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The Ties That Bind

Full Circle Dance Company Explores The Many Faces Of Motherhood

Christopher Myers
HAVEN’T LOST A STEP: Donna Jacobs (with ponytail) and her daughter Morgan Wallace rehearse for motherhood, memories, and movement.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 10/19/2005

Motherhood, Memories, and Movement takes place at the Baltimore Museum of Art Oct. 22. For more information visit the website.

Onstage a black woman sits on a bench trying to shield her daughter from the harsh blows of life. They’re watching a lynching in the 1940s South, a mood set by the sound of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit” in the background, and felt in the daughter’s horrified face. Her mother remains resolute; no matter the horror in front of her, she must remain strong for her child. At the beginning of this dance, the daughter can’t lift her head off her mother’s lap; she eventually rises and takes courageous steps toward the transfixing horror before falling to the floor—the sight is too terrible. Her mother leaps on top of her to shield her from the revulsion. The mother performs this symbolic movement repeatedly until the daughter, in spite of what she has seen, is able to march resolutely onward, having put her mother’s mask of strong resolve on her own face.

This performance is one of the six to be included in Full Circle Dance Company’s new production Motherhood, Memories, and Movement at the Baltimore Museum of Art. At a rehearsal a week before show time, the real-life mother and daughter duo of Donna Jacobs, the director of the Morton Street Dance Center, and Morgan Wallace use their entire bodies to express the emotional turmoil of witnessing a lynching. But they and the other Full Circle dancers, who hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, have not just come to tell their own stories. Instead, with Motherhood, Full Circle has translated many experiences—some happy, some sad—into a congruent work of body art that aspires to embody all aspects of the overwhelmingly complicated condition that is motherhood.

“How do you ever do motherhood justice? Open question,” says Donna Jacobs, looking youthfully girlish in a ponytail, as she struggles to find the right words to describe the performance’s goals. Jacobs herself has three full-time jobs—she’s mother of twin 15-year-olds (Morgan and Ayana), runs a dance school, and serves as senior vice president for the University of Maryland Medical System.

She didn’t rely on her perception of motherhood alone to find the answers to that question. She and Full Circle members conducted three workshops in Baltimore to gather a mental scrapbook of women’s memories. They spoke to elderly residents of the Manor Care nursing home on Falls Road (some of whose stories date to the late 1800s) and prospective mothers at Maryland General Hospital, and held an open workshop at Morton Street Dance’s Hampden studio. Jacobs and Full Circle corralled these interviews into dramatic choreography.

“This is a tall order,” Jacobs says. “But we’re trying to tell some of these stories that we heard. And there are many more that could be told. Could they be told differently? Absolutely . . . but we’re trying to tell them in a way that will reach a number of people, whether a dancer, a linguist, a visual artist, or a 6-year-old. Motherhood is universal, and everybody experiences it from cradle to grave.”

The program’s stories don’t claim that motherhood is great for everyone or that it’s all peaches and cream. It also doesn’t give you the hurried picture often seen in TV sequences of precocious tykes who miraculously grow into summa cum laude college grads overnight. Instead, Motherhood explores stories from the life unseen—from motherless children to self-sufficient and highly organized mothers, from African shaman mothers passing down the art of healing to their daughters to the mothers who are exhausted after going to work and coming home to cook and clean and still push beyond their exhaustion and limitations. This panorama is the direct result of Full Circle’s fieldwork among women of all ethnicities and economic strata, and their children. Spoken-word interpretive text and sign language provide the transitional tissue joining the dances together.

Some of the stories that inform these dances are quite simple. “One woman at Manor Care talked about how her mother, no matter how hard she worked to care for the children, [when] it came time to go to church, she always wore a big beautiful hat,” says Liz Pelton, a Full Circle company member. “So there’s a movement in the choreography of a proud woman placing a hat on her head,” Pelton says about a repeated gesture in the “Heart of a Mother” choreography, a dance about the many aspects of mothers’ lives.

Other performances are more complex. “More Than I Can Bear,” a movement choreographed by 23-year-old dancer Amanda Fair, re-creates the emotional loss from her mother’s death two years ago. The striking dance begins in night’s lonely silence, as a child frightfully wakes up from a nightmare and realizes that she is still alone. A dancer then relives her mother’s wake, and just when she thinks she can’t go on, she decides she must, choreographed in sweeping upward kicks and movements.

“For me it was about reliving the whole experience so that I could let go,” Fair says. “I felt like I was crying it out onstage.”

Motherhood also touches on the other side of motherhood loss. “We also talked to mothers who suffered incredible grief in the loss of their child,” Pelton says. “But many of them expressed to us that, for them, motherhood had been worth the risk.”

“We had women who said, ‘My mother scrubbed those marble steps, and my mother scrubbed those walls,’” Jacobs says. “And, ‘My goodness, she did all of her lingerie by hand.’ And, ‘[My mother] would be dead tired by the time she got home, but she did what she needed for the family.’”

The inspirational “I Gave Up Nothing” sobers Jacobs. This dance tells the story of a mother who regrets nothing that she gave up for the welfare of her child—art, passion, love, whatever may have been important to her before. “One of my dancers said, ‘My mother, who is a nurse, gave up all of these artistic, wonderful things that she used to do,’” Jacobs says. “‘She used to sing, she could make jewelry, she could sew. And when we were born, she gave it all up to raise us, and she never looked back.’

“That made me think about my own life where I’ve tried to fit it all together,” she continues. “I’m blessed enough that my children have come into this [dancing] life,” she says of Morgan and Ayana, who have danced since they were 2 1/2 and often spend long hours on Saturdays at Morton Street. “But what if they had decided to take up fencing or something? I didn’t have to give up something that was really important to me.”

In spite of that bond, Jacobs says she initially had reservations about dancing the lynching witness scene with her daughter. She thought that Jacobs the dance-school director might get in the way. “Last year [Morgan] and I did this piece, and I said I would not [perform] anymore,” Jacobs says. “I was at the point where I always wanted technical proficiency. But at 48 years old, that’s not going to happen every day.

“But I saw another mother and daughter duo dance here in Baltimore, and I got it,” she continues. “We’re looking at the bond and the connection, as well as the art. And whatever it is that you deliver us artistically, you’re delivering something else on another dimension, emotionally. And that’s OK.”

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