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"Art in the backyard" nourishes community

Art in the Backyard is Gina Jurek’s capstone project for Arizona State University’s undergraduate dance program. Her work explores the subject of female development through dance, visual arts, music and film.

Performed by Mac Allen, Jordan Barton, Raji Ganesan, Brenda Grageda, Genevieve Schweitzer, and Karlie Stoddard.

Photography by Daniela Grageda

It’s a warm, windy Saturday evening. We enter the backyard through the driveway, pausing to take in the photographs pinned to the latticed walls of the cast of young women rehearsing in the backyard. Their legs are drenched with dirt, and hands probe the soil; their bodies are proximal and intimate. The neutral tans, nudes, and whites of their dresses against the dark earth makes me think of small girls playing in the dirt in their dress-up clothes.

Voices and music spill from the backyard. A basin of flowers sits beside an unstaffed check-in table. Someone comes around the corner to check us in, but doesn’t even ask to see our tickets and just waves us through.

The mood is festive and communal. It feels like a summer party, with a candle-lit pool, a table of wine and beer, kids running about, and plenty of chips and salsa. But unlike your average backyard barbecue this one includes a fire dancer (Rain Locker) captivating guests, a short film playing on the patio, and two visual art pieces by Jurek displayed on easels.

My eyes are drawn to a simple, empty rectangle of smooth, tilled soil, about the size of my bedroom.

This is the stage. The soil looks cool, fertile, and inviting. One of the dancers tells me later that they began every rehearsal with about 20 minutes of weeding, since plants would sprout overnight.

Clip lights rigged up on light trees illuminate the stage and backdrop: a simple wooden frame with two panels of fabric that billow in the wind like the sails of a boat.

A hodge-podge of benches, patio chairs, rugs, and cushions have been arranged to create seating for about 40 people. Even with twenty minutes to go before the performance, many people have already found their seats, but the restless energy of the theatre is totally absent. The evening breeze, the festive music, the kids at play, seem to put everyone at ease.

I see many familiar faces from the ASU dance community, but (refreshingly) just as many people I don’t recognize. There are at least three families with young children, and equally as many older adults as twenty-somethings. Jurek’s ability to draw a robustly intergenerational audience as a transplant to Phoenix is a testament to the strong ties she has built in the last four years.

The dancers enter the stage and huddle, then begin to warm up, not at all squeamish of the dirt which instantly clings to their bodies. Catching the signal, people make their way to their seats. I settle on a cushion in the front. A young child darts between the stage and the edge of the pool.

The dancers have nestled into the soil. Jordan Barton seats herself in a chair in the far corner of the stage and begins to speak. Her voice is deliberate and omnipotent, like the narrator of a documentary or a celebrant in a religious ceremony. The text evokes outer space, streams of light, portals in galaxies, stars; it reminds me of videos we would watch in science class about the big bang. The origin story Jordan tells reminds me of the sacredness and mystery of each human body in the space around me.

Each dancer seems to be exploring movement that suits her own body, but there is a muted, fluid ​​quality to the movement that unifies it. Gazes do not meet and bodies do not cross; there are no moments of unison or connection. I think about infants developing a concept of self. Can we have a concept of “self” without a concept of “other?”

Left too long, unstructured movement like this can begin to feel self-indulgent. The text, soundscore by Austen Mack, and outdoor setting keep me invested, but I welcome the energetic shift when performer Raji Ganesan’s voice suddenly cuts through the air.

With the shift in speaker, the piece enters an edgier, slightly darker space. Ganesan’s words evoke images of a forest, which brings my attention to the boughs of trees encroaching on the performance space. I think about the forest of questions and unspoken rules we navigate when growing up female, the secret moments of insecurity and shame, the vying desires to live up to expectations or push the limits.

The text offers a nonlinear flood of images that seem like fragments of memory unearthed from adolescence. In a parallel process, the ensemble creates images that appear, linger, and dissolve. The text and movement work in tandem, without one dominating the other. There are thematic alignments between text and physical images—for example, in one striking moment, the ensemble presses around dancer Brenda Grageda, their hands forming leaflike structures which she reaches out to touch, and I imagine her in the thick of the forest evoked at the beginning.

This section also explores the theme of the self in relationship to environment or the group, as individuals detach from and then return to the ensemble. Grageda thrusts into the audience, eyes and fingers inquiring outwards, but she is held back in a cautionary way by a chain of dancers with a tight hold on her shirt. And for a moment, I am fourteen again, and my mother is shaking her head and warning me not to get on the bus wearing that shirt.

The third and final section begins with an image of companionship: pairs of dancers find another in a close embrace, signifying another shift in the relationship of “self” to an “other.” Jurek begins a vocal accompaniment, which put through a synthesizer creates an ethereal environment. The dancers bodies toss up and down like boughs of trees, lower bodies rooted, upper bodies finding forms and shapes as torsos rise and fall. The wind whipping in the trees becomes part of the soundscape, a layer over the dancer’s audible breaths.

I am surprised when the piece comes to an end soon after, as the dancers find a rare moment of unison in a line crouching at the edge of the stage, cupped hands holding that beautiful soil. I’m not sure what I expected—more tension, or a deeper development of relationships, another energetic shift—but somehow it feels like we ended too early. Then I think about Jurek’s age, still in her twenties. Perhaps what feels missing is simply the next two-thirds of life.

After the performance, the audience lingers, enjoying the visual arts, music, and cool night breeze. I talk with some members of the audience. Eric Hodgins says the motifs and soil stage reminded him of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, but “a gentler version.” Melissa Rex, who advised Jurek during her process, uses the word “intuitive” to describe Gina’s creative eye and work. Lilli Moraci, “almost nine” years old, tells me that sometimes adults dancing can be hard to understand for kids, but in this case the dancers “body emotions” helped her to know what was going on. She also adds that the piece inspired her to dance.

I leave feeling nourished and reflective, turning over the memories of my own childhood and adolescence that have resurfaced from seeing the work. I feel grateful for the space Jurek created and the care and investment in her work. I’m inspired by the independent thinking and DIY spirit that shaped this project, and created an accessible space for art and performance in my neighborhood. Maybe I can pop over and dance on that soil soon.

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