A New Generation Brings Heloise Gold's "Bird Dream Dances" to Life

Taking wing with the bird dances Gold has been making for 40 years

(l-r) Rosalyn Nasky, Kelsey Oliver, Heloise Gold, and Kelly Hasandras (Photo by Leon Alesi)

Picture a nest, with a mother bird feeding three younger ones. Only she has no worms or bugs in her beak. Rather, she is filling them with the calls and movements of her avian experience, the essence of what it is to be a bird. And the birds with her aren't hatchlings. They long ago left their own nests and spread their wings. But they're here to be taught by this bird.

Replace "nest" with "studio" and "bird" with "dancer," and you have what's happening with choreographic treasure Heloise Gold and three talented colleagues: Rosalyn Nasky, Kelly Hasandras, and Kelsey Oliver. In collaborating with Gold on Bird Bath & Beyond, running May 30-June 2 at Austin Scottish Rite Theater, Nasky, Hasandras, and Oliver are learning the essence of what it is to be a bird – really, many birds – from Gold, who's been developing a personal body of work in that vein for four decades.

Gold's "Bird Dream Dances and Songs" began, true to the name, with a dream. Not long after Gold relocated to Austin from New York City in 1978, finding a place in the modern dance scene with the Deborah Hay Dance Company, she dreamt she was told to create a book of bird dances and songs. "The book would be a project that would last for the rest of my life," Gold said in a 1982 interview. She embraced the idea and began taking greater notice of birds, watching them and talking to them, and then she started making dances about them. She started the "book" as a journal in which she kept notes about specific movements she created, with information about the season, weather, and astrological positions when each dance was made. By January '82, Gold had 15 bird dances, and she debuted them in a show at the old Rome Inn space at 29th and Rio Grande (now Texas French Bread). But her dances with birds didn't stop there.

"I made an informal commitment to myself, way back when, that I would keep developing and returning to this body of work," she says, and she's made good on the promise. The dances have had various iterations and performance settings, but the birds have remained part of her work, and they've flown to Houston, Santa Fe, Toronto, New York, the UK, and Switzerland.

Now, listen for a grackle call, as insistent and piercing as what's heard outside the H-E-B at sunset. Only it isn't coming out of any inky, shrieking avian. It's emanating from stereo speakers, human mouths, and a mix of drums, conch shells, rattles, and a flute – some actual recorded grackles, and some a human-concocted essence of a grackle call.

Replace the lowercase "g" and "c" with uppercase letters, and you have the multidisciplinary project that sound artist Steve Parker created for Fusebox in 2018. It was only natural that a salute to Austin's noisiest bird would include an artist who'd spent her life making bird dances. Gold made a solo just for Grackle Call, which people had to view through binoculars. One birdwatcher who saw Gold's solo was Andrea Mellard, director of public programs and community engagement for the Contemporary Austin, who asked Gold to perform her expanded repertoire of bird dances for a museum fundraiser. That gave Gold an idea.

Heloise Gold in the 1980s

"I invited Rosalyn Nasky to join me," she says. "It was a perfect opportunity to teach and share these dances with her – something we had both talked about for a while but hadn't gotten around to. We had a blast doing it. She initially said that maybe she would just do the movements. She wasn't sure she could pull off the calls. In our first rehearsal, she was yakking away along with me! So we created a duet. We were both inspired, and that's when I decided to ask some others to join us."

After bringing in Natalie George, her producing partner in Gold n' George (There Is No Such Thing as a Single Stripe, 1000 Forest Gorillas in Kansas), and brainstorming about potential collaborators, Gold had a trio of birds: Nasky, Hasandras, and Oliver. "Each of these dancers has her own strong, unique, imaginative, and fabulous performance qualities," she says, "each a rare bird in her own right!"

Picture three women trying to be birds. It may sound as easy as a playground game, but Nasky notes that Gold's "bird dance repertoire is expertly crafted," so becoming her birds required effort – the effort of skilled movement artists. But Nasky is quick to credit Gold for her generosity in sharing this personal work. "Her teaching it to me and the other dancers has felt kind, natural, and joyful. She is wonderfully meticulous about the details of her bird dances, yet at the same time wonderfully open and playful in the present moment of collaboration. It has been an absolute honor to learn from the incomparable Heloise Gold."

The dancers recognize that they are being entrusted with something special in the "Bird Dream Dances and Songs." Hasandras speaks of choreography being handed down from generation to generation through dancers: "There is no book or script with stage directions. The work is literally passed down from people. It's incredibly special. Heloise is a pillar of the dance community in Austin and the nation, and to carry on her legacy is very important."

Preserving a legacy wasn't why Gold initiated Bird Bath & Beyond. It had more to do with her pleasure in sharing this 40-year-old body of work. "The surprise and delight for me is seeing how each [dancer] executes this very specific series of movements and calls [with] each so individual in their expression and interpretation. As the process has unfolded, I realized that, yes, I am passing on a very personal repertoire to a younger group of dancers. It's a repertoire that has always had an ongoing life, and now, once again, the piece is alive and changing. What is new and what emerges is as important to me as what remains intact."

Picture a nest, with four birds flying and singing in ways that are the same, yet different. And picture yourself in the midst of them, watching the old become new.

Bird Bath & Beyond runs May 30-June 2, Thu.-Sat. at 8pm and Sun. at 3pm, at Austin Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th. For more information, visit www.nataliegeorgeproductions.com/tickets.

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Heloise Gold, Kelly Hasandras, Rosalyn Nasky, Kelsey Oliver, Natalie George, Steve Parker, Grackle Call, Andrea Mellard, Fusebox, The Contemprary Austin, Gold n' George, dance

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