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Loving Life

Jacksonville Dance Theatre’s latest is bittersweet

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Little cat feet, that’s the phrase that leaps to mind as I sit in rehearsal watching the dancers of Jacksonville Dance Theatre perform a mirroring exercise. It feels deliberate and full of potential while visually operating across several levels. It’s like a sketchbook page, filled with partially completed drawings that point in the direction of evocative content, but is still unfinished.

The troupe is preparing for its second Dance Love Life concert and fundraising event (so, officially, it’s Dance Love Life Give). It’s a multifaceted event featuring a selection from JDT’s repertoire and a special performance by dancer MaryAnne Aycock. Aycock is a veteran whose work is centered in ballet but stretches across forms and disciplines. “I started dreaming of being a dancer when I saw my first recital, when I was five,” she said.

Aycock has worked across the dance spectrum: She’s studied the Cecchetti method, the Royal Academy of Dance technique, Russian and Balanchine forms. She describes them as “different languages of movement,” under the ballet umbrella. She’s used her education in many different ways, including dance initiatives centered around underserved kids. “I started in North Carolina and [later] had a huge program in Daytona.” After that, she returned to Jacksonville where she taught, and this led to an opportunity to join the dance program at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

At FSCJ, she and Rosemary Fletcher, the woman to whom she’s dedicated the work, Just When We Are Saying There She Goes, Someone is Saying Here She Comes (2019), became fast friends. Together they developed and structured the dance program, and when Fletcher was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, “we walked that walk together, too,” Aycock said.

It was also at FSCJ that Aycock met Rebecca Levy, the artistic director of JDT. Now Aycock, one of the troupe’s first board members, moves from the meeting room to the stage: She not only choreographed There She Goes, Here She Comes, she’ll be dancing it, too. The performance is a meditation on life and death through the lens of the loss of her dear friend. “This piece is talking about the sacredness of death and the sacredness of life. I had this idea to tell this story and collaborator Jen [Walker] is a birth doula and I am a death doula, so we collaborated to make this piece.”

There She Goes, Here She Comes features five dancers: MaryAnne Aycock, Amber Daniels, Breanna King, Tiffany S. Santeiro and collaborator Jennifer Walker. Two pair of performers, each working together as a unit, with a singular figure just on the edge of the composition, carrying a long white fabric. It’s tempting to surmise that the singular figure alludes to beginnings and endings—the cloth could be a swaddle or shroud. It gestures to the painful balance that exists in the world, and the gifts we are given as participants and witnesses.

For Aycock, there’s beauty in the final transformation death presents. As a death doula, she explained her role, “We’re not medical people, we’re not hospice people, we’re support people: we fill the spaces in between.” When asked specifically what that meant, she said it can take different forms. “A lot of what we do is the emotion part of it, ‘what kind of room do you want to be in, do you want to be in a room with candles or do you want to be left alone; do you want people coming in or not … and when you die, how do you want that to be?”

Though There She Goes, Her She Comes focuses on death, it does not give the impression of heaviness; it does give action and voice to the conflicting feelings present on the edge of death. There is rage, frustration and sadness wed to compassion and acceptance. These moments are presented against a soundscape of womb sounds and heartbeats woven into composer Olafur Arnalds’ music. It is a collapsing, expanding, joyous and tender performance that ultimately, perhaps like death itself, feels like the deep exhalation of release.

In addition to this specifically reflective work, the dance concert also promises a bit of 1990s-flavored nostalgia: Midway through rehearsal, Levy brings out two big bags full of striped crop tops, jean jackets and workout pants. Everyone giggles, digs in, tries things on and remarks on the irresistible aesthetic.

The vibe is excited and light, a counterpoint to the piece itself, Stakes is High (by James Morrow), which is bittersweet rumination on the extraordinary energy (and help) required to get up and through some days. It’s a fascinating work because it evokes the eye-lock intensity of youthful connections and it’s able to chronicle the magnification and reordering of those relationships … we won’t say goodnight indeed.

Just before ending our conversation, Aycock noted with a smile, “I’m 76.” She hops up on the stage without elaborating, and begins the elegant mirroring exercises. It’s an excellent reminder that while a life in art is a life in art … it can be an entire one—and aren’t we the lucky ones?

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