Professional modern dancer evokes sense of murmuration

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 25, 2012

Like a murmuration of starlings, Alberta-born professional dancer Jean Freebury expresses beauty by being sensitive to, and in sync with, the movements of others around her.
Photo by Warren Harbeck

A longtime friend from New York clinked cups with me at Cochrane Coffee Traders this week, and some comments she made about her engaging art form caused me to ask: Could there be such a beautiful thing as a murmuration of dancers?

But before I get to that, here are a few responses to last week’s column on Mother Teresa’s famous quote featured in the Sacred Garden at Cochrane’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church, “Let us do something beautiful for God.”

From Vancouver Island, Leanne Forest wrote: “This garden is such a precious gift to the community! A stopping place to drink in the beauty and contemplate the eternal. WOW!”

Calgary coffee companion Jeanne Hammer wrote: “Warren, my heart was so full of love reading your column today! Many times I have found such peace sitting alone and meditating, whether it be in Bryce Canyon, Lake Louise, or Heritage Park watching the sail boats.”

And from Okotoks, Tami Anderson, an employee relations specialist and corporate motivation consultant, responded by pointing to the unifying power of beauty and beautiful actions. She wrote: “Well, you did it again – you made me cry. So overwhelming is the need to share and be part of the wondrous beauty that refreshes and unites the hearts of many.”

Which brings me back to my question about beautiful murmurations of dancers.

Well, to start with, my wonderful friend from New York is Alberta-born professional dancer Jean Freebury. I wrote about her expressive art form in my Jan. 3, 2007 column, “Dance to the rhythm in our souls.”

Jean is a performer and university instructor in the Merce Cunningham technique of modern dance. (To read an in-depth Independent Weekly blog interview with Jean on the Cunningham technique, click here.)

This technique emphasizes dancing not to the music, but with the music. When the dancers are on stage, the music the audience hears bears no relationship to the dancers’ performance, except for sharing the same length of time. The dancers are moving together to non-audio cues.

They take their cues, not by tuning in to the music, but by tuning in to each other, she tells me. It’s all about the dancers being sensitive to and in sync with the locations and movements of the other dancers on the stage.

And here’s where her explanation reminds me of a murmuration of starlings.

Murmuration refers to a group of starlings, characterized in the autumn by the way they flock together in living, moving “clouds” at dusk. Thus, reference to starling murmurations has a certain aesthetic feeling about it.

About this, there are some amazing videos of large murmurations of starlings – hundreds and thousands! – joining together in mysteriously synchronized movement – sort of bird-clouds dancing, except it’s not just individual starlings that are creating the feeling of dance, but the shapes of the entire murmuration, sometimes twisting and twirling, sometimes dividing, passing around and through each other, and merging again as one.

Their collective movements are certainly evocative of the balletic dances of Jean and her fellow dancers as they move as a group.

And just how do the starlings pull their own heavenly dance off? As with Jean’s fellow dancers, they appear to be keenly sensitive to each other’s space and movements.

For a spectacular YouTube video of this dance of the starlings set to the music of Pachelbel’s Canon, go to Google and search for “Amazing starlings murmuration full HD.” For an explanation of the science behind their dance, Google for “The startling science of starling murmuration.”

So yes, Jean, inspired by your example, I think we can speak of a beautiful murmuration of dancers.

But dare we also dream of beautiful murmurations of people as a whole, tuned in to each other as members of vibrant communities?


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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