They saw people cut off from each other. They want to bring them back together with art
Annika Bentley has questions.
Big, existential questions, like: “What is this universal experience of life on Earth? How can we bring together voices and bodies and use song and dance to really help us feel connected again?”
As you might expect from a composer and singer-songwriter, Bentley is trying to answer them creatively, through music and art.
Bentley is the artistic director of The Mount Hope World Singers, a community choir focused on intercultural understanding. They are collaborating with BIODANCE and other artists on a show called “Stories from the Living Tree" at the Memorial Art Gallery.
It's designed as an immersive experience that combines music, dance, American Sign Language, and animation.
Bentley wants to find connections because she deeply understands disconnection. She has myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that produces overwhelming fatigue not improved by rest.
Bentley says it hurts to see the livestreams and virtual events that became common during the COVID-19 pandemic starting to disappear.
“A couple of years ago,” she says, “I was able to attend this huge variety of global events. It felt like the world really opened up to me.”
Now, she worries about being forced to take “a big step back,” losing things like access to telemedicine – and being part of the community.
“I felt like there’s this whole hidden corner of the population that was being kind of welcomed back into society,” Bentley says, but now, “It feels like we’re kind of being swept back under the rug.”
Bentley is pushing back against this as she leads this multifaceted collaboration centered around connection to society and to nature, which will be both streamed online and open to in-person attendance.
The show is centered around the idea of a tree where people can gather and share their stories.
“This tree,” she explains, “is a source of great wisdom, and it extends through its roots and canopy to all corners of the Earth and beyond the earth into the spiritual realm.”
Mount Hope World Singers are singing songs from 11 countries in 11 languages, including Maori chant, a Nigerian call to the sun, a Japanese children’s song, and a setting of Chilean poetry.
BIODANCE, led by Missy Pfohl Smith, is performing dances they have created in response to the songs and their connection to the metaphorical tree.
“I hope we’ll come together in a way that honors each part, including the audience,” Pfohl Smith says.
The collaboration also weaves in instrumental music created and performed by Greg Woodsbie, and visuals created by RIT’s Christine Banna. Her work will be projected onto and around the performers, and she says it is designed to evoke the flow of the tree from the roots through to the branches, and up into the cosmos.
Her work involves a combination of analog and digital materials and processes.
“There's a lot of stop motion, there's a lot of photography of real trees,” Banna says. “There are also some sections that utilize a microscope for animation and direct on 35 mm film more experimental animation."
When it all comes together, Bentley says, these elements aim to connect all of us “with a sense of expansive interconnectedness.”
Stories from the Living Tree will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Ballroom at the Memorial Art Gallery and will be streamed online at mounthopeworldsingers.org.
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.