Mining for Memories, and Leaving an Imprint

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

As enmeshed as coal mining has been with this nation's economy, culture, labor history and folk arts, it has rarely left its mark on the realm of concert dance. Yet in "Imprints on a Landscape: The Mining Project," a thoughtful new work performed last weekend at the Round House Theatre, choreographer and director Martha Wittman found rich veins of imagery to explore while looking at one community's complicated relationship with this sooty yet coveted energy source.

Wittman, a veteran member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, is connected to coal through her father, who was raised in an Irish-immigrant mining family in Scranton, Pa., more than a century ago. A printmaker by the name of Michael J. Gallagher, he chiseled his childhood memories into the art he made for the Work Projects Administration in the 1930s and '40s. Having grown up surrounded by the chunky grace of her father's prints and woodcuts, Wittman was inspired to translate those images and the times from which they sprang into a theatrical production of movement and words.

"Imprints" is told in a series of vignettes, some of them danced, some narrated, some involving projections of Gallagher's energetic black-and-white artwork interspersed with video scenes of present-day Scranton. Wittman's musician son, Ben, pieced together an evocative musical backdrop of his own compositions and traditional folk songs. (The work has a distinct family stamp: The choreographer's niece Gwyneth Leech created the video design, and other Gallagher descendants joined the cast, which was primarily Dance Exchange members.) As you might expect, the mining-inspired dancing involved a good deal of pantomime, as well as dancers who transformed themselves into awls and drills and coal cars. At one point several dancers lined up to create a human tunnel for others to squeeze through, depicting the cramped dimensions of a coal seam while a voice-over described broad-shouldered men who spent a lifetime digging on their knees.

But there was more than mining in "Imprints." Wittman also introduced such colorful characters as union organizer Mother Jones and the ornery but indispensable mule. Women had the most memorable roles, particularly a white-haired group in aprons and boots portraying miners' wives, who recited a list of grueling daily chores to put digital-age multitaskers to shame. This led to the "Kitchen Jig," an uplifting, stage-filling whirl of wooden chairs and stamping feet and the exhilarating release of anxiety -- the anxiety of each day's wait for the safe return of a coal-blackened man.

This is still a fearful vigil. The poignancy and relevance of Wittman's work felt especially sharp in light of the recent one-year anniversary of West Virginia's Sago Mine explosion, which killed 12 miners and brought to light many of the safety issues that have dogged the industry since Michael Gallagher's time.

At 90 minutes, "Imprints" was just the right length, particularly as it began to veer off-track in the end. Wittman set herself an imposing, yet ultimately impossible, task: to tell a story that spans a century and incorporates the look and feel of other eras, as well as to weave in larger issues. She wants to make sure we realize that the miracle of electricity, brought about through blood, sweat and black lung disease, taxes the land as well, and so we hear about the sudden collapse of bootleg mines that can suck children underground to their deaths. "Imprints" closes -- anticlimactically -- with video images of a park in Johnstown, Pa., on a site once polluted by industrial runoff.

This is all useful information, but Wittman's means of bringing the material to life onstage occasionally falters. Some of the movement passages feel indistinct, and the emotional momentum is lost once our attention is turned from mining's warrior women to clean energy and land reclamation, which need too much explanation to fit in.

Still, this work was full of rough beauty. "Imprints on a Landscape" is the inaugural effort of the Dance Exchange's "Master Elders" program, which aims to spotlight the older members of the intergenerational company. Wittman, always a riveting performer (though she doesn't dance in this work), proves that she also has an artist's eye for extracting telling details, as well as a hunger for depth and texture. This hunger, in the end, was the work's greatest strength. Each episode unspooled with a sense of urgency, as of a secret needing to be told. In this wide-ranging, passionate homage to a way of life and a work ethic, it is clear that Wittman and her father are hewn from the same stone.

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