Vermont Arts Council

Absorbing “ANIMAL”

Hanna Satterlee seemed calm at the North Branch café. The dancer/choreographer’s choice of tea was cooling: half mint, half lemon, iced. As we began talking, she mentioned her tendency to speak in a monotone voice. I wondered how she stayed so even overall; the final rehearsal for “ANIMAL” was the next day and her schedule is full, but it didn’t show in her demeanor.

Hanna has worked on “ANIMAL”—a 50-minute multimedia piece—for two years. It will show at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center on April 25 and is a part of Vermont Arts 2015. Seven dancers perform amidst a digital soundscape and a backdrop of changing nature scenes. Here are some highlights from a calm, cool conversation about the upcoming production.

On Time Frame and Landmarks

Work on “ANIMAL” started in August, 2013 when Hanna received a Creation Grant from the Arts Council. To date, 15 smaller projects have been completed as the work evolved. These include studio showings, shared shows, and outdoor experiments in all seasons (“I’ve been excited to dance in the rain, the snow,” she says). Hanna will admit to struggling with her decision to dance outdoors in mud in late March for the project’s final photo shoot. She describes the day: “It was one of those last bitter cold days where the sun was bright and everybody was happy, but you go outside in a small costume, and it is cold.”

photo by Nathan Burton
photo by Nathan Burton

The first full-length show was staged in February, 2014 and “ANIMAL” was a part of “DanceFest Vermont!” in September, 2014. That was the first time the choreography was combined with film, and it was then Hanna began to understand how the natural environment could be incorporated.

Images and Sound

Hanna collaborated with film and video director Lukas Huffman to add nature scenes as a backdrop for the dances. She wants the performance to absorb the audience. “I guess I’ve been the most intrigued by performances that are somehow successfully three-dimensional. First, they are three-dimensional because they’re live, but there’s something about being absorbed by it…” The nature scenes are her way of bringing that size and dimensionality to traditional settings, her way of bringing in “components to fill it and to make it larger than life.”

Sounds come from Sean Clute’s field recordings (geese, a dog caller at a race, dogs barking, wind from the top of a skyscraper) and Otto Muller’s hand-made instruments described by Hanna this way: “Literally, a garden hose! He also makes cigar box fiddles, violas, and cellos. They’re amazing. They should be in a museum somewhere.”

Hanna praises collaboration saying, “I could never come up with the things that other artists have come up with beyond the dance, and it has been a total pleasure to watch them and to learn this new way of speaking about art. We’ve had to meld our way of speaking…”

Raw Movement

What Hanna knows best is dance, and her intention is bold. “I was most interested in strong, raw movements, totally trying to steer away from classical lines and recognizable form. I was more interested in the strange ways that we can contort and twist, and how we’re strong and how we’re weak.” The project became a study in ways to learn how we move and eventually Hanna thought, “this is really a study about creatures that don’t speak.”

What to Expect

Animal Walking web
photo by Jeff Herwood

Hanna can say a lot about this. “This piece, and I think pretty much all work I’ve created so far, is not narrative. And this piece is not linear, so it’s not like you’re following a path through it. It’s more like different glimpses of environment and how living creatures and habitat relate to each other. It’s a 50-minute show. So, by the end, you’ve seen a lot of images of place, you’ve heard a lot of weather and atmosphere, and have seen a lot of different ways of relating.”

She knows what she wants for the audience. “I want something physical to change in them. The more people that leave with their hair standing up or their neck hot or their breath hot… It’s almost like what you expect when you’re out in nature. It’s that open-channel sensation of absorbing, of just taking in the awe of other creatures or other possibilities.”

You can see “ANIMAL” at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center at  7 p.m on April 25, 2015.

photos from the final rehearsal
photos from projects leading to this performance

— Susan McDowell