If you can imagine it, Martha Connerton can whirl it into motion.
Life cycles? Ecosystems? Weather? The order of operations in a math equation? The Charlotte choreographer has set these topics on bodies large and small, from adult dancers in Martha Connerton Kinetic Works to elementary schoolers in Aiken, S.C.
Now, for the first time, she'll have people dance a pair of eyes.
They belong to her Armenian grandfather, Nesrod Boyajian, and they have stared at her from a mysterious, sepia-toned photograph for decades: dark, perhaps a bit forbidding, looking out at the world under a thick unibrow and challenging the viewer to interpret their gaze.
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Connerton put her interpretations into a piece called "Ned's Eyes," which incorporates motifs both personal - such as a poem read in person by her mother, June Zabelle Boyajian - and political, including references to the massacre of Armenians by Turkey around World War I. Armenian folk music provides the backdrop.
"Ned's Eyes" will be one of five works in the first KinetiCollective concert Friday through Sunday at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. It's called "We Are Here We Are" - a shout for attention from choreographers who are still trying to make themselves heard in the dance community.
Bridget Morris' "Crossing" deals with a mother and child after a fatal accident; her humorous "Kinetic Cacophony" links abstract sounds to movement. Arlynn Zachary's jazzy duet "Q. C. Me" looks at high expectations for women in white-collar businesses. Camerin Allgood McKinnon's "Stir" examines racial awareness and reconciliation en route to egalitarianism.
Haunted by a distant stare
At 54, Connerton's the senior member of this bunch. But she seems younger than her years, especially as she talks about reliving her past to create "Ned's Eyes."
"It started with this postcard," she says, holding up a horizontal photo that shows only that piercing gaze. "Ned was overseas during World War I, when it was popular to send these kinds of cards back home. These eyes have haunted me."
What had they seen there, at a time when perhaps a million Armenians were perishing at the hands of the Turkish government? What was the man like who came home? Was he the gentle grandpa who used to play games with first-grader Martha and barbecue lamb kabobs on the grill? Was he really the secretive soul who moved to Florida, effectively cutting ties with the family, and disappeared from his granddaughter's life when she was 7 or 8?
"When I asked my family for details, I never got them," she says. "So I've sorted out what I felt about him - and what I felt about being Armenian - in this piece."
She has spent four decades sorting out who she might be herself. Though she has had significant relationships, Connerton's journey has yielded no spouse or children.
College didn't beckon to Connerton after she graduated from high school in Minneapolis. She began to dance immediately, notably with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Louisville Ballet, then worked as an independent dancer, choreographer and teacher in New York from 1983 to 1993.
She had already joined the N.C. Arts Council touring roster when she met Sal Aiello, who asked her to put together a school for N.C. Dance Theatre. After he died, she left the company and started her own Kinetic Works troupe in 2000.
Over the last 20 years, she has often placed works in the touring N.C. Dance Festival and has taught residencies around the Carolinas in public schools. (Those pay the bills and underwrite concerts.)
"Even students who learn well by reading or being told things can learn through movement. When you get them on your feet, they become a thing. There can even be movement when you study the rock cycle: igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic, with heat and time working on all of them.
"In Aiken, third-graders were learning about three-dimensional shapes. They actually felt what it was like to be a sphere, a cone, a cylinder. And this isn't just about facts. Choreography helps with socialization, learning to be a leader or a follower."
Pushing (or kicking) the envelope
Connerton likes to challenge any audience. That's why "Ned's Eyes" will include the reading of her mom's elegiac poem, "The Old Picnic Ground," and an excerpt from "Black Dog of Fate," a memoir by Peter Balakian. Text from the latter contains an account by an Armenian merchant's daughter, in which her father gets crucified and decapitated by Turkish soldiers.
"I'm always trying to get young choreographers to make bigger, more thoughtful works that take audiences on a journey," she says. "They often start with small ideas that can't be developed past eight or nine minutes. That's natural when you're starting, but they shouldn't stop there.
"You also have to communicate with the audience; you can't make works only to suit yourself. I'm trying to show them the business end of things: We are putting money into this show to rent the theater and pay for the lighting. If we don't get people to come or want to see us again, we lose that money."
Like most performing artists in North Carolina, Connerton constantly walks a financial tightrope. A bequest from an aunt allowed her to build a dance studio with a sprung floor and wall-length mirrors behind her home in Plaza-Midwood.
Her busy schedule of residencies pays the bills, though she has also been known to raise money for her company by baking holiday cakes. Her Kinetyx Dance Ensemble also sells DVDs of its one-hour school shows, with titles such as "Movin' Into Math" and "Unspoken Words."
Sharing her unfamiliar visions
And Connerton keeps inventing ways to get dance in front of new audiences. Consider her "danstallations," uptown events done jointly at the Mint Museum of Art and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. (The next one comes on April 28, the day after the troupe does a similar program for the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham.)
Her dancers create a visual equivalent of a painting - not a literal re-enactment, but an assembly of colors and shapes and found elements - and then audiences go off on an artistic scavenger hunt to see the two-dimensional inspiration with fresh eyes. The dancers meet with them afterward to chat about their experiences.
She has also incorporated a Bill T. Jones technique called the Alphabet Box: Letters of the alphabet get spread across a wall or floor, and dancers create movement by "typing" sentences with a body part (even a nose or ear). The movements get incorporated into a piece; you won't detect their literary origins in the final product, but they affect the way that dancers think about their task.
Some work depends on chance, too: She couldn't do "Ned's Eyes" if she hadn't auditioned in October for the upcoming season and gotten "a group of generous, accomplished dancers who ate this up."
Every year, she says, she struggles with the question of whether she should keep making concerts at all. But every year, she has answered in the affirmative.
"I can't stop because that's who I am," she says. "All I can do is make the pieces as rich as possible. Then, if they translate to someone else's psyche, that's great."