I Begin Where I Grieve

Choreographer Ellen Bartel opened her home and heart to friends for a dance about her late husband, Dave Woods

Exhibitionism
Courtesy of Grub

I Begin Where I Grieve

Ellen Bartel's home
Sept. 1

In the kitchen of her South Austin home, Ellen Bartel, in a green T-shirt and black pants, and three women in black veils lunged across her kitchen table, their bare arms stretched across the wood, its fine scratches indicative of many days' mutual beginnings and endings. Ellen shared the table, and the house, with her husband, Dave Woods, until he died of lung cancer last December.

Ellen, the dancer-choreographer, and Dave, a professor of mathematics at Austin Community College, had lived there for 15 years, and for many of those had hosted monthly happy hours with their Tom Waits tribute band, the Boxspring Hogs (Ellen on drums, Dave on guitar). Before the performance, I chatted with some of the performers, Ellen's close friends and frequent collaborators (in fact, everyone present seemed to be on a first-name basis, so it feels right to break journalistic convention here). They told me that those parties began just as we were: a gathering on the gravel driveway, Tecate cans in hand. But when we were ushered into the dark, mural-walled basement, Ellen was alone, curling and unfurling her spine, the spine being the location of tumors that paralyzed her husband before they killed him. Her T-shirt and pants, Ellen announced, were the same ones she wore the first time she rushed Dave to the ER.

Ellen's crystallized yet still raw retelling of her experience of Dave's illness, each segment anchored in a different room of the house, was as poignant and candid as her movement. A chorus of "Daves" moved in and out of the space as ghosts, passing behind her and out the door, sitting behind her on the corduroy sofa. Once, they lifted her over their heads, momentarily trapping her against the textured ceiling, before they swirled around her and exited. The invited audience of the couple's friends, family, and colleagues followed the intimate performance, lining the walls, sitting on the carpet, wiping tears. After the urgent splaying across the kitchen table sent me fumbling for tissues, Ellen recalled the moment when Dave lost sensation in his legs. She sat in Dave's chair, becoming him with deep-diving empathy yet not abdicating herself.

And they won't let her, anyway. At the moment in the narrative when Dave passed away, Ellen and three close friends, in the couple's former bedroom, sank onto the carpet and curled together into a four-way hold. In her notes on the piece, Ellen explained it as a new beginning for her creative work, from the starting point of her grief. Sure enough, the finale ventured tentatively outdoors, still within the fenced-in front yard. The ensemble, in white, swayed in unison to a simple, comforting song, as traffic whizzed on behind them.

READ MORE
More I Begin Where I Grieve
You Ain't Alone
You Ain't Alone
Ellen Bartel continues to process loss and grief through art in this four-work concert

Jonelle Seitz, May 29, 2015

More Austin dance
The Theorists' <i>Hiraeth</i>
The Theorists’ Hiraeth
A sprawling evening of art and community organized by Amy Morrow and company showed the challenge of editing in our age

Jonelle Seitz, Sept. 23, 2016

Magdalena Jarkowiec's <i>Us Kids Are Alone in the House</i>
Magdalena Jarkowiec's Us Kids Are Alone in the House
The Austin-based choreographer is home alone with her soft-sculpture mutants

Jonelle Seitz, March 4, 2016

More Arts Reviews
<i>Silent Sky</i> at Austin Playhouse
Silent Sky at Austin Playhouse
This luminous staging of Lauren Gunderson's play brings wonder to the universe and makes it at once vast and intimate

Robert Faires, Sept. 30, 2016

"Elliott Erwitt: Home Around the World" at the Ransom Center
This survey shows how the photographer captured the culture of his time in ways both compelling and frightening

Sam Anderson-Ramos, Sept. 30, 2016

More by Jonelle Seitz
Dance/USA Convenes in Austin
Dance/USA Convenes in Austin
The national arts organization brings honors for the Butlers and big questions about the form's future

June 10, 2016

<i>Kozyworld</i>
Kozyworld
This collaboration between dancer Julie Nathanielsz and poet Margit Galanter employed fabric to explore human shape and contact

June 10, 2016

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

I Begin Where I Grieve, Austin dance, Ellen Bartel, Dave Woods, Boxspring Hogs

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)