Striking a reckoning with death

Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman's paired solo shows "Delicate Fish/BARDO" take a tender look at grief, pain, and death

To die is a process whose edges are feathered in all directions

To grieve is to feel love that has nowhere to go. 

These words followed me around in the weeks leading to the show, first arriving in the press release that landed so casually in my inbox while I was paying my electric bill and answering mundane emails. A  few days later, it arrived in caption-form… mixed into the chaos of my instagram feed and blaring with depth amidst everyone’s social worlds. Finally, it reappeared on the simple one-page program I was handed at Shaking the Tree Theatre when I arrived to see Delicate Fish/ BARDO. Created as a split bill between local choreographers Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman, the performance was just as haunting as those words that wafted in and out of my mind leading up to opening night. 

The poetic nature of Delicate Fish/BARDO , which repeats at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7, pulled me in the first time I saw its marketing. The tender words chosen to describe the works, the curiosity of the title, and the simplicity of its presentation as it emerged into the public eye brought wonder to its existence. The program takes an intimate look at grief, pain, and one of the most challenging aspects of life: death. With such a clear thematic pathway of the show, the collaboration was surprisingly more organic than you’d expect.  “The way that our two pieces communicate or compliment was purely by synchronicity,” says Evans. “Both of us, in very different ways, had been interfacing with the energies that surround and infuse death, grief, and healing.”  I’ll share more of our interview below, but first, let me get you up to speed on what opening weekend had in store. 

Jess Evans. Photo: Chris Larson

Delicate Fish began the evening. A nautical journey to a quiet and damp place of reflection, Evan’s choreography, which she performed solo, was absolutely mesmerizing. Evans did not rush to any moments. Instead, her movements guided the audience steadily, like the constant and ominous flare of a lighthouse in the midst of darkness. Her movement was set within rectangular wooden pillars adorned with vintage lighting fixtures; the theater remained dimly lit for most of the 30 minutes she spent in the space. Evans, whose previous choreographic experiences include her endeavors as a dancer and choreographer for SubRosa Dance Collective, told me in our email correspondence that she felt the previous projects she’d work on hadn’t lent enough time to flush out a full idea. Though I haven’t seen her work before Delicate Fish, this one seemed far beyond such lack of exploration. Delicate Fish is the work of an artist who has known deep pain and still grasps humanity with a soft embrace.  It’s the work of an artist who knows both her body and her heart.  

Set to an immensely soothing soundscape by composer D.L.Frazer, also known as Sweet Anamoly, Delicate Fish was a piece to heal through. Evans’ performance was simply stunning. Her maturity and serenity yielded a genuine experience for the audience, and her demeanor complemented the simplicity of the work. Circling around the space in a slow motion, she rendered the world of Delicate Fish entrancing as it washed about the space like a tide. With another run of shows coming up this weekend, any movement fanatic or visual art aficionado would be remiss to miss Evans’ truly standout piece. 

Lyra Butler-Denman’s piece began after a brief pause, just enough time for the audience to get a quick stretch break before the 80-minute BARDO began. Created as a dance theater piece, BARDO is Butler-Denman’s first attempt to combine the two art forms into a cohesive work. Its structure remained consistent in its repetitions: a section of spoken word, music entering into the landscape, Butler-Denman becoming overtaken by the music, a dance section following and returning her again and again to the central prop of the piece, a square of ash in the center of the space. “Bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. This concept helped Butler-Denman navigate the creation of the work as well as her own grief after the passing of her father, the unnamed loved one whose passing remains the theme of the piece. 

As an actor, Butler-Denman executed the storytelling with ease. In each section of BARDO, the story recalled the days leading to and after her father’s death. With growing emotion and candor, the apex of the work, “on the day you died,” brought me to tears. BARDO’s story is raw and cuts deep. For those of us who have experienced deep loss, Butler-Denman’s recount is honest, vulnerable, and true to the reality of death’s grasp on the people it leaves behind. Its transparency is brave, and a kudos should be given to Butler-Denman for her courage in making art from an emotionally authentic place. The length of the piece worked against its effectiveness: 80 minutes felt tiring, and I found myself hoping for a variation in the pattern of spoken word, music, dance, repeat. In future iterations, BARDO could benefit from a more concise culmination of ideas – perhaps collecting some of the movements sections together and giving the audience a more palatable running time. In closing remarks after the show, Butler-Denman mentioned that she’s looking forward to turning BARDO into a dance film, which perhaps could suit the content better, more fluidly integrating dance with theater, though I would miss the power of her live storytelling performance. The audience felt with her as she spoke, and her tone was captivating as she reeled through memories spun together with her poetic word choices. 

