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New dance addresses Coldwater Creek contamination

One dancer removes her mask to pluck something from her eye in a mirror while other dancers form a line behind her.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
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Dancers rehearse placement and form while navigating the difficulties of performing while wearing masks.

When choreographer and performance artist Audrey Simes decided to dance to address years of radioactive contamination and the health concerns of people who live near Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County, she knew she had a big challenge.

Dance can be a powerful and expressive art form. But could she use it to cover such complex territory? Her piece, “Tributary,” has been several months in the making. Simes wants the choreography to make environmental issues accessible to a broad audience.

“There’s a lot of different references in the choreography to how the radiation affects you physically, whether it be these gestures toward the heart and the chest and vulnerability,” she said.

“Tributary,” which debuts Sunday at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, aims to render the history of nuclear contamination in Coldwater Creek into movement. The piece is Simes’ contribution to DanceSTL’s Young Choreographers Showcase and will be performed by Big Muddy Dance Company.

Simes became intrigued by Coldwater Creek contamination when she moved to Florissant after attending Webster University’s dance and performance program. She’s quick to say she lives smack in the middle of a corridor of cancer cases some people fear is linked to the polluted waterway.

A group of dancers in masks clump together and point toward one prone figure.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
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Dancers form a large group as part of the dance's third segment.

Born in Los Angeles, Simes draws on family history, her Japanese heritage, and a deep personal connection to the Manhattan Project’s legacy of nuclear waste in writing the piece. The nuclear research program developed the nuclear bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, when Simes’ grandparents lived in Japan.

“That same issue of World War II and issues of Japan and the Manhattan project just continue to follow me wherever I go,” she ruefully said.

Production of the bombs created the nuclear waste that later leached into Coldwater Creek, which some say caused health concerns and lawsuits against Mallinckrodt Inc. and Cotter Corporation for negligence.

Simes also taps the frustration she has long felt through the Japanese side of her family. In Los Angeles, her high school graduation was held at the Santa Anita Racetrack, a site used by the U.S. government as an internment camp people of Japanese descent, including U.S. citizens, during World War II. She views this historical overlap as another touchstone for her piece and a catalyst to bring Japanese culture into the piece.

A group of dancers circle a soloist clapping in time to the accompanying music.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
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A group of dancers circle a soloist clapping in time to the accompanying music.

The choreographer’s primary challenge, however, was to translate health concerns into physical movements.  To that end, she draws on traditional Japanese dance forms such as Butoh and contemporary western modern dance. The movements are not meant to be too explicit or literal, she said, but the dancers do employ different motions to express specific health concerns.

Dancers suit up in costumes designed by Simes and artist Basil Kincaid before beginning rehearsal. As Simes distributes costumes one performer adjusts their mask in front of a mirror.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
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Dancers suit up in costumes designed by Simes and artist Basil Kincaid before beginning rehearsal.

The choreography in “Tributary” isn’t overtly didactic and doesn’t aim to indict specific people or organizations, said Erin Prange, executive director of Muddy Dance Company.

For her it is a subtle reminder of how modern history is entwined with the nuclear age and its consequences.

“This work is really a statement about humanity and about the fact that all of this has happened, and how people have reacted to it, and how we got here in the first place,” Prange said.

Simes said the piece is intended to encourage healing and spread awareness of the fact that although much of the creek has been cleaned up, the health issues remain.

A man in a mask points toward his face in a close up.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
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Robert Poe rehearses as part of a group before joining a duet at the end of the dance.

Some dancers in “Tributary” found it a learning experience. Among them was Robert Poe, who said that before becoming involved in the production he didn’t know about Coldwater Creek’s pollution or the health concerns some area residents attribute to the contamination. 

Initially, Poe focused on learning the movements that Simes choreographed. Later, when Simes explained the piece and her own history, he came to feel the work made him a more engaged St. Louis resident.

“It’s kind of a dream come true to be a part of a work that’s not just art for pleasure and for entertainment,” said Poe, who dances a duet.  “It’s kind of speaking for awareness, and to bring about, if not change, to spark conversations that could bring about change.”

If You Go

What: “Tributary,” a part of Dance STL’s Young Choreographers Showcase

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Lee Theater at the Touhill Performing Arts Center

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