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The piece “Yes,” which opens the “Rooms: A Dance Drama” performance, is about the complicated relationships that women have with one another — sometimes helping each other and sometimes acting against each other. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

Ayana King stands at the front of the stage holding a shiny metal bucket in each arm as the voice of the late singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone — the “High Priestess of Soul” — croons from a nearby laptop:

Why you wanna fly Blackbird?

You ain’t ever gonna fly.

Why you wanna fly Blackbird?

You ain’t ever gonna fly.

As the drum beat pulses, Livian Kennedy, Savannah Lammers and Bryar Loftfield enter stage left and lift King in the air as they practice for “Rooms: A Dance Drama” (Feb. 23-27), a Kenan Theatre Company production. Three weeks into rehearsals, set pieces are being built around them. Skinny crepe myrtle branches stretch toward the ceiling. Window-like squares hang from the rafters, casting shadows onto the back wall.

"Rooms" uses movement, music and text to explore issues at the intersection of gender, race and identity, in particular issues facing women. (photo by Kristen Chavez)
“Rooms” uses movement, music and text to explore issues at the intersection of gender, race and identity, in particular issues facing women. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

“Let’s run the whole thing from the beginning,” says Heather Tatreau, a lecturer in exercise and sport science in the College of Arts & Sciences and a modern dance choreographer who is putting together the production. “Remember the whole idea here is women are taking back power.”

“Rooms” uses movement, music and text to explore issues at the intersection of gender, race and identity, in particular, “how can women’s lost histories be given a voice to empower future generations?” according to Tatreau. On this night, a small group of dancers rehearses just one piece in the show. The feature-length production will use 10 women and five men.

“This represents women taking ownership of where they stand and who they are,” said Kennedy, a sophomore dramatic art and studio art major. “In this piece, Ayana is our Nina Simone.”

Last fall, Kennedy was part of Tatreau’s dramatic art class, “Movement for the Actor II,” which laid the groundwork for the spring production through intensive research by the students. Tatreau (psychology and women’s studies ’98) said she has always had an appreciation for feminist literature and women and their creative process. The dance drama will incorporate poetry, excerpts from short stories and a dose of feminist theory; post-show discussions each night will explore the production’s themes.

“There have also been times in our history when feminist theory has been very exclusionary of races other than white, so we’re taking a look in ‘Rooms’ at intersectionality — how do people, gender, race, class and all the things that categorize people connect?” she said. “And can we use the writings of feminists Simone de Beauvoir and bell hooks, for example, and bring those ideas to speak to the next generation?”

At a break in the rehearsal, the dancers share their thoughts on the relevance of the themes in today’s political climate. For King, a sophomore exercise and sport science major who admits she’s not very talkative, “dance gives me the voice I don’t often use.”

In one piece, Tatreau has students tell stories of their mothers and grandmothers expressing creativity at a time when it was perhaps more difficult to do so.

Choreographer Heather Tatreau, an exercise and sport science lecturer, encourages students to dance "big" and fill the performance space. (photo by Kristen Chavez)
Choreographer Heather Tatreau, an exercise and sport science lecturer, encourages students to dance “big” and fill the performance space. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

“They are finding ways that women in their families may have fought the norm, like ‘I am from … wearing pants in the 1920s,’ for instance. These are little slices of resistance that this generation can learn from and realize they have more of a voice today,” Tatreau said.

Tatreau received a UNC Performing Arts Special Activities Fund grant to incorporate a piece choreographed by one of her former students — Jade Poteat, a 2014 psychology major and women’s and gender studies minor — into the production. Poteat now works for UNC’s Center for Developmental Science.

When she was a senior at Carolina, Poteat created a piece for the student group Modernextension Dance Company based on feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Confined to her room, the mentally ill woman becomes obsessed with the room’s wallpaper. Poteat’s piece uses dance, narration and music. Wooden pallets stacked vertically on wheels and draped in yellow cloth will serve as moveable walls.

“At the time I was also taking a course about art and activism with associate professor of women’s and gender studies Tanya Shields, who helped me think about the idea of intersectional feminism and how I could incorporate women of color and their experiences with mental health institutions,” Poteat said.

Tatreau said “Rooms” was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and the idea that women need a space of their own to be creative. But the performance’s title has taken on multiple meanings.

“There are also a lot of texts with rooms meant as confinement, as illustrated in Jade’s piece, where women had to stay in the interior of the house without the freedom to go out into the world. And even beyond that, this production is not about one type of woman, it’s a peek into the different rooms of women’s lives.”

“Rooms: A Dance Drama” runs Feb. 23-26 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the Kenan Theatre of the Center for Dramatic Art on Country Club Road. Tickets are $10 general admission, $5 for students.Tickets available at the door, or reserve tickets.

Story Kim Spurr ’88, College of Arts & Sciences; photos by Kristen Chavez ’13

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