Sometimes, the most perilous thing a girl or woman can do is look down at her belly.
If she's an adolescent, and the landscape is unobstructed, her breasts are too small. But if the view is blocked, they're too large. Any pregnant woman is subject to uninvited tummy touching and arguments about breastfeeding. And woe for the over-fifty female, whose once-taut terrain now sags in folds of excess skin or balloons into a curvature that appears to grow daily. Every mature woman faces a society that says youthfulness is equal to relevance and aging renders a person invisible.
But leave it to 59-year-old Oakland artist Kate Mitchell to turn her gaze directly downward with the purpose of highlighting the beauty of the female body, especially as it ages. Terrain is Mitchell's collaborative project with that objective, in which she weaves dance, fashion, photography, and live music into a fifty-minute show. It will be performed at San Francisco's ODC Theater on November 18 and 19.
Mitchell's work draws on multi-strand life experiences. During and after a career as a professional dancer with now-defunct CoDanceCo in New York, she earned a bachelor's degree in American Studies from Yale University and a master's in Dance from UCLA. Expanding into fashion design and fine art collage, she began studying at Parsons School of Design. Eventually moving to the Bay Area, she regularly presented dance works accompanied by couture installations. In 2004, she founded Kate Mitchell & Dancers, a platform for large-scale dance and fashion projects that most often address society's perception and portrayal of women. Terrain, she said, is a deeply personal project that sprang from her distress about being horrified by her body as it aged.
"It's a personal struggle," said Mitchell. "Despite being a dancer, healthy, active, fit, I had revulsion at my own self — then horror that I had those feelings inside of me. I looked around and realized I wasn't the only one with this challenge. It's part of our culture."
Looking at the natural world, Mitchell saw a reflection of her body's wrinkles and folds. But there, in rocks, sand, water, and plants, bulges and fissures were things of awesome beauty — patterns to celebrate. She thought: Why should her similarly textured body be shameful? Enlisting photographer Alessandra Mello, Mitchell explored the convergence between the natural world's beauty and her own. The resulting images by Mello — closeups of Mitchell's body alongside gorgeous, textured vistas — and Mitchell's sculptural fashion garments will be exhibited in ODC Theater's lobby gallery in conjunction with Terrain. A paired set of photographs marry a tight, dramatically lit shot of Mitchell's eye wrinkles to the alternate image of tiered sand in a windswept Sahara Desert scene; in another example, the variable flesh tones and folds on Mitchell's feet are not unlike the hues found in a photo of raw portions of a tree trunk revealed by peeling bark. Similarly, a moss green costume designed by Mitchell and sectioned by a thick, shade-contrasting waistband and diagonal bodice-texturing brings to mind crusty lichen and instantly parallels Mello's photo of tree roots pushing up and dividing dusty, gray-green ground.
If her previous project, the ingenious faux fashion book Fashioning Women, was her critique of society, then Terrain is a critique on Mitchell, seen through society's lens. The one-act work features a prologue choreographed by Mitchell, along with choreography by Bianca Cabrera, Brittany Ceres, and Claudia Anata Hubiak and an original score by composer Ben Juodvalkis. The thirteen dancers, dressed in costumes that are mostly simplified variations of the display garments, range in age from 22 to 57.
"Bianca's dances are luscious, earthy, soft, and squishy — like kneading dough," said Mitchell. Ceres' choreography adds infrastructure and birds-eye view architecture; Hubiak provides layering, precision, and drive. The original music was crafted through a back-and-forth process that included Juodvalkis' improvised accompaniment in rehearsals and samples from his "infinite electronic treasure trove."
Mitchell said that Terrain is not a message piece, striving to change people's ideas about aging. "Frankly, I haven't resolved my own ideas about it," she admitted. Instead, it is an abstract conversation meant to spark questions, commentary, and awareness. Perhaps together, we can all look down and see a thing of beauty.
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