Arts Desk

Go to the (Ex-) Mountain: Why the Dance Exchange’s Cassie Meador Walked 500 Miles

The sun has just disappeared behind the hills around the Claytor Nature Study Center in Bedford, Va., and Cassie Meador is trying to conjure movement out of memories.

Eight people sit with her in a circle, but only one has any dance experience. The rest are mostly middle-aged residents of this town about 30 miles west of Lynchburg, Va., including two teachers, a postmaster, a nonprofit administrator, and a full-time mom. Members of the Takoma Park-based Dance Exchange offer prompts to the group: How has the landscape changed around you over time? What’s something you’ve made? When have you taken a risk or chance?

The visitors begin discussing their experiences: A man with a bushy grey beard talks about the growth of trees around his old home, gesturing with his hands as he speaks. One woman describes making sculptures out of clay. Another mentions change that moves like a stream.

Meador, the Dance Exchange’s artistic director, listens. Then, gradually, she gathers a movement phrase from what she’s heard and teaches it, piece by piece, to the group. In a few moments everyone in the room is moving, arms and torsos stretching up and out and down. In sequence they grasp the space before them to indicate a tree trunk, then align hands and wave them like a winding river. Wrists swivel and thumbs push inward—working with an imaginary lump of clay—and then in unison, arms pull back and suddenly fly forward, to symbolize taking a big risk.

This is the kind of work through which the Dance Exchange, when it was led by celebrated choreographer Liz Lerman, helped make its name—getting nondancers moving. And sure enough, when the workshop ends the Bedford residents linger, energized by the activity.

But Meador, 32, is about done for the day. She and a companion, Matt Mahaney, are 320 miles into a 500-mile trek from Takoma in D.C. to one of the sources of its electricity, the former site of a mountain in West Virginia. Today’s workshop comes at the end of a week’s worth of hiking and camping along the Appalachian Trail, and the exertion shows. Meador’s lost about 10 pounds and seems more vulnerable than usual, her shoulders hunched slightly inward.

The workshop is just one facet of “How to Lose a Mountain,” Meador’s first big undertaking since succeeding Lerman as the Dance Exchange’s leader last summer—and one that’s sure to set her apart from her predecessor. Meador, Mahaney, and members of the Dance Exchange set out in mid-April; earlier this week, Meador and Mahaney finished the trek. In between, as they made their way along the Appalachian Trail, they hosted workshops and met with activists, examining energy sources and civilization’s relationship with the natural world, in the hopes of eventually translating the experience into a stage piece that will premiere at Dance Place in March 2013 and at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisc., a month later. The Dance Exchange is also producing a website it hopes will contain 500 or more stories from people encountered along the way.

When Meador explains the origins of the project in public, she brings up her experience helping to teach an ecology class in Guyana three years ago. Living outdoors for two weeks, it was obvious where resources came from: Water was drawn from the river, and the only source of light was her headlamp. When she returned home, Meador realized how little she knew about the source of her electricity, so she did some research and was shocked to learn that much of it was linked to mountaintop removal.

In private, Meador adds that what really surprised her was how quickly she could forget it again. It’s just a fact, after all. “To really know,” she says, “it has to involve my body.”

How Meador’s journey will become a fully realized dance piece isn’t quite clear. “One entry point to the rehearsal process will be the movement we’ve collected. That’s the lumber,” says Meador.

“How to Lose a Mountain” has several moving parts. There are the workshops and the meetings with activists. There’s also a wide range of collaborators from around the country who’ve signed up to make cameos—like Zeke Leonard, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based musician and instrument-builder, and Melissa Fisher, an anthropologist at Georgetown University. A couple of the “creative team” members are at the Claytor Nature Center workshop: Mark Twery, a U.S. Forest Service employee, who helped develop the route that Meador and Mahaney are walking, and Kate Freer, a New York-based videographer who hovers over the event with her camera.

But for a project where so much time and energy has already been invested, the end result seems scarily vague. Freer will probably come back and film various spots along the trail that Meador and Mahaney have marked, and dance phrases have been created at workshops and elsewhere throughout the hike—but it doesn’t sound like the final piece will necessarily include any of them.

