A scene from "Contested Eden."
(Via Crystal Birns)
The Here & Now

Cabrillo Festival goes to the burn scar in musical meditation on the devastation of CZU

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music opens virtually this weekend with “Contested Eden,” a collaboration with local dancers and filmmakers to explore the loss brought about by last summer’s fires.

For the second consecutive summer, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is an online-only affair because of … well, we all know by now, right?

But at least in terms of the festival’s first major presentation, “Contested Eden,” a virtual experience is probably the best experience.

By its nature, “Eden” would have resisted a live, in-person audience anyway, because the setting is just too remote and fragile. And, in this particular piece, the setting is the point.

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“Eden” is the work of Berkeley-based composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank. It’s a meditation on the devastation wrought by last summer’s CZU fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And instead of having the music and the musicians relay the power of the piece alone on some sound stage, the Cabrillo Festival brought in a small coterie of dancers and took them out to the burn scar itself, to perform to the music amid the ruin.

Santa Cruz’s Molly Katzman, the company director at the Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center, led four other dancers to a burned-out site in the mountains last April, where they recorded a performance of her choreography set to Frank’s composition. That footage, shot by Santa Cruz-based Swan Dive Media, will debut at the virtual festival on Saturday at 7 p.m.

A scene from "Contested Eden."
(Via Crystal Birns)

Cabrillo Festival executive director Ellen Primack brought in Katzman and the videographers at Swan Dive and charged them with finding locations in the mountains that could best illustrate the sense of loss and desolation the piece was trying to communicate.

“A lot of it was just reaching out to the community, to friends who had been impacted by the fires, chatting on social media,” said Joel Hersch of Swan Dive Media, who shot the film with his partners Michael Daniel and Eric Snow, “until we eventually figured out how to get an invite to go up and see the spaces.”

The team ended up zeroing in on two sites, one near Año Nuevo State Park, and another in the remote community of Last Chance, maybe the community most ravaged by the CZU fires. As envisioned through Frank’s music, the filmed piece would gradually progress from a bleak moonscape of ash to a landscape a bit more green to indicate hope and regeneration. Last Chance was chosen for the former.

“Oh, just scouting that location was a devastating, eerie feeling,” remembered Katzman. “There was beauty to it, but it was brutal for sure.”

Katzman and her dancers were in communication with the composer while Frank was still composing the work. Once a site was selected, they had to both enact a specific choreography and be flexible enough to react in the moment to the surroundings.

“When we would go up to sites,” said Katzman, “I would physically move through the space, you know, to feel the land underneath my feet. First of all, (I had to determine) can we move? Is it safe? What am I seeing that we can use so that we’re really interacting with the land, in relationship with the land?”

A scene from "Contested Eden."
(Via Crystal Birns)

The hilly site was covered in ash with twisted branches of blackened, denuded trees silhouetted against a heavy gray sky.

“It was real,” said Katzman. “When you touched a tree, your hand is black, or when you sit on a log or something. And seeing that on a moving body, like ash on someone’s face or on the palm of your hand, that makes you feel something.”

The Swan Dive team had its own choreography to work out, shooting on the ground with the dancers and by drone for sweeping vista shots. “The film really follows the dancers,” said Hersch. “They’re really front and center, and it’s their character and their dancing that carries the film forward.”

If the dancers were collaborating with an absent composer, they were also in full artistic collaboration with the filmmakers. “Molly is bouncing between having locked-in choreography and reading the moment,” said Hersch. “And we had to be really tuned into that as we match what she’s doing. And, at the same time, we had to talk to her about what would translate on camera, and sometimes it’s meeting each other halfway so that you know the end result is something that an audience can feel really good about.”

Some in the dancing group had been deeply affected by the fires, and the atmosphere of creating art in such a devastated landscape carried with it a palpable emotional charge. But neither the dancers nor filmmakers could allow themselves to get lost in that emotional whirlpool.

“We were doing a lot of physical work,” said Hersch, “moving up and down steep terrain, climbing over logs and rocks. It’s exhausting as well for Molly and the dancers, and that exhaustion really sets in when we ask the crew of dancers to do it for the fourth time because we know we can get another angle on it that is really going to make it shine.”

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“There were just so many hats I had to wear,” said Katzman, “that I felt myself falling into a more logistical side, because there was also a time crunch and a sense of urgency. Looking back, I wish we could have gone slower, because I was feeling the weight of the moment and wanting to honor what happened and what people had lost, as well as the devastation and the fear of climate change. So, there would be moments where I would just take a breath and think about that. And then there were moments where I was just like, go, go, go.”

“Contested Eden” will debut Saturday evening at the all-virtual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

A scene from "Contested Eden"
(Via Crystal Birns)