Standing stage left, five dancers in somber shades of blue came together in a warm embrace before stepping on stage. The energy within that circle perfectly encompasses choreographer Paige Carlson-Scardino’s vision as she uses her personal experience with last year’s devastating Tubbs Fire to explore elements of grief and community.
“Pulse: The New Moves Student Choreography Showcase,” directed by Ray Tadio, opened on Thursday, Dec. 6, at McKenna Theatre. Eight different choreographies demonstrated themes ranging from internal turmoil to slavery. “To the Light” was the last opportunity to showcase Carlson-Scardino’s emotional choreography before her graduation in Spring 2019.
The performance featured dancers Sophia Diaz-Muca, Maria Donjacour, Veronica Gutierrez, Lexy Holton and Alexis Vega-Arroyo, with lighting design by Camille Rassweiler.
The Tubbs Fire burned 36,807 acres of land, killed 22 people and destroyed 5,636 homes. The street corners that may have once been taken for granted will never be the same. The natural chips and tears that give a home character cannot be replicated. Yet, in the midst of all that, Carlson-Scardino credits the rebuilding process within the community as a source of inspiration.
Through the choreographing process, she was able to transform her emotions into movement.
“There were chunks that I didn’t even use on stage but just going through that process and putting myself in that mindset and trying to make my body mirror those emotions, even if I didn’t use them or teach them to my dancers, it was definitely a lot of closure for me,” Carlson-Scardino explained.
The program cited a Led Zeppelin quote as the performance’s description: “Upon us all, a little rain must fall.”
In less than six hours, the Tubbs Fire, one of four North Bay fires, destroyed a large portion of Sonoma County in October of 2017. Carlson-Scardino’s family home in Santa Rosa, which was the most affected, was completely destroyed. She recalls a frantic phone call from her sister-in-law in the middle of the night. The next morning she realized the extent of the situation. All of her immediate friends and family were also permanently affected.
There’s was an element of survivors guilt, as Carlson-Scardino had just transferred from Santa Rosa Junior College to SF State in the fall of 2017.
“All of my personal belongings — things that I needed like my toiletries, my special pictures, my clothing — I still had all of that,” she reflects. “Knowing that my family did not have all of those things was probably the worst part.”
The choreography is open to interpretation, not literally addressing the fires. There was no red lighting or any kind of indication that the piece stemmed from the emotion left behind by the second most destructive wildfire in California history.
However, the desperation was evident when one of the dancers broke into a frazzled spastic movement to the song “Stars of Ice” by Steve Roden.
The music is eerie as the five girls recklessly dance on the stage, frantically looking for a sense of direction. An organized mess.
The piece transcends the emotional turmoil Carlson-Scardino experienced. She hopes her audience will recognize, “Rather than dividing ourselves, coming together is the best option. Especially in our particular political climate, everybody is so divided and really we are all going through such similar things.”
When trying to convey the kind of emotion needed to carry on the choreography, Carlson-Scardino attempted to make the energy more relatable. Instead of pushing her narrative onto the dancers, they were encouraged to tap into their personal experiences.
Holton, a 19-year-old dance major, reminisces a dark period in her life where within two weeks she lost both her beloved cousin in a longboarding accident in Yosemite and a close friend in a train crash. While Gutierrez, 21-year-old dance and history major, drew from the loss of her family through her parent’s divorce.
“I can’t even imagine what that would be like to not even have a home to go to,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve never been through something that devastating but I’m using the emotions from what I have been through, like my parent’s divorce, to portray grief and loss.”
As the medley transitions into “Floe”, the tone drastically shifts to an upbeat radiance. In a sudden transition, the dancers begin to mimic each other’s movement, becoming more uninformed. They comfort one another and use each other’s balance to keep each other afloat.
Although coming from different perspectives, everybody could relate.
“In a lot of ways, this dance has helped almost all of us see and find the light in whatever situation each one of us was going through,” Gutierrez said.
Residents of the North Bay have become accustomed to a new normal after the fires. Carlson-Scardino’s parents moved in with family friends elsewhere in Sonoma County. Her great aunt recently moved into a newly built home while her brother and sister-in-law moved to Oregon.
“I wanted it to be more about grief as a whole and finding comfort within your peers or within a certain environment or community,” Carlson-Scardino said. “Using each other to pull together emotionally is a better option than doing it alone.”
In the final moments, the dancers stood diagonally across the stage looking into the light: an optimistic finale to a rather dark subject matter.