Review: Performers navigate breast cancer journey with grace and confidence

Breast cancer may attack women’s chests, change the landscape of their bodies and alter their lives in unexpected ways, but it doesn’t have to conquer their hearts.

That was the overarching message of “Dangerous Curves: Breast Cancer Journeys,” a multimedia performance staged Friday and Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center. The show combined the choreography of Candi Baker danced by the Prairie Wind Dancers, the poetry of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and the music of blues singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt. The thoughtful layering of verse, music and movement compounded the impact of the storytelling.

The performance started and ended on notes of affirmation. After the house lights went down, images of local breast cancer survivors were projected onto a screen while Hunt played a slow melody on a grand piano. Then Mirriam-Goldberg read her poem “I Want To Tell You How Beautiful You Are.”

The mood shifted in “Unknown Danger,” in which six dancers lined up behind an unsuspecting woman reading a book under a spotlight. As Hunt played a pulsing score punctuated with sharp, stabbing notes, the dancers seemed to multiply like intruding cells. They struck aggressive, mutated poses, kicking and clawing toward the woman until finally gathering menacingly close to her.

The haunting image gave way to “Discovering Fire,” Mirriam-Goldberg’s poem about finding her own breast cancer, “a tiny flame in my left breast / miniature in its heat / asymmetrical and hungry as it tilts / toward the lymph nodes.”

Mirriam-Goldberg’s readings throughout the performance were rendered in a soft, knowing tone, with sensitive inflection, acceleration and crescendo. Prairie Wind’s six dancers and one apprentice responded both to the poetry and Hunt’s music with emotion-infused movement.

Hunt gave a stirring premiere of a new song that she and Mirriam-Goldberg co-wrote for “Dangerous Curves.” In a tender, sometimes gritty alto with tight dynamic control, Hunt sang lines such as “Will I recognize myself when I surrender to this change?” and “I love this life that keeps me waking up” as she played a minimal accompaniment on piano. The intense performance brought the audience to tears.

Among the most moving and successful dances of the evening was performed to a recording of Hunt singing “Stronger Wings.” Dancers emerged one at time from the wings to join soloist Tuesday Faust on stage. In exhibitions of support, the ensemble enfolded Faust, tilted her toward the floor and lifted her skyward, embodying the spirit of the lyrics “Weary though you may be, you don’t have to fly alone.”

Also notable were solos danced by Bridget Bartholome to Mirriam-Goldberg’s poem “Reading the Body” and Beau Hancock to Hunt’s a cappella rendition of “Singing in St. Louis,” a tribute to her best friend who died of breast cancer when she was 36.

“What Color Do I Want My Hair To Be Today?” inspired by local breast cancer survivor Kathy Tate, provided playful comic relief, with the dancers strutting confidently and swapping wigs, defying a disease to dampen their lust for life.

The evening ended on a note of hope, with Hunt playing the rollicking “It Ain’t Over When It’s Over” and the dancers sashaying sassily in glitzy silver, black and gold costumes.

“It ain’t over when it’s over. The soul lives on and never dies,” Hunt sang. “It ain’t over when it’s over. There’s a better world waiting on the other side.”