.
Soon, they speak of their dreams, all the while wrapping themselves sinuously around the base of a giant, kinetic metal sculpture, a steel weather vane that shimmers with a hint of red. Produced by sculptor Tim Scofield, it is at once beautiful and impressively strong, much like the women who use it as both prop and platform. What’s most impressive is their ability to make their way entirely around the structure without ever touching the ground.
Through a series of vignettes, For That Which Returns (performed at Baltimore Theatre Project) explores the constantly shifting relationship of mother and daughter, unraveling how their reliance on and need for each other never wane despite their roles often flip-flopping as they age. The most poignant of these vignettes—a story to which the production returns several times—involves Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, whom Hades carries off to the Underworld (or perhaps she goes of her own free will, says Neimanis, who narrates the story as Burkholder and Witting portray the goddesses). Persephone’s annual six-month return above ground marks the months of life—spring and summer—while her half-year in the Underworld provides an opportunity for fall and winter to take hold.
Throughout these short acts, the performers—and I call them performers and not actresses quite intentionally—twist and swing, gracefully launching themselves from one level of the metal apparatus to another, in a combination of modern dance and acrobatics. Their movements are so lithe and beautiful that the weather vane seems simply to become an extension of their bodies, which they also use as support, often wrapping themselves around or springboarding off each other’s limbs or backs. The joy is in seeing what must take great effort seem not to require any effort at all. At a certain point, all three are twisted around a suspended bar (the arrow part of the weather vane), swinging many, many feet in the air.
Because of the focus on the aesthetic, however, the cohesiveness of the story suffers a bit. The short scenes, which include audio-recorded conversations between mothers and their young daughters, are distractingly choppy—as is the choice of soundtrack, heavily invested in rhythmic, a cappella music. I would have been much more involved in what was occurring on stage had there been a narrative arc of some sort, perhaps an expansion of the story of Demeter and Persephone, something to carry us through from start to finish. Because of this, the hour of performance was plenty, and I was grateful it didn’t run any longer.
That being said, if you are interested in a truly beautiful production or are an enthusiast of modern dance (with a twist), you will undoubtedly enjoy this performance. The trio has put so much thought into symmetry and balance—“spring, summer, mother, daughter,” one recites early on, and this concept underlies the cyclical harmony of the piece—that it is impossible not to appreciate the physical grace and refinement that unfurls itself on stage.
For That Which Returns runs Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 11 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. in Baltimore. In-Flight Theater returns to Theatre Project with Naomi’s Flight, beginning Feb. 21. For more information, visit www.in-flighttheater.com.
Photos courtesy of In-Flight Theater.