It's been nearly five years since Sandy Hook, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012. And while little has shifted the country's desperation about gun violence — including not only mass shootings in national places of public conregation; violence by police on unarmed or otherwise law-abiding people of color; and the steady increase of gun sales and campaign donations from the NRA — a circle of friends have spun it into a praxis of healing.
This weekend only, it’s the origins of a captivatinf interdisciplinary piece called The Twenty, devised and performed by artists, educators, students and 15 dancers at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.
Though performances are contained to four shows, The Twenty is an artistic response to a cultural phenomenon that's traveled across several art forms. Sprung from a long friendship between three women — dancer and choreographer Betsy Melarkey Dunphy, musician Barbara Truex, and painter Wendy Newbold Patterson.
Patterson, an artist in Gray, Maine, has a long history painting figures. A student of the human form particularly interested in relationships between mothers and children, she rendered 13 abstract encaustic paintings as a response to Sandy Hook, which were shown in an exhibition at the Gray Public Library last winter. Dunphy, a semi-retired dancer and choreographer who began working with Portland's Ram Island Dance Company in 1980 and has taught dance to intergenerational students for several decades, saw the paintings and was immediately moved to respond. In addition to dance composition, the paintings were also used as source material for “ekphrastic writing” (writing about art) exercises facilitated by artist and educator Marjolaine Whittlesey and written by students at the Telling Room, the material of which is also woben into the production.
Built over the past year with help from a Maine Arts Commission grant, Dunphy, Patterson, and Truex each agree that the piece eludes easy description. A hybrid of movement, theater, poetry and music, the performance is truly a patchwork of artistic expressions within a community, traveling across medium, demographic, and personal connection.
”Just as the paintings are abstract, this piece is abstract," says Dunphy. "It's not a linear story. It's not even always a literal interpretation."
Opening during a week the country again mourns a tragedy born from gun violence, the artists don't view The Twenty as a political piece. As national reports circulate showing the exponential rate of American gun deaths compared to other countries, linking domestic violence and toxic masculinity to the rate of mass shootings, this broad response led by three women artists speaks volumes.
“Newtown is the catalyst," says Dunphy, "but it represents so many things hurting in our society and culture across the planet. Children are in the
midst of it. It's spurred us on, but not enough has changed. This is our way of trying to make some art out of a horrible thing."
The Sandy Hook Massacre has sustained the artists’ focus, yet horrors have recurred. The shootings at a country festival in Las Vegas occurred as The Twenty was halfway through their rehearsal process, and last weekend's tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas, occurred in the interim between this writer's interview for this story and its publication.
“Iwould think for the adults there's a lot of internal dialogue going on," Truex says. "That happens to me when I'm sitting and watching it. There are a lot of moments for me that I start to get a little teary. The base emotional content is coming through all of these pieces. You can take that base emotion and apply it to your own experiences."
Truex, a songwriter and composer for Portland theater companies since the 1990s, arranged the music for the performance, piecing together old recordings and new compositions for the seven women, four girls, two men and two boys among the intergenerational cast, comprised of dancers aged six to 70.
Projected during the performance, Patterson's paintings themselves dance around the subject matter. In one, a woman braids a young girl's hair, an image that Dunphy and the dancers reimagined as movement.
”The painting that really got me was just three figures sitting on a bench," Dunphy says. "Wendy's figures don't have facial features, so you just see these three sitting on a bench."
Despite it’s short run, the long process of making The Twenty has been an effort toward healing. "We want this dialogue to be happening," Dunphy says. "It needs to be."
"We don't talk about children who died," says Patterson. "We don't need to. It's much bigger than that. It's about human connection and seeing each other and trying to find a way to work through it."
The Twenty: A Resilient Reckoning for Our Times | Nov 10-12 | Portland Ballet Studio, 517 Forest Ave., Portland | Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 2 & 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $20; $15 students/seniors | https://www.facebook.com/The-Twenty-116842849007261/