Overall, Delicate Fish/BARDO was a thought-provoking deep dive to one of the most seemingly dark places we can go in our lives. I emerged on the other side of the performance as one does from the experience of loss: tired, a worn-out feeling in the back of my throat, a softness in my heart for the vulnerability shared by both artists, and a flooding expanse of memories from my own experiences with those I have loved and lost, all intermingling with the grief and release that Delicate Fish/ BARDO offered. 

Lyra Butler-Denman. Photo: Sophia Wright Emigh

***

Is this your first collaboration together? What sparked the idea to create a show together? 

Jess Evans: Last Winter, Lyra asked me if I knew anyone who might want to share a bill with her in the winter of 2020. I had been a member at FLOCK Dance Center for a few years, finding my own way of making and moving in a manner I had never done before; a non-process, so-to-speak, vs. having a deadline to put pressure and bounds on the practice. But, when she asked me, I had this clear feeling that I had to join her, that now was the time to have the necessary structure of a deadline to bring a creation to life within. 

Lyra Butler-Denman: I approached a few people I know in the dance and performance community, including Jess, who initially said no (as did everyone else). A few months later Jess came back and said yes, for which I’m so grateful. In retrospect, it was perfect that everyone else said no for two reasons: working with Jess on this was a deeply nourishing and supportive process, and it turned out our pieces spoke to each other in ways I didn’t expect, and really love.

Is vulnerability a key factor in the creation process for you, or was this a new endeavor for you?

JE: With Delicate Fish, I learned a lot about my process by having a time frame that was spacious. For me, so much of the art of this piece was in the creation of it. I learned over and over to trust in what was coming for me, through me, at me…and to let go of trying to capture what was eluding me and what I was looking to other artists for the answers to. The vulnerable aspect feels important to my spirit, and I’d say more precisely, to be unguarded and tender are tenets of my work here on this planet as a human. In terms of the creation process, to trust over and over and over again in what the piece is asking to be is inherently a vulnerable act. 

LBD: Vulnerability has always been an entrance point for me as a performer. I’ve always been drawn to roles and works that tap into the tender, painful, and dark parts of human experience (I recently played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, for example). This piece, though, came less out of that specific artistic preference and more out of necessity. It began as my personal grief process. I felt like my culture gave me no guidance for my grief, no ritual, no map. My [time as a member at] FLOCK Dance Center was my way of making that map for myself. Right from the beginning I used the concept of the bardo to guide me and developed my personal map from there. 

What is “bardo”? 

LBD: The term Bardo came into my awareness via the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In that tradition, bardo is a transition, and is commonly used to describe the intermediate state between death and rebirth. I used bardo as a guiding principle with so much respect and deep gratitude to the culture to whom it belongs; the work would not exist without it. After a while it became clear that what was emerging was more than a personal process and was becoming a piece of work of its own, something that lived outside of me and could have a shape and life of its own. Because it started in my trying to find a way to acknowledge the active nature of grief, vulnerability was there from the beginning, as opposed to something I had to find later on. 

What do you think lies between humans and their perception of death? What barriers hold us from experiencing its fullness? 

JE: Well, with humility as the leading hand here as I have little authority to speak on death, it occurs to me in this moment that death is the ultimate loss. That amount of loss inherently holds a whole world of love in it as well. These two extremes held at the same time, the fullness of the loss and the fullness of the love, is so much to be with, so much to let wash through; we have to be willing to be overwhelmed.

LBD: I think that there are a number of things that lie between our perception of death. The first is simply a lack of experience. I was able to be with my father during the last six weeks of his life as he was in hospice at home and dying. I cared for his body during that process while he was alive and I (along with my brother, mother, and partner) were with him with our hands on him as his heart stopped, and collectively we cared for and cleaned his body after he died. We made an altar of his body with raw silk, flowers, and photos and kept him in our home for three days after he stopped breathing. Being in such close contact to him and his body before, during, and after his death gave me an understanding that death is not a moment; there’s not a switch flipped when the heart stops. Dying is a process, and being with him for the days surrounding the day he died, touching him, returning to him over and over until I understood, gave my body and the animal in me an understanding of that and an understanding, finally, that he was dead. So few people in my culture get to have that experience, and so death can feel distant, abrupt, and alienating. The second barrier I see is a narrative of death as horrible, unhygienic, gross, or otherwise to be avoided at all costs. We are not shown the beauty, magic, and love that can exist during the dying process and afterwards. So in terms of experiencing its fullness, I think we often don’t know that that fullness exists or can be part of our experience. We don’t even know we have that option. That’s something that I hope BARDO conveys, that there are other ways to do death, to be with death, and to grieve. 

Did you receive feedback on your work in-process or post-show? What is it like receiving commentary on such a deeply personal experience? 

