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Feature story: The body from the inside out

Stanford-commissioned dance piece explores the whirlwind of emotions surrounding cancer treatment

Illness is a universal human experience, yet it seldom figures in dance. Artistic connections are not frequently made between a patient undergoing a CT scan and a pirouette en dedans.

Yet artists are always looking for new challenges, and Stanford-trained choreographer and dancer Hope Mohr has taken on an unusual one in "Under the Skin," a dance performance that exposes the inner turmoil of patients undergoing processes that aim to be curative -- but are often experienced as threatening.

Medical imaging is a crucial part of diagnosis and treatment of illness -- especially cancer. But the ghostly films produced by ultrasound, MRIs and CT scans bear no relation to the private, internal experience of being put through that beneficial but often disturbing ordeal.

"Under the Skin" takes both performers and audience members through the inner world of evolving emotions in response to images that represent evidence of disease. It touches on fear, resistance, isolation, empathy, hope, resignation, support, abandonment and letting go.

Commissioned last year by Stanford University's Dance Division and first performed there in May 2007, "Under the Skin" is one of four pieces that will be presented in San Francisco later this month as part of the debut of the newly formed company Hope Mohr Dance, in collaboration with video artist Douglas Rosenberg.

What makes this piece unique is the participation of three community performers who have recently experienced breast cancer. Though they are not practiced in the art of dance, their expressive gestures are taken up and expanded by the five younger, trained dancers (two from the Stanford Dance program) in duets and trios that riff on the themes and carry them into realms of pure abstract movement. Though the cancer survivors' roles are more static, it is their presence that anchors the performance and gives it the sharp sting of reality.

From the outset, as the ensemble gazes out at the audience with gestures that seem to express reluctance to see what is ahead, it is clear that the production also functions as a deep exploration for the performers themselves. The dance has been forged out of the fire of pain, fear and loss, and while entrancing to watch, it is not primarily entertainment.

"The strength of the piece is not in the steps but in what you bring to them, to the extent that you can connect with your own story," Mohr said to the cast during a recent rehearsal in the Zohar Dance Studio at Palo Alto's Cubberley Community Center.

Later, she said, "The ultimate performance is only one part of a multi-layered process that allows participants to have a genuine exploration of their medical history."

The passivity of the body beneath medical technology was the initial inspiration for the production. But although the dance expresses angst, helplessness and dehumanization, it also speaks of kindness, courage and irrepressible vitality. In notes on the production, Mohr wrote, "It's asserting the voice of the dancing body, the body from the inside out."

Projected onto a screen behind the performers are fragments of the evidence of these entirely disparate inner realities. Interspersed with the diffuse white of tumors under X-ray, tissue and bone are words wrung from women who have undergone treatment. The words are quotations from poems and observations from patients, and from doctors, nurses and medical students.

The graphic-screen presentation was created by Douglas Rosenberg, an Emmy-nominated video artist who initially came up with the idea to explore the medical imagery of the body through dance. Having worked with many distinguished choreographers, he suggested the idea to the Stanford Dance Division, whose faculty sponsors Janice Ross and Diane Frank approached Mohr to do the choreography.

The soundscape, consisting of music, words and the mysterious noises of medical machinery (the rhythmic thud of the MRI, for example), was woven together by Andrea Williams. Some of the dialogue was recorded by women who have had cancer treatments. These women include the three who take part on stage -- Susie Brain, Kathleen Magner and Carol Shultz -- and other participants in the Palo Alto Community Breast Health Project (recently renamed Breast Cancer Connections).

"It was important to us to work with a population that was intergenerational," Mohr said, "and to have community involvement -- and not just on a token level."

This aspect of the dance was vital to Mohr, who developed the idea while she was teaching creative movement at the breast health project. She added, "A lot of people who came to class and ... to our dialogues aren't performers, but they contributed to the text, and their voices are heard."

The collaboration between generations gives "Under the Skin" its special power, as young dancers seem to gather the raw experience from the older women, creating a moving expression of shared pain, shared hope and the continuum of life. All the dancers have experienced health challenges or injuries, either themselves or through family members, that have given them a particular insight into the bewildering world of medical technologies.

Learning to convey such complex realities was a slow, introspective process, the dancers said.

"The focus was on getting here, not the end result," said Cori Marquis, a Stanford senior who will graduate this year with a degree in psychology and dance. "This piece took that to a far extreme. We dove into the subject matter at hand. It didn't resemble the final piece until months into the process."

Her duet with Magner is accompanied by Magner's poem "Beating Drum":

"Tight skin loosening with movements ... freedom -- stretching -- pulling. ... Letting go of image. ... Scar, this is NOT me. ... I am the strength and soul behind the tight skin. ..."

Marquis added that the women from the breast health project "bring a genuine and grounding presence to the process."

It has helped those women come to terms with the reality of their diagnosis, too.

"It's very empowering -- but you've got to be really in touch with your feelings," Susie Brain said. "It could bring out some demons. Before, I would never have done any of this, but once you've faced a diagnosis, you're more open. What have you got to lose?"

For Kathleen Magner, too, the process was deeply rewarding, albeit a challenge.

"I didn't have a clue what I was getting into," Magner said. "What was so remarkable was ... being asked to interact and emotionally engage with the subject matter far more than any other work I've done. I may have had a mastectomy, but they didn't cut into my soul. We're still vibrant human beings; we have a lot to offer. Maybe looking at us will give others hope."

Mohr, a graduate of Stanford University, grew up in the Bay Area and has returned here after spending several years in New York studying and performing with several pioneers of post-modern dance, including Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs. She sees "Under the Skin" as unifying two of her longtime passions: dance and activism for women's issues.

"The project has been a wonderful reminder that life is fragile and that every moment -- especially every dancing moment -- is cause for celebration," she said.

Info: "Moments of Being," a performance by Hope Mohr Dance that includes the piece "Under the Skin," will be performed Friday, March 14, through Sunday, March 16, at Dance Mission, 3316 24th St, San Francisco. Tickets are $18; call the box office at 415-273-4633 or go to http://hopemohr.org for more information.

For more about Breast Cancer Connections (formerly called The Community Breast Health Project), go to http://www.bcconnections.org or call 650-326-6686.

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