Gorgeous grounds set the stage for Winifred Haun's 'Steps in the Garden'

“You might be asking yourself, why are we doing this? We’re doing this because artists and art are essential,” said Winifred Haun during the opening speech for her latest project, “Steps in the Garden.” The humble founder and clever mastermind behind the Chicago-based dance company, Winifred Haun & Dancers, spoke endearingly to a crowd of masked spectators on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Her excited tone was shared by this critic, as I was yearning for an in-person performance to shake me out of my digital funk.

Intended as one-night-only event, though Cheney Mansion has already asked the company back, “Steps in the Garden” was a compilation of six short pieces—called “Across the Way,” “Breezes on the Patio,” “Green Housing,” “Planted,” “Water Falling” and “Sur le Feu”—received COVID compliance approval from the Oak Park Department of Public Health. In partnership with the Park District of Oak Park, Haun’s use of the historic Cheney Mansion gardens as the backdrop for her simplistic choreography proved brilliant during the hour-long stretch of performance.

With the first lift of their fingers, the sextet of dancers—Ariel Dorsey, Vernon Gooden, Grant Hill, Amanda Milligan, Michelle Reid and Summer Smith—became one with the nature surrounding them. Flowering trees and dense bushes masked some of the artists as they improvised together while spreading across the hauntingly beautiful mansion’s landscape. Live music, performed and composed by Barry Bennett, overpowered the sounds of cars driving by. With the first strike of the drum I was sucked into this carefully crafted world.

The audience, segmented into three socially-distanced groups, became part of the cast, as we periodically made our way around the grounds. The dancers dispersed into groupings of solos and duos, strategically located at critical landmarks in the gardens, which felt vaguely familiar as images of the Rodin Museum’s Statue Garden came to mind. Each performer came to life as the audience rounded corners, led by tour guides. It was as much about appreciating the architecture as it was about admiring the dancers.

The muted palette of maroon, black, brown and tan costuming mirrored the bricks on the mansion, the blossoms of flowers and the trees that encapsulated the artists. Simple movements, heavy in repetition—an arm curved and lifted to match the arch of a window or a leg wrapped around a tree to mimic its spiraling bark—pay tribute to the hypnotically beautiful playground of a stage. Haun and dancers used every inch of the 2.2 acres of landscaping available to them.

“Breezes on the Patio,” a solo performed by Dorsey, highlighted the horizontal brick patterns and decorative window detailing via the juxtaposition of linear leg work and curved port de bras. “Green Housing,” a duet danced by Hill and Smith, playfully used the grounds’ antique greenhouse to explore caged choreography. “Planted,” performed by Milligan and Reid, and “Water Falling,” danced by Gooden, at times felt like a trio depending on where the audience stood. Tucked in a circular path shaded by trees, the duet navigated slow-moving benchwork as Gooden partnered with tree branches. Meditative bell chimes echoed out to signal each shift of location, yet each piece was performed entirely in silence.

Haun effectively created a makeshift theater-in-the-round that culminated in the final group piece. Sprawled across the open grass, the dancers repeated elements of the choreography they performed at their specific locations, giving the finale a familiar feel. I found myself missing the silence as Bennett’s Radiohead-esque sounds jarringly filled the natural surroundings.

With no curtains or lights to indicate the performance was over, the audience held their applause until directly told it was over. In the breath of time between the dancers exiting the “stage” and the spectators leaving the grounds, it allowed my mind to settle on what was the best version of a COVID-compliant performance I’ve seen yet. What made “Steps in the Garden” so special was how it didn’t feel like a pivot. It felt made for the here and now, entirely genuine and wholeheartedly refreshing.