A short documentary that originated in Bellows Falls debuted recently in town. The film shows what happened when ten women of different ages and with very different lives came together to create a "friendship dance." The women used movement, body language and words to bridge a generational disconnect in this small southern Vermont town.
The film begins by the Connecticut River on the ragged back side of Bellows Falls. A young woman is jumping up and down, waving at the sky. Later we learn that she’s trying to flag down an airplane. Alexis Harris tells the story.
"I never knew my real mom," Harris says in the film. "I knew that she lived in Florida. And I would stand outside with my suitcase. They always said if you put your hands up like this if you see an airplane, it would come down and get you. I would stand out there and try to make them come down and get me."
Harris is one of five Bellows Falls teens and five older volunteers who came together daily at the Bellows Falls Opera House for six weeks in the summer of 2012. The younger women were from a summer employment program for low-income teens run by Youth Services of Windham County.
The project was initiated by Vermont Performance Lab. The Guilford-based organization invites socially engaged performance artists to develop new work in Vermont communities.
Visiting artist Victoria Marks, who led the sessions, teaches choreography at UCLA. Marks uses dance to create what she calls an Action Conversation between groups of people who might otherwise never meet.
"When people start moving in relation to one another, there’s often a lot more connection than you’d get in a conversation, Marks says. "A lot of our formal defense systems melt away a little bit and we get to do things together that we might not be allowed to do when we sit across the table and have a conversation."
The film shows the women arriving at the Bellows Falls Opera House in two distinct groups: older and younger. A message appears onscreen: "This project was created in response to a perceived gap between youth and adults in the small community of Bellows Falls, Vermont."
The gap is evident in the conversations that follow. The older women seem eager to connect. The teens are wary at first.
"People in your age group, they’re the ones that would be judging us," Kaitlyn Tullar tells the older women in the film. Tullar is a single mother and one of the group’s participants. She says a climate of disapproval makes it hard to wheel a baby carriage through town.
"Adults will just, like, bash teenagers, really children who are striving the most to be the best parent and they can’t because they really don’t know how to be," Tullar says.
The film moves between conversations and choreographed vignettes developed by Marks from those conversations. In one, the women set up dollhouse furniture at the edge of a busy street. The flimsy plastic tables, beds and chairs are buffeted and dwarfed by the passing traffic. Under the street sounds, Kaitlyn Tullar speaks again.
"Throughout my childhood we were homeless about 10 to 12 times, and we’d sleep on the streets," she says. "So I pretty much learned from the age of about six to take care of myself."
Many of the vignettes deal with ways of relating: touching and not touching, body language and looks that convey resentment, rejection, tenderness, affection. Alexis Harris found the physical interaction difficult at first.
"I was a person who never got close to anybody," Harris says. "I didn’t think I was ever going to feel comfortable with any of the people that were there. But we definitely grew a strong bond, all of us."
One of the challenges for the older women was meeting the teens on an equal footing.
"I learned to let go of expectations and just listen to what people have to say," says Kathy Michels, one of the older women in the group. But Michels says it took time.
"I was just thinking, 'Oh, we’ll give them all this advice,'" Michels recalls. "But that’s not what they want. They don’t want people to say, 'This is what I know, so this is the way it should be for you,' because their lives are very different."
But as they grew closer the women discovered similarities in their lives as well. The bonds they formed during those six weeks showed in the hugs and warm greetings the women shared when they came together again for the film’s premiere.
The film is titled "Action Conversation: Bellows Falls." It was made by Los Angeles-based cinematographer Ann Kaneko, who filmed the entire six-week project. According to Vermont Performance Lab director Sara Coffey, it will be shown at conferences and film festivals both nationally and locally. It’s also available on the Vermont Performance Lab Website.