The basic mechanism of knitting is about looping a string of yarn about itself in various patterns to create a textile that can be molded into various items. Rachel Damon has been knitting and crocheting for years; making clothing and accessories was an entirely separate pursuit from her professional life as the artistic director of Synapse Arts. Damon first learned how to knit with her arms in 2014, and started using it as an improvisational and scenic element for her piece at the (now closed) Storefront Theater titled "You’re So Stubborn."
The following year, Damon started to incorporate knitted textiles as a more central element integrated with her choreography. Her curiosity about combining textiles and dance resulted in a series of works over the next three years, from the 2016 “Openwork” presented in Links Hall’s somewhat conventional theater space, to the industrial feel of an empty Uptown storefront in “Soften Every Edge” at the Pivot Arts Festival last summer, and finally “Weave Trees,” an outdoor textile dance at Loyola Park, where Synapse is an Arts Partner in residence with the Chicago Park District.
The funny thing about knitting is how much work it takes to build a textile, and how quickly it can unravel. You can work at something for hours upon hours, and with the tug of a loose end, it’s gone. Damon finds this idea of impermanence creates some interesting parallels to dance.
“One of my ongoing frustrations as a choreographer is that dance is ephemeral, and you have to be there to experience it,” she said in a phone interview. Creating these large-scale textiles uses movement to produce a tangible object, giving a dance a residue that extends beyond the one or two hours in which it took place.
At the same time, part of the process of building “Light Hand,” Synapse’s latest dance which travels through the historic Gunder House on the city’s far north side, included Damon and her cast of seven women picking and choosing from four years of work, unravelling their creations ad libitum.
“We have to be loving toward the textiles, and also be disconnected from them,” said Damon, “because we dismantle them very regularly. You’re treating it as an extension of your body, but also, it is an inanimate object if you don’t touch it. We have a lot of conversations about if it’s an object, part of me, or a part of the house, and about the shifting, always changing relationship.”
As a culmination of her multi-year foray into textile dancing, “Light Hand” brings together knitting with other elements Damon has long been interested in: integrated lighting using hand held work lights and site-specificity. What’s new here is the ingenious use of portable Bluetooth speakers worn on the dancers’ bodies. Each speaker plays a different layer of Ryan Ingebritsen’s intricate score, so what the audience hears depends, in large part, on where they choose to be and which dancers are moving among them as the work travels through this magnificent north side mansion.
This complicated layering (knitting?) of the textiles, architecture, movement, sound and light feels like a point of arrival for Damon, as does her thorough investigation of the various gradations of gender identity and femininity dating all the way back to her 2011 "Factor Ricochet." The softness of textiles, the richly warm woodwork and inherent hominess of Gunder House, breezy pastel costumes by Nadine Lollino and the implication that yarn crafts are “women’s work” – these are a point of departure from Damon’s reputation for primary colors, bold movement vocabulary, and the use of industrial elements and spaces. And though her textile dances seem to have arrived at an intersection where Damon might be ready to pull the string and unravel the whole thing to explore other choreographic territories, she wouldn’t say she’d never do another textile dance.
For now, guests lucky enough to grab from a limited number of tickets available for “Light Hand” are in for a unique treat.
Synapse Arts presents “Light Hand” May 24-26 at Gunder House, the north mansion at the Berger Park Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan Road. Tickets are very limited, available for $15 at synapsearts.com. The audience is required to stand for short intervals and travel up and down stairs. Seating available throughout the various performance spaces.
Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune