You Ain't Alone
Ellen Bartel continues to process loss and grief through art in this four-work concert
Reviewed by Jonelle Seitz, Fri., May 29, 2015
First Street Studio, 2400 E. Cesar Chavez
Ellen Bartel listed the ways she's tried to cope with her husband's death, from cancer, in 2012: "I've been to therapy, I've been to grief counseling, I've read books, I've done a lot of research on the Internet. I've tattooed my arms, I have an altar in my house." And still, she said, she has post-traumatic stress that is the result not only of the loss itself but of her vigil, as her husband's caregiver, to his suffering that would, and did, end only in death. Other members of her family, which has seen more than its fair share of loss, have had similar experiences. From this context, and citing the dearth of resources for caregivers trying to process memories of their loved ones' suffering and dying in their care, Bartel developed four distinct works for her 12-member group, Ellen Bartel Dance Collective, to do something about it.
The first two works, based on childhood experiences of Bartel and others, illustrated the sneaky workings of trauma: In one, it's the result of abuse, but in the other, it's quietly acquired and illogical to everyone but the person traumatized. In the next two works, Bartel approached her own caregiver trauma, with performance, video, and pure dance. As a dancer, choreographer, and musician, Bartel naturally approaches difficulty through artistic practice and performance. But the decades during which Bartel's life grew intertwined with her husband's were the same years in which she established herself as an artist. When the two most important aspects of your life are like tree trunks twisted together as saplings, how do you extricate one to help navigate the loss of the other?
The shared home, another impossible tangle, is the context for the first and last works. In "Nebraska Sky," a video of Jude Hickey and Scott Roskilly's shared domestic life was a reminder to appreciate cohabitative comforts: sharing a bathroom, a bed with two dents in it, overgrown plants. But in "You Ain't Alone – a care-givers story," video showed Bartel's parents, who both cared for a dying spouse (Bartel's stepparents), standing in their living rooms and gesturing to indicate where the hospital bed lay, where they kept medications and supplies.
Last year, Bartel, wracked but with conviction, showed all these things, too, in I Begin Where I Grieve, a performance in the home that she and her husband had shared. As the videos in "You Ain't Alone" played, Bartel slowly rolled across the floor, making fragmented shadows in a ray of light from a single, hot lamp. In another part of town, a For Sale sign was perched in front of her house.