Columbus collaborators on becoming part of Ann Carlson's The Symphonic Body/Food

Brynne McGregor

Apr 10, 2019

Choreographer Ann Carlson leads a symphony of gestures in an image from The Symphonic Body/Food

Gestures. Sustenance. An orchestra of movement. Ann Carlson has been working with individuals from the greater Columbus area in recent months to create The Symphonic Body/Food. From chefs to hunters to breastfeeding moms, everyone in the ensemble works with food in some way and each brings their own unique perspective on movement, even those without formal performance experience.

Paula Penn-Nabrit, manager of the Charles Madison Nabrit Memorial Garden, and Bill Dawson, coordinator of the Growing to Green program at Franklin Park Conservatory, shared their thoughts about participating in this collaborative piece and seeing their everyday actions become part of the choreography. 

Can you discuss/describe the gesture that informs your part in The Symphonic Body?

Penn-Nabrit: My gestures are based on my retelling of how my late husband, Charles Madison, introduced me to gardening. He said, "Gardening is like parenting and pastoring. It requires the same daily attention to detail in the same posture of humility: head bowed, body bent. People who don't have time to garden probably don't have time to parent or pastor." At the time, I'd just graduated from The Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. Charles and Damon, our twins, were 13 months old. I'd nursed them the first year and was starting to buy baby food. When Charles Madison said, "Sweetie Pie, we don't know who's bottling this, we need to grow our own food for the boys", of course, I demurred. That’s when he gave me the line about "head bowed, body bent"...and we began gardening together. 

Dawson: Within my portrait, there are several gestures. Ann pulled them from my conversations at work and a presentation to High School students that she attended. I do tend to make a lot of gestures when I speak, especially to large groups. There is "history", which is me pulling my right hand toward me three times and over my head. I am discussing the past, the history of urban gardening and our elders. There is "love", which resembles the act of pressing on the earth and firming in the seedling that you just planted, giving it love and success. Additionally, I am honored to mimic gestures of a friend and food justice activist that passed away at a young age last Autumn. I asked Ann if we could bring Patrick Kaufman into this performance to keep his legacy with us. In watching old videos of Patrick, Ann pulled some of his gestures for not only me, but the whole troupe. We call this "planting with love".

"My gestures are based on my retelling of how my late husband, Charles Madison, introduced me to gardening. He said, 'Gardening is like parenting and pastoring. It requires the same daily attention to detail in the same posture of humility: head bowed, body bent...'"
Paula Penn-Nabrit

Has your participation in this project inspired any new thoughts/perspective on the work you do around food, or on the act of performing a form of dance in front of an audience?

Penn-Nabrit: My participation has expanded my perspective on the work I do around food, especially my perspective of others involved in work around food in Central Ohio. It has been fascinating to observe the movements Ann has first gleaned and then choreographed in a very deliberate and derivative fashion from others involved in this work. This project has also expanded my perspective about not just performing dance and performing arts, but also about the Wexner Center for the Arts. It's been my observation that the world of visual art is one of the least inclusive of all disciplines... and I think that's most visible in the academy. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I initially met Ann Carlson and then Ann Hamilton when she was gracious enough to open her studio for rehearsals. Ann Carlson has also become a "Member Emeritus" of the adult women's Sunday School class I teach. The CMN Memorial Garden is sited on the church grounds, home to a congregation formed 110-plus years ago by descendants of formerly enslaved Africans in America. I began teaching this class in 2006 and Ann is the first Caucasian-white woman to attend as a participant. Getting to know her personally and observing her willingness to be vulnerable has made it easier for me to engage in this important work she has created.  

Dawson: I was very hesitant about performing. It was not so much about being in front of a large audience, but more about mimicking my own gestures! I didn't realize all the hand and body movements that I use when speaking or describing what I do. I also realized that the gestures are important, a tool, a language of their own. I thought I knew the food system well, but this experience heightened my perspective on the importance of having many skilled people in place to complete the system, from the seeds to the folks sitting down to a Sunday supper.