The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 18, 2008


Following longing to its source: Deborah Abel’s life in dance


Jeffrey Polston and Deborah Abel in performance with the Deborah Abel Dance Company. (Photo by Jaye R. Phillips)

When Deborah Abel speaks, her hands rise in front of her and her fingers describe patterns of weaving and entwining. Her wedding ring is a delicate series of thin, wavy gold bands that interlace around her finger. Her waist-length dark hair swirls and swings about her shoulders and arms as she moves her head. Although her body is quiet as she sits on a sofa in her Carlisle living room drinking tea, everything about her seems inwardly in motion, but more likely to unfurl into some liquid, sinuous shape than to explode into a grand jêté.

She cannot help dancing, even when she is sitting still. Modern dance is her passion, and she, herself, depicts the difference between the techniques of classical ballet and modern dance in her very demeanor. Abel describes the modern dance technique, although based on a strong core or center like ballet, as using “every movement that the arms, the head and neck, the legs, every part of you can make.” She admires the grace, strength and endurance of the classical ballet dancer: “it’s amazing to realize that someone can actually do 23 pirouettes.” However, she finds that modern dance provides her with a more open and elastic way to “express what I’m trying to say” in dance.

Dance as a language of self-expression

Developing what she is trying to say in dance has been the journey of a lifetime, and like the shapes she draws in the air when she speaks, it is always changing and fluid. It began when she took her first “creative movement” class at age four. Instantly hooked, she studied modern dance through childhood and adolescence, eventually earning a degree in dance from Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, and a certificate in dance from the Laban School of London, England. “Almost immediately upon graduation,” she says, “I started my own school. I was living with my parents in Lexington where I grew up, and began with just a few students. As word-of-mouth spread, the school grew, and I was able to move out of my parents’ house and then rent church space for the school.” Today, the Deborah Abel School of Modern Dance operates out of two churches in Lexington, and offers classes in modern dance for children and adults. Abel also teaches classes in street funk, “for the kids. It’s a combination of jazz and hip hop, without the balancing on one hand and spinning on the head. All of the kids take modern dance as well, and we alternate.”

Choreography and partnership

Abel’s interest in choreography grew alongside her passion for dance, and even today, she says she often tests movements and experiments with phrases using the students in her adult modern dance classes. “When [my adult students] come to my performances, they can recognize almost every move,” she says, “because I’ve worked on them and developed them in those classes. I’m interested in the shapes, the interactions, and the movements that our bodies can make together.”

Influenced by a variety of modern dance choreography as well as the sculptural imagery of the renowned group Pilobolus, Abel has been producing original performance pieces since 1991, when she opened her choreographic career with an evening of dance entitled, “The Perfect Relationship, a Dance Concert of Duets.” In it, she and partner Gordon White of the José Limón Dance Company performed what critic Thea Singer of the Boston Phoenix called a “half-dozen meditative yet articulate, lucid yet intricately structured pas de deux…[exploring] the various stages of intimacy, journeying from the honeymoon period…to mature love.”

Music for these pieces was composed by Abel’s husband, musician Lee Perlman, with incidental music between the dances either composed or arranged by him as well. A whole dance concert might include elements of contemporary and classic rock music, Sanskrit chanting, and original music with Indian influence. The two have also created together and presented several other dance concerts as well as workshops for couples that they have styled the “Unraveling to the Source” movement workshops.

Unraveling the source

“Unraveling to the Source” suggests the motivation of what Abel says is “really what my work is always about: following longing to the source. The source can be God, or light, your inner self. It’s that place, wherever it is, where your ideas flow. It’s not intellectual or completely emotional. It’s the highest part of yourself; when it speaks you know it is coming from a very high place. We all long to get there, but how do you find that state, that space? You have to be open to it. The arts evoke something and can bypass the part of the mind that can stop us from being open.” One of her pieces that attempts this “unraveling to the source,” called “The Drunken Monkey,” refers to a Buddhist term used to describe the “crazy mind,” which “goes in circles. All of the parts of this piece, things like rage, fantasy, and more, are the ‘drunken monkey,’ the parts of the mind that take you away from the stillness of the center,” that is, the “source.”

Abel says that her own ideas often come when she walks in the woods of Carlisle with her husband. Most recently, some of the changes to “The Perfect Relationship” have been conceived in this way. Abel readily admits that reflecting on the piece, choreographed in her “very early 30s,” as it has evolved through her own “spiritual development, becoming a mom and 17 more years with Lee,” has brought a new depth to the six pas de deux that make up the concert.

Absence from choreography deepens her art

Abel “took a leave of absence from choreography in 1996. We bought this house,” on Blaisdell Drive, and soon son Caleb was born. Caleb is now a fifth-grader at the Carlisle Public School. He is accustomed to the paintings and sculptures around the family’s home that reflect his mother’s dance performances, hearing his father rehearsing with other musicians in the home studio and watching rehearsal videos of his mother’s dance performances, but he has his own approach to the arts. He studies piano and oboe, and his proud mother says he is “really a fine musician.” Because she believes strongly in focusing her attention on Caleb, she returned to choreography and producing dance concerts only last year. At that time her dance company performed “The World is Breathing” (with music played and directed by Perlman) to excellent reviews at M.I.T.’s Kresge Auditorium.

This year on May 9 through 11, the Deborah Abel Dance Company will revive “The Perfect Relationship” at the Boston University Studio Dance Theater, with new elements of choreography influenced by the 11 years of life and experiences that bridge Abel’s departure and return to the art. The printed concert program includes short verses or poems for each piece of the concert. “These are very important to me,” says Abel. “They express in words what I am trying to say to the people in dance. All kinds of people can come to this performance, people who know dance, people who know music, people who know literature… In the end, it’s always about love. In the end, the two [dancers] are in such union that they can turn out to the audience and face their community.”


© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito