Seven Hundred Stories on Tea

by  Elisabeth Lohninger 

Photo credit Eric Bandiero, 2013

The effect of seven hundred flattened out teabags pinned to the walls of Chashama 461 Gallery was haunting – reminiscent of a myriad of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. As the visitors moved along the walls to read the stories written on the tea bags, the weightless pieces of paper shifted in the breeze. A collapsible structure made from copper pipe, reminiscent of a Japanese teahouse, also lined with teabags, stood in the corner.

There was tea. There was music, an interactive poem performed by Gary Glazner. And, the main body of today’s performance, several dance pieces choreographed and improvised by Sabine Heubusch. Michele Brody’s Reflections in Tea, her art installation at Chashama 461 in New York for three weeks, supplied the backbone, the fertile ground that tonight’s performance of Five O’Clock Tea Reflections was rooted in.

Ms. Brody’s Reflections in Tea, an interactive, community-based project, has undergone several incarnations since its inception in 2007 at the D.U.M.B.O. Art Under the Bridge Festival in Brooklyn, then under the name of Tea House Productions, and it will go on to morph into its new shape in upcoming years. Ms. Brody’s collaboration with dancer and choreographer Sabine Heubusch is a more recent development. Marking the collaborators’ third joint project, it is also the most elaborate and multi-dimensional to date.

It was Ms. Heubusch’s idea to center  the concept of today’s performance around the history of tea. Mr. Glazner opened the evening with an interactive poem titled “When I hear about tea…” in which he asked audience members at some point to finish that sentence with the first thing that sprang to mind. This was a perfect opening that gave those present the impression of being participants rather than spectators. Throughout the evening Mr. Glazner gave engaging readings of seven stories that had been chosen for their relevance to the topic, and for their illustration of the ephemeral nature of sharing tea with a stranger, a friend, a family member.

Ms. Heubusch incorporated an offering of tea to each audience member into her first dance, signaling even more clearly that each person in the room was a part of this performance, a part of the story that was being told tonight.  She is a deeply soulful and thoughtful dancer and choreographer who weaves her studies in Bhuto and Contemporary dance, Tango and Hip-hop into a unique way of movement that is at once strikingly individual and universal. The choreographed pieces were well synched with Mr. Glazner’s readings, sometimes directly reflecting the texts, sometimes interpreting them from an emotional vantage point. But it was during her improvisational pieces in between stories that Ms. Heubusch let her creativity and intuition shine the brightest, as she interacted with Ms. Brody’s installation from a place of respect as well as playfulness, thereby pulling the audience into a non-verbal conversation about history, memory, family, and fate.

Both Ms. Heubusch and Ms. Brody are widely traveled: Ms. Brody has lived in France,

Photo credit Eric Bandiero, 2013

Costa Rica, Germany and both the West and East Coast of the United States, while Ms. Heubusch has traveled South East Asia, South America, and Europe. The tradition of drinking tea is shared in a multitude of countries around the globe in various inflections, a fact that interweaves beautifully with both artists’ exposures to a multitude of cultures, people and stories.

With Five O’Clock Tea Reflections the participating performers and artists invite the audience to simply be in the moment, to relax into a story, into enjoying a cup of tea; to resonate with their immediate surroundings, without judgment and preconception. Ms. Heubusch’s dance style in particular mirrors this invitation, infused as it is with her deep immersion in Alexander Technique, which has taught her to give permission for her dance to unfold with ease and poise, to trust that the right movement will happen, that the right story will be told.

For Ms. Brody, this installation has an underlying theme of unity and communion, by giving voice to something that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives, something that is at once mundane and deeply symbolic: the coming together, and the sharing of stories over a nice cup of tea.

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