Shedding Some Light On Peak Performances

By Gennadi Novash, Contributing Writer

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Rebecca Falkenberry, Kathryn Guthrie and Gabrielle Stravelli performing “Selling It.” Photo courtesy of Gennadi Novash
Rebecca Falkenberry, Kathryn Guthrie and Gabrielle Stravelli performing “Selling It.”
Photo courtesy of Gennadi Novash

Have you ever thought about what life was like before photography was invented? For most of us, the ability to take photos, snapshots and selfies is taken for granted. Rooms of Light: The Life of Photographs gives the audience a rare chance to reflect, in new ways, on something that is a part of our everyday lives.

“For centuries, fleeting moments could only be retained in our memories.” This quote, from a Peak Performances flyer, caught my attention and inspired me to reflect on what my life would be like without being able to capture a vacation memory, look back on my childhood years or, even better, remember a moment I was able to meet a celebrity, long before I walked into the theater last Thursday night to see the advertised program, Rooms of Light.

Rooms of Light is not a Broadway-style show, but it’s not a concert either. It’s really somewhere in between the two, with performers acting out little vignettes of the song cycle. A “song cycle,” I recently learned, is any group of songs written specifically around one particular theme – in this case – photography. Fred Hersch, a renowned pianist, wrote the music and played on stage during the performance. He was accompanied by a small orchestra.

The lyrics were written by Mary Jo Salter, a well-known poet. I felt that it was very easy to tell that these songs were poems in the way that the performers presented them, sometimes talking a few words or lines before beginning to sing. However, one could also recognize the careful and insightful choosing of every word as the work of a talented poet.

On opening night, before the show, I attended the Sneak Peak event Peak Performances offers several of these each semester in connection with the professional performances. These are opportunities to have some up-close and personal time with the artists. The one I attended was a moderated talk in which Ms. Salter discussed everything from her career as a poet to her first meeting with Fred Hersch and how Rooms of Light came to be a collaborative effort between the two of them. She also read some of her other poems and I liked that they were easy to understand even though I was hearing them for the first time.

During the performance, each song/poem was acted out by the company. Each piece focused on a different aspect of photography.

One vignette was about how taking a family portrait 100 years ago was a major effort with the clumsy equipment they had back then. One of those family portraits could have been the only photo that future generations had of those people.

Another vignette was about the paparazzi and how a young starlet wants them to just go away and, then, is maybe half afraid that one day they will go away.

A piece of the song cycle was about the photos we see from outer space and the depths of the ocean – two places that most people will never visit themselves.

Another scene was about the way x-rays have changed our lives: the happiness of a sonogram and the horror of finding out you have cancer.

There was a vignette about a man looking through his wedding album after his wife passed away.

A section of the cycle was about how we fret over the pictures that we post on social media – how we might cheat in online dating and create whole new personas for ourselves.

Another vignette was about photos we see in magazines, ads and how the “right” photo will sell us on a product or idea – sometimes even if we think we are above that sort of influence.

Finally, there was a nod to the famous photographers who have captured memorable moments in American history. Their work makes us all feel as though we were there to witness the moment together as a nation.

In her talk, Salter said that only a small fraction of photos taken are by professional artists. Therefore, only one piece in this 90 minute show was dedicated to them. However, I couldn’t help but think that everyone who takes a photo is perhaps hoping, in some small way, to create a piece of art, that one perfect shot, the one that will make you feel like a professional artist. I know that’s how it is for me.

By the time you read this, it will be too late to see Rooms of Light, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing a show at the Kasser Theater later this semester. The next two shows are both dance offerings that promise to be just as unique as Rooms of Light. They are Pat Graney Company’s Girl Gods, shown from Oct. 22-25, and Liz Gerring Dance Company’s Horizon, shown from Dec. 10-13.

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