They came on Sundays, mostly, to meet the cool riverbeds and traipse across mossy rock formations in the idle morning fog, ballerinas waterlogging the cardboard tips of soon-to-be-discarded pointe shoes. The moderns and contemporaries came, too, to meet with the rapids, the dams and dried-up tributaries all hours of the day.
Upstream, two or three cameras hung from photographer Christine Rucker’s body as she steadied herself in a canoe held in position by some assistants. Her subsequent photo series is the central element of Dance for the River, a collaborative multimedia exhibit opening at SECCA on Feb. 8 that connects viewers with the region’s major water source: the Yadkin River.
Rucker lives on the Yadkin just above the town of East Bend and not far from the Shoals in Pilot Mountain State Park, a stretch of shallow water speckled with islands that had facilitated river crossings for thousands of years. This is where she took dancers Juel D. Lane and Helen Simoneau last year and where she captured “Yadkin Island,” a black-and-white photograph that illustrates motifs of interdependence, balance and change that characterize the complete project.
Each with one foot planted and grasping the other’s forearm, Lane and Simoneau lean outward, their lifted legs insinuating clockwise motion, at such an angle that the slightest miscalculation or hint of mistrust would spell injury for both. With wet hair, Simoneau gazes candidly, enchantingly into the camera lens, communicating striking power in a vulnerable moment. She and her partner achieve a metaphorical balance between human fear and reverence of (and for) nature.
“Part of the beauty of the project is I’m putting the dancers in areas and asking them to interpret and respond to the environment around them, whether it’s beautiful or has trash or pollution,” Rucker said. “I wasn’t directing them or posing them, and I had no concept in mind other than scouting out locations. Every time they showed up it was in the spirit of adventure.”
The topography of the Yadkin River varies considerably from the mountainous headwaters to High Rock Lake in the south. It’s the contrast between the thriving and besmirched areas that’s troubling, though, and it’s why some dancers are captured while springing in triumph while others wilt on sullied shorelines.
Just beyond the backyard of Brunson Elementary in Winston-Salem, four UNC School of Arts dancers balance on tagged metal pipes — civilization’s exposed entrails — above flipped grocery carts and other oddities in low, motionless water in “Peters Creek.” It and other urban streams in the Yadkin’s watershed serve as massive channels for stormwater that carry pollution and trash, threatening water quality downstream. Each dancer points a limb toward the sky, stretching upward like flora, yearning for the kiss of the sun in this debased place, or the river itself reaching out for rescue.
“Dancers have this deep listening ability and intuition when it comes to moving in different spaces and hearing the history of that space,” Caitlyn Swett said. “I hope folks connect with that when they see the result of this project.”
In “Shoal Dancers” Emiliee Harney and Natalie Kirk, also students, embody exactly that intuition in a wild and rocky stretch of the river between Yadkin and Surry counties, a home to a pair of bald eagles according to the project. Harney and Kirk are ethereal, cloaked in feminine marigold and merlot-colored dresses.
Learn more about Christine Rucker at christinerucker.com, the Yadkin Riverkeeper at yadkinriverkeeper.org and Dance for the River at secca.org. See the film and dance performances at the opening reception at SECCA (W-S) on Feb. 8 at 5:30 p.m.
Throughout the series, Rucker and the dancers infuse an element of mysticism and awe into an environmental issue typically discussed in the language of courtrooms and laboratories, in what could be the very location a scientist extracts riverbed samples for contaminant testing. Yadkin Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental advocacy, education and research and to measurably improving the Yadkin’s water quality, asked Rucker to devise what became the Dance for the River project and she tapped Phoebe Zerwick, a former colleague from their days at the Winston-Salem Journal, as a partner. Zerwick, now a professor of writing and the director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University, co-produced the short film that accompanies the photo series and often found herself steadying her friend’s canoe during shoots. Their documentation project comes after years of co-collaboration on Yadkin river-based projects and at a time when researchers are finding many never-before detected contaminants, according to Yadkin Riverkeepers spokesperson Sioban Olson.
The project itself is traveling downriver over the course of the next year, migrating to Lexington and Salisbury after it’s monthlong sojourn at SECCA. Rucker follows in its path, frequently engaging high school students in conversation around environmental practices through the exhibition.
“I got the best feedback so far from kids whose parents are farmers and part of the chain of problems,” Rucker said. “They fish in the river and they see it in a totally different light than I was presenting it and… they’re thinking, Maybe I should farm differently than my parents farm.”
Dance for the River is inherently political, but Rucker and her collaborators don’t aim to hit viewers over the head; the project is about broadening awareness, inviting public curiosity and highlighting intrinsic ties to our ecological habitats. Change necessitates a reckoning; for that, we must go to the river, where our divinity and our cruelty alike are on display.