- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2001

Dancer-choreographer Maida Withers, Washington's leading conceptual artist, has devoted the past 25 years to creating multimedia projects distinguished by their intellectual thrust and trenchant imagination.

Her work has been large and ambitious and for the past 14 years has taken her all over the world to search out like-minded artists — dancers, musicians, designers, choreographers, video artists — and enlisting them in her grand designs.

Now she is about to debut her latest work, "Aurora/200l: Dance of the Auroras — Fire in the Sky," first in Norway and then in Washington. It is both typical and more boldly conceived than anything she has done.

"Aurora" (aurora borealis, or the northern lights, and aurora australia, the southern lights) is a kind of summing up of interests and ways of working that Miss Withers has pursued her entire career. For this global project she has enlisted an international set of collaborators and performers: dancers from Russia, Poland and the United States; a composer and musicians from Norway; and a computer artist from Brazil. They have created a stage glowing with beautiful, mysterious images of the aurora through the use of slides and videos taken by astronauts and by satellite.

"When an astronaut first looked back from space and said, 'My, the Earth is a blue ball of water' — from that moment, all of us changed our concept of the Earth," Miss Withers says. "I think these images of the sun and the Earth from the new perspectives that technology allows is going to transform our view of ourselves and how we see our world. We've become space travelers, without any question, because we will move into a planetary view of the Earth, rather than the Earth as our centerpiece."

The choreographer's "Aurora" project was in the planning stage for five years. A week from today, it will be featured at the Northern Lights Festival in Tromso, Norway.

On Feb. 3 at 6 p.m. some of the images and a few of the dancers from "Aurora" can be seen in a free program at the Einstein Planetarium of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. (Seating is limited. Call 202/357-1552 for information.)

The American premiere of "Aurora" is set for Feb. 15 and 16 at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. (Tickets available by TicketMaster or by calling 301/808-6900.)

Audiences were first introduced to the production in June, when Miss Withers and dancers from Russia and Poland presented the first half-hour of "Aurora/2001" in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the White Nights Festival.

The international collaborations that often are a part of Miss Withers' performances have taken her to Brazil, Poland, Russia, Venezuela, France, Japan, China, Mexico and Korea.

"It just seemed the right path for me," the artist says. "My work was appealing to them. I was sponsored by the state governments and able to dance in some of the biggest national theaters, whereas I could stay in Washington, perform in a small theater and lose money."

Miss Withers was astute in how she arranged her travels. She says she always thought about reciprocity, or what she could do for foreign artists. One example: the D.C. International Improvisation Festival, attended by dancers from around the world.

Of her work abroad, the director says: "I often involve artists from the city where I'm working. For example, in Korea the most famous jazz musician there played for me. That brings in a whole interest by the community.

"For this current project," she says, "I've worked unbelievably hard to get these musicians from Scandinavia. Even budgetarily. They cost as much as the whole project in some ways. Because there are six of them, they have huge careers, and it was hard for them to schedule their lives to come together for these performances in Norway and here."

Miss Withers usually has some kind of a relationship with an artist before she begins a collaboration. In this case she did not know the Norwegian composer, Oystein Sevag, before they worked together but had heard his music on tape. He has an international reputation and won this country's 1998 Indie Award for best New-Age recording.

She brought Mr. Sevag to Washington for eight days. He attended rehearsals and looked at the visual material she had assembled. Since then, they have communicated by video and e-mail. He offered suggestions, such as when he thought vocal music would be important to use. Miss Withers will hear the music for the first time this week in Norway.

Smoothing out the seams between music and dance will take some concentrated rehearsals, but Miss Withers is not concerned. "I have a lot of trust in really fine artists," she says. "I don't want to tell collaborators what to do — I want them to make their own contribution — they're the experts in their field."

Another principal collaborator, Tania Fraga, is a Brazilian artist who works in computer animation. Miss Winters has known her since Miss Fraga did graduate work at George Washington University 10 years ago.

"I basically selected all the scientific photos of the sun and the auroras, taken from above by satellites and from below — in Norway, Russia and Alaska for the most part — and she is using them to create virtual reality images. Being Brazilian, she has a very deep-rooted shamanic nature, so she's been fabulous to work with."

They discovered they could use a wireless mouse, which a dancer could manipulate to change Miss Fraga's images as the dancer moved across the stage. The director was searching for a way to bring more movement to the stage.

"We've just been blindly feeling our way," Miss Withers says, which could be a description for the entire working method involved in this ambitious project.

One senses a delicate tension existing in the work between the scientific wonders that inspired Miss Withers and her artistic response to them. She has often employed modern technology in her earlier work, using laser beams, electronic music and computer animations.

She is fascinated by the beauty of auroras and the wealth of knowledge that has developed about them in the past five years as three satellites orbit the Earth. Seven infrared cameras on each satellite takes shots of the sun every 20 seconds as it sends its energy to Earth creating the auroras, and download the images instantly.

"When I began to think about this," Miss Withers says, "I and the Internet were moving about the same pace. When I looked on the Internet in 1996, there were four references to aurora, period. Now there are hundreds of sites.

"I began innocently," she says, "thinking of an aurora as an aspect of nature that had a strong aesthetic. It was color, it was form, it was light, it had mythology, it told stories. I was working on that level without recognizing that there was a scientific, technological advancement in our knowledge about auroras booming on the horizon."

Miss Withers says there will be a special thrill in performing in Norway, before people who live in the midst of northern lights. At the Air and Space Museum, the program will begin with Pal Brekke, a scientist with NASA and the European Space Agency, presenting the latest satellite images of the sun. Then, says Miss Withers, "We'll take them into the virtual artistic world, where science plays a role, but it's really our world that we've created."

She is an admitted workaholic and says her husband sometimes asks her why she has to learn so much for each venture.

"I can't answer that," she says, "but I do know that if I go to Scandinavia and spend six weeks with the people and talk with them about their mythology, see their artwork that's been influenced by northern lights, and hear their music, I feel it's a richer experience. You have to open up to their world, rather than just siphoning off what you want."

Dance often has been just one of many elements in Miss Wither's work and that would seem to be true of "Aurora." In the full performance that will have its premiere at Lisner, a dramatic interactive environment will be alive onstage, with satellite images of solar eruption, breathtaking film of the aurora in motion and computer animations created by Miss Fraga.

But the heart of the matter is still the dancer, according to Miss Withers. "I don't agree with people who say artists shouldn't be involved with technology," she says. "Saying it's dehumanizing or not appetizing. I'm still Maida Withers, and I'm still dancing and I'm still emotionally connected to my body and to movement."

After a pause she says, "My gratitude goes to all my collaborators, but the bottom line for me is the dancers who are always the most self-sacrificing, the most willing to go the extra mile.

"Sasha Kukin is director of his own company in Russia, in St. Petersburg; Iwona Olszowska is director of a studio in Krakow, Poland. They had to make massive shifts in their schedules to be able to come here for seven weeks. Joseph Mills is arriving from Chicago, where he's been working. And Adrienne Clancy and Doug Andresan — all the dancers amaze me with their dedication."

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