JE: I had every intention to get feedback as the piece progressed, and that just ended up not being possible. The piece didn’t congeal until less than a week before the show, and some aspects, like the lighting, couldn’t come to life until the week of the show, which was a timeline I hadn’t totally planned on, but had to surrender to. Opening night was incredibly vulnerable for me as I hadn’t had any feedback yet. After every show I have been grateful for people who have been permeable, open, and generous witnesses. 

LBD: I worked with two dramaturgs (Sonali Sangeeta Balajee and Jeffrey Puukka), Jeffrey specifically on the text and Sonali more on the dance and the work as a whole. My composer Ahmond also came into rehearsal a few times. Their feedback was invaluable. As I was creating the work, pulling from both my dance and theater background, I felt like I was cooking with ingredients I’d never put together before and wasn’t sure for a long time if it was edible, and they acted as taste-testers. Because so much of the process was me alone in the studio, having others reflect back to me helped the piece become more of itself. Receiving commentary from Ahmond, Sonali, and Jeffrey was easy (partially because I trust each of them so deeply both as people and as artists) and extremely useful. Part of making art for me is creating a world that speaks to and touches others, so while it was deeply personal, it was also important that it resonated with the audience, and I was willing to receive feedback and make necessary changes for that to be true. Also, while it’s based on something deeply personal, I hope it is also universal. Part of the development of the piece was a desire to not have the work be about me and my individual experience. I hope that [my] work allows the audience to place themselves in a variety of roles; the person who is dying or has died, the person grieving, a witness to the relationship between the two, maybe even a vision seen as the veil thins. 

Jess, your piece was less apparent and more abstracted. How does this co-relate to your musings on death, and its interaction with your life? 

JE: Delicate Fish isn’t explicitly about death, actually. The Soul who inspired the work has passed on, but the work was always more about helping that Soul feel seen in the pain that they were ushered out of this life with, to help that particular thread of consciousness be integrated and healed, and to honor that the pain is just a part of the wholeness of our brilliance; the cathedral within us is vast and divine. 

The piece has layers of my own heart-work as well, as I have gone through heartbreak and heart-swelling this year. It ended up being a sacred container for me to rest and heal within. 

Lyra, your piece was open, like a journal. Did you feel that being transparent allows you to move through the grief process? After the first weekend of shows, did you feel a reckoning of sorts after sharing your deeply personal work? 

LBD: I felt like I needed the transparency to express the whole of the experience. There were some ideas that needed words, and some that needed ritual, and some that I could only convey with my body. I do think it ended up being more transparent than a lot of contemporary dance, and along with generally being interested in that as an artist, I also felt that this work required it. Having finished our first weekend of shows, I do feel a reckoning. I feel more deeply in my grief than I’ve been in years. And ironically, I am feeling like the thing I need as I’m in the grief that the show brings me to, is to do the show itself. It’s been a cycle. I wake up deep in grief each morning, and by the time the show is over each night, I’ve found a place of wholeness and joy. It’s also been a reckoning with how the work lands with others; it’s a pretty profound experience to hear an audience crying along with you. 

Jess, what inspired you to incorporate the set design and soundscapes for your work? The meditative track and minimal movement was mesmerizing. 

JE: The set was one of the first things I knew about the piece; inspired by a family cabin on the coast where I am from, it came to me as a vision of old wooden walls as trees within the coastal forest. The ocean is the mother of this piece, I have come to realize. Whenever I would get lost in the creation process I was called back to the sensation and wisdom of the ocean as my body. Still, as I perform the piece, this is true. I worked with the beautiful human and sound designer D.L. Frazer (aka Sweet Anomaly) to pick tracks and weave in the Koshi water chimes and oceanscape that is the through line. 

What’s next in your creative journey? How has this project informed the next steps of your artistic pursuit? 

JE: I do have another piece that has been knocking on my door that I will likely answer in the coming year. I learned an incredible amount about how I like to work and what matters to me in art-making through making Delicate Fish that I look forward to continuing to engage with when the time is right.

LBD: I would love to mount BARDO somewhere else. It has evolved as I perform it and I’d like the opportunity to get to know it more deeply at another venue and time. It’s also being made into a short film by Sophia Wright Emigh (we’re shooting this week), so it will have another life that way. I also have another evening-length piece I’ll begin working on after BARDO closes. Creating and producing BARDO has given me WAY more confidence in myself as an artist as well as more clarity about the kind of work I want to make, what my creative process is, and what I need in terms of practices, boundaries, time, etc. to make work.

***

  • Delicate Fish/ BARDO runs again this weekend, March 5-7, at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 S.E. Grant St., Portland. Tickets available here. 

Comments are closed.