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Borrowed Prey

Arts and Entertainment, Profiles

Local Dancers Breathe New Life into Death in “Borrowed Prey: Part II”

December 12, 2013

A long-held taboo becomes a source of transformation in Carrie Ahern’s newest piece, as the dance and performance artist invites her audience along on an odyssey through death, daring to navigate its darkest depths and chart a new course of celebration and connection.

The work is actually a continuation of Ahern’s “Borrowed Prey” project, a diptych whose first part examined the connections between humans and the animals that many of us consume. Performed in New York City in the spring of 2012, “Borrowed Prey: Part I” delved into the “farm to table” process, with Ahern’s own forays into hunting, butchering and slaughtering serving as the main basis for the work. In essence, it centered on human-to-animal empathy framed in the context of death. Ditmas Park-based Ahern continues her probe into death in the project’s second part, but this time with a focus on human-to-human empathy.

“Borrowed Prey: Part II” sprung from a very personal place, as the father of Ahern’s then-boyfriend was dying of Alzheimer’s during the same period that the choreographer was in the early planning stages of the project.

“My biggest feeling was that there just seemed like there needed to be a better way to deal with the end of life,” explains Ahern, who first began mulling over the concepts that would serve as the inspiration for “Borrowed Prey” in 2009. “How we die is now so related to this outsourcing of care to other people, just like what happens with animals. But it is very different in that the animals that we eat are killed at the height of their lives, whereas we now often prolong human life to an extent that poses questions about what is ethical in those terms or not.”

During the creative process that culminated in “Borrowed Prey: Part II,” Ahern discussed these questions at great length with two of her collaborators, Park Slope-based dancer Carolyn Hall and composer Anne Hege, who both perform alongside Ahern in the piece. Much as Ahern had been grappling with how to deal with death because of her up-close encounter with suffering, Hall and Hege had also been going through losses of their own, with the experiences of all three women serving to shape the work in a profound way.

“This piece is very personal for me,” Hege says. “My brother passed away four and a half years ago and I had a really negative hospital experience,” explains Hege, who felt as though life support caused her sibling’s spirit to struggle in a way that might not have happened otherwise. “He was kept on life support because he had opted to be an organ donor and there was really a sense of the power of his body, even with all the machines. He had been declared dead, but he was still so spiritually present. I feel like this piece gets at some of that in a really interesting way.”

Indeed, at the heart of “Borrowed Prey: Part II” is a quest of sorts to recover and reconnect to those life-affirming rituals that have been lost in our modern obsession with staving off death until the last possible moment. The 80-minute, multi-disciplinary performance has been informed by a multitude of influences, including “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” Ahern’s training as a hospice volunteer and each performer’s visualization of her own imagined burial process.

“What has been really interesting for me is finding a way to remain emotionally connected but put it into a ritual that honors life rather than grieves for death,” says Hall, whose parents both died shortly before she began working on the project with Ahern. “I think that is actually where this piece journeys for me personally,” Hall explains. “It starts in a place where death is a hard thing to digest to where actually the life that passed is worth celebrating.”

It is Hall who starts off the piece, with a solo that finds her crouched naked on a stark metal table. As she begins to move, eery video images of her shot by collaborator Harrison Owen are projected onto flowing white curtains that surround the performance space.

“The video is a brand new element for me in my work,” Ahern notes. “I think that I wanted there to be a play between what people are actually comfortable looking at – her or the video. Because her solo is a little bit grotesque, as is the video.”

It is striking how vulnerable and alone Hall seems at the beginning of the performance. But as the piece progresses, it moves from a place of isolation to one of interconnectedness, as the performers take the audience along on an evocative journey fraught with emotion that is conveyed through movement and sound.

Long-time collaborators who first worked together 17 years ago, Ahern and Hall share a level of comfort with each other that shines through in their interactions during the piece. At times, one seems like an extension of the other, as they move together in beautiful unison, both dressed in white cotton costumes designed by Naoko Nagata that are reminiscent of burial shrouds.

Throughout the performance, the dancers are constantly navigating a shifting web of tethers that serve as both visual stimuli and a source of sound. Music and movement meld together when the dancers hold onto the strings, as many of them are GameTrack tether controllers that are connected to special pods programmed with sounds composed by Hege. “Depending on how we pull the tethers, that triggers different kinds of sounds and different volumes in different parts of the piece,” explains Hege, who used the open source sound synthesis program ChucK for the project.

The constant shifting of the tethers to different points of the performance space also acts to bring about a sense of expanding connection that eventually envelopes the audience itself, as the piece ends with different spectators being given the strings to hold as the final dance sequence unfolds before them. “When you are tethered to something, it is such a strong metaphor,” Ahern says.

Ahern and Hege plan to further explore these themes of connections and death in future workshops that will focus on community rituals that use movement and sound to support the grieving process.

“I think by people looking at death a little bit more and getting a little bit more connected to it, they may gain a new perspective and see that it is not necessarily so dark and fearful,” Ahern says of her new work. “And I think there is potential for the kind of support that we are currently lacking culturally. Death does happen to a community, so what kind of ritual can we give people to support the grieving process?”

“Borrowed Prey: Part II” runs through Friday, December 13 at Alwan for the Arts. Tickets are available for purchase at Brown Paper Tickets.



Photos by Lori Singlar for the Brooklyn Bugle




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Arts and Entertainment, Profiles

Local Performer Leads Sensorial Journey Through “Farm to Table” Process

April 26, 2012

Dance and performance artist Carrie Ahern brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “you are what you eat” with her current project that delves into the connections between humans and the animals that many of us consume.

“For years, this question about sustainable food had been bothering me,” says Ahern, a Wisconsin native who moved to Brooklyn 17 years ago and currently resides in Ditmas Park. “I just felt so disconnected from going into a grocery store and buying a piece of meat and not really understanding where it came from.”

A growing interest in the origins of her food prompted Ahern to seek hands-on experience in the “farm to table” process back in 2010. The undertaking resulted in a bicoastal journey that involved hunting for Sika deer in the swamplands along the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the autumn of 2010 and then heading to Seattle, Washington a few months later to learn the art of butchering at Rain Shadow Meats. Ahern eventually spent a day slaughtering chickens at Stokesberry Farm in Olympia, Washington before returning to Brooklyn. Here, she has continued to perfect her butchering techniques at Williamsburg-based Marlow & Daughters.

Ahern’s forays into hunting, butchering and slaughtering serve as the main basis for her new work, “Borrowed Prey.” Though Ahern initially set out to better understand her own relationship with the “farm to table” process, the project took on a broader dimension during the course of her research.

“I felt like I really needed to be able to kill an animal if I was going to eat it… I really was so curious about what that experience would be like and if I would be able to eat meat after it,” Ahern notes. “But what ended up happening right away is I realized it is a project about empathy, more than anything. And it is a project about connection.”

The performer is creating “Borrowed Prey” as a diptych, with part one focusing on human-to-animal empathy and part two centering on human-to-human empathy.

Ahern began choreographing the first part of “Borrowed Prey” during her stay in Seattle last year, often walking straight to her studio after a shift spent carving up carcasses at Rain Shadow Meats. There, her roles as researcher and dancer became fascinatingly intertwined, as Ahern explains. “I started making the movement when I started the butchering,” she says. “So it comes directly out of my experience with all the research… putting it in my body and seeing what would come out.”

The result is a stunning work in which Ahern embodies both predator and prey, right down to her costume by Naoko Nagata that pairs a woolly, pointy-eared hood and furry shrug with a butcher’s apron splattered with fake blood. During a rehearsal at Brooklyn Arts Exchange in Park Slope, Ahern skillfully shifted from the limp stillness of a carcass on a butcher’s table to the playful strokes of a cat toying with a mouse to the skittish hops of a scared deer. Her movements were accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful score by composer Anne Hege that eventually gave way to an eerily distorted recording of Ahern reading text by Dr. Temple Grandin.

Grandin, an autistic and renowned animal behavior scientist, played an important role in the creation of Ahern’s new work. The scientist’s published findings serve as the fourth strand of research (along with Ahern’s hands-on studies of hunting, butchering and slaughtering) that informs part one of “Borrowed Prey.”

“Temple Grandin helped to answer some of the questions that we have about us versus animals,” Ahern notes. “Do animals think? Do they feel?”

Ahern hopes to get people thinking about these questions and many more by taking them along on a 55-minute sensorial journey filled with dance, music, spoken word, interactive touch experiments and open dialogue that leads up to the butchering of a lamb at the conclusion of the work.

The setting for Ahern’s upcoming performances will also provide rich stimuli, as the show will take place inside an actual butcher shop – Dickson’s Farmstand Meats – complete with pungent orders, a massive sausage grinder and a hefty butcher block that will serve as the dancer’s stage at times. Ahern plans to add her own touches to the space with the help of set and lighting designer Jay Ryan. Even such simple decorations as rawhide bundles dangling from the ceiling will serve to further Ahern’s examinations on the inescapable cycles of life and death, as she plans to fill them with decomposing flowers.

“Every aspect of the project is trying to get people more connected,” Ahern says. “It’s not that we just don’t ethically understand where our food comes from, it’s also that we’ve lost something in culture because we don’t participate in that process… by having a connection and empathy, there is more of a wholeness to our lives.”

Ahern will be performing part one of “Borrowed Prey” at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market on select nights from April 26 – May 13. Tickets are available for purchase at Brown Paper Tickets.


Photos by Lori Singlar for the Brooklyn Bugle


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