After the workshop, the group drives to an 18th-century farmhouse, where they’re staying the night. Meador’s still grasping at the piece’s eventual direction. “I don’t think the stage work will tell the story of the walk,” Meador says. “It’s not going to be a documentary.”

Ultimately, the final form of “How to Lose a Mountain” could easily center on the upshot of the trip itself: the myriad impressions and sensations and observations that come from being so close to the land; the transformative experience of living without electricity and sleeping on the ground and moving under your own power for days, even weeks, at a time.

At the house, dancers pour themselves glasses of wine while Meador eats a couple of slices of pizza. “This is my second dinner tonight,” she says. “I can’t eat enough.”

The next morning, Meador wraps up a conference call with the Dance Exchange’s home office while Mahaney prepares their packs. An adjunct dancer with the Dance Exchange and an outdoor educator, Mahaney has the lean and deadly serious look of a hardcore survivalist. He advised Meador to keep her pack as light as possible: They’ve got the clothes they’re wearing, plus an extra shirt (a luxury); a tent but no tarp; and collapsible water bottles that take up as little space as possible. Mahaney says he doesn’t even bring water with him if he knows there’s a source within seven miles.

Mahaney defines his role as “keeping Cassie safe and keeping her walking at maximum efficiency.” He’d love to wake up well before dawn and get a jump on the day, but she doesn’t like to walk that early—“and therefore she isn’t that efficient,” he says. So they wake up around 5:30 a.m. and get going an hour later. Then they walk all day long, an average of 17 miles per day, with stops dictated by the scenery. The schedule is remarkably stripped-down. For the most part the two spend all day moving, often in silence.

Meador finishes her phone call and says her goodbyes to the Dance Exchange folks who are driving back to their homes in Washington and New York. She, Mahaney, and Twery, the Forest Service official, pile into the car and head to the same spot on the Appalachian Trail where Twery picked them up a couple of days earlier, though not before stopping for supplies at a Walmart—one that was clearly carved out of the landscape quite recently. No one acknowledges the irony—Wal-mart, environmental destruction, that whole thing—but it’s presumably hard to avoid the trappings of modern life completely.

They arrive at the trail and Meador hauls her pack out of the car. “Back to work,” she says.

So close to civilization, this section of the path isn’t particularly special, but it’s a beautiful day and the greens and blues of the scenery glow royally. There’s honeysuckle and buttercups and blackberry blossoms, and cicadas—which have returned after a 17-year hiatus—are everywhere, molting out of their papery skins and taking to the air, filling the forest and meadows with a deafening sound.

Meador tries to explain how the walk is changing her. Serving as the Dance Exchange’s artistic director has meant more administration and desk work, and less actual dancing. “I hadn’t been as physical in the last year and a half, and now I’m finding I have a hunger to dance again, and to perform,” she says. “I’m coming back to my body. Usually I do that through dance, but it’s the same thing—seeing things differently as a result.”

With lots of time on the trail to think, Meador lets her mind roam—to the “sunrise sendoff” that the Dance Exchange organized on April 10, the morning she and Mahaney left, and the five days they spent walking with five other dancers along the C&O Canal to Harpers Ferry. She ponders the visit she made to PJM, a regional transmission organization that coordinates the flow of electricity throughout the Washington area, and the limits of what humans can take from the planet.

And she questions what will happen at the end of the walk, when she and Mahaney finally leave the Appalachian Trail and follow the New River into West Virginia, where the mountain, with its strip mine, lies. It’s unclear what will happen then, though they’re planning on meeting with Larry Gibson, an anti-mountaintop removal activist who lives near the site.

But mostly she wonders how she’s changing—as an artist, as a dancer—as a result of her trek. “I’m trying to trust that this is getting in my body, and it’ll come out later in some way,” relates Meador. “I’m letting my feet really be on the ground, just giving in to it. It’s a kind of faith in the ground and what grows out of that.”

Photo by Jori Ketten/Courtesy Dance Exchange

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