KALAMAZOO, MI — Miami native Thryn Saxon is a freelance choreographer, educator, performer and hope-focused activist currently based in New York City. She is the director of SAXYN Dance Works and holds professional performance credits with Doug Varone, Helen Simineau, Kate Weare and Punchddrunk’s “Sleep No More.”
This week, Saxon will travel to Michigan to premiere her new work, “Seolh,” at the Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival (RADFest). I caught up with her as she entered her final preparations leading up to the premiere. The interview below contains excerpts from that longer conversation.
Jennifer Passios: Have you produced any work or ideas lately of particular interest to you?
Thryn Saxon: Two dances immediately come to mind. My company, SAXYN Dance Works, has been building a 30-minute version of a work entitled “Seolh” that will premiere at RADFest. I started a sketch of the dance in 2021 with a few artists and have been transforming that initial iteration into an evening length work. During my RADicle Residency at The Croft in Michigan, I also started a work entitled “Mother Tongue.” Creating that dance for climate week was my first taste of making art for a cause. The engagement with activism spoke to me and aligned with the value of place in my work. When we brought the dance back to Brooklyn to perform at Kingsland Wildflowers as a part of the “We Are Nature: Earth Ethics” event for Climate Week NYC 2022, I think audiences picked up on the indelible mark that Michigan imprinted on the dance and the dancers.
JP: During the RADicle residency, you had initially planned to work on developing “Seolh.” How did your plans shift?
TS: The choreography in “Seolh” relies heavily on floor-based movement. The Croft has a beautiful, raised dance deck but it wasn’t the right surface for extensive floorwork. A few weeks before I left for the residency, “We Are Nature” approached me about making a dance for climate week. I was excited for this opportunity to engage with climate activism since nature is already an important feature of my choreographic lens. Creating “Mother Tongue” allowed me to approach climate conversation through a lens of interspecies dialogue and hope.
JP: Water seems to play an important role, both in “Mother Tongue” and in “Seolh”
TS: Yes! In “Mother Tongue,” water became a mode of reciprocity. I was interested to see how we could use the dancers’ bodies to water the Earth and give back to the plants at Kingsland Wildflowers where we performed. There is a scene where Maggie (Costales) drops her head into a bowl of water and Jamie (Kleinschnitz) collects her hair with all the water then rings Maggie’s hair out onto the grass to grow the flowers and another where the dancers spin with the water, letting it fly everywhere. After the spinning, they take the final drops of water, deliver a few onto the ground, and wash themselves with the rest.
JP: And in “Seolh?”
TS: I believed from a very early age that my mother was a selkie, a half-seal, half-human water woman. I always had this bittersweet idea that she belonged to the water more than she belonged to us — not in an abandonment way, but there was something about her that felt bigger, not entirely of this world. I’m not sure what sparked the idea of investigating the stories of selkies, but there became a sudden, urgent need to explore this folklore. I wanted to see where I fit in the story. I felt a kinship to this Scottish story through my own Scandinavian roots as well as a personal tie to the friendliness and mystery of the seals.
JP: Depending on a speaker’s accent, “Seolh” pronounced aloud may sound like “soul” or “seal.” Was this wordplay intentional? If so, how does the duality make its way into your work?
TS: I’m thrilled that purpose came through for you! Yes, the potential of gaining multiple meanings was one of the main reasons I chose that title! When musician Bre Short and I reconnected on this project, she saw that I was making a dance about selkies and sent me a song entitled, “Seal Skin, Soul Skin.” The sense of soul always resonated, particularly the idea of deep seated female wildness.
JP: “Female wildness.” Considering historical viewpoints and expectations of women, this idea may seem just as storied as the tale of the selkies.
TS: I’m learning that there are different selkie stories depending on which region of Scotland a particular version of the lore originates. There is an entrapment element to the story in which a man steals the selkie’s skin. While we aren’t looking at gender roles, or submission in this work, going back to nature and returning to wildness are definitely central themes of the dance. Dualities in general have been a big part of my own growth and evolution over the past few years. I identify a lot with the complexities of being a human and of being a woman. I am interested in the duality of decision. This experience is not rooted in one version of the story. It is important to include every woman’s story if she feels connected to a wildness that there is no version of this that isn’t beautiful, bountiful and full. We all show up differently in this experience.
JP: A seal is an interesting case study for wildness.
TS: There is this unassuming nature about seals. They can look so cute and cuddly, but if you get up close and see them in the water, they have these dark, black, orb eyes that are so haunting, mysterious, and completely disarming.
JP: Disarming is an evocative word choice here. People exhibit a visceral discomfort when disarmed.
TS: Agreed. That discomfort feels like another part of the mostly female canon of shape shifter stories including sirens, selkies, harpies, and other part-woman, part-beast characters. In these tales, I read a misunderstanding of the complexity of women. In these stories, a woman viewed as too violent, seductive, smart, or self aware needs to be packaged as something wild. We aren’t always as consumer friendly as we seem. I see some of this same rebellion in the mystery behind the eyes of seals.
Projects like “Seolh” require significant resourcing to transform from an idea into a fully fledged work. Visit the “Seolh,” crowdfunding page to invest in the continued development of the work.
“Seolh” premieres at RADFest on Friday, March 3. A master class with Saxon will follow on Saturday at 9:00 a.m. Both events will take place at the Epic Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For tickets and additional information, click here.