Like other matters of the spirit, intuition doesn’t get much credence in American culture today. Heidi Junkersfeld knows this quite well. So when the Missoula artist speaks of the inspiration – indeed, urgency – behind the upcoming production by the performance-art troupe Open Field Artists, she chooses her words carefully.
“It really feels obvious to me that this is the time for this to happen,” she says. “I can tell you stuff about prophesies or visions; but in our culture, a lot of people view those subjects as sort of out-there. If you put those things into art that evokes rather than tells, you feel it and the audience will undoubtedly feel it, and it’s somehow safer or more acceptable to address that way.
“The arts are powerful in that way,” she continues. “That’s why I believe we need the arts – art that moves our stuff.”
If that seems rather vague, what’s clear is that plenty of stuff moves in “First Breath,” a collaborative multi-media performance that opened Thursday night at the Missoula Community Co-Op.
Featuring 28 local dancers, musicians, and other performers, the two-hour program plays out in three acts tied together around themes of inherited cultural roles and the importance of transforming those patterns for the betterment of our world and ourselves.
There is no plot to “First Breath;” in fact, until earlier this week, the nine sub-groups of performers involved in the show hadn’t even seen what the other groups would be contributing. Paradoxically, the whole thing hangs together only on Junkersfeld’s intent to speak to the unspeakable.
“This show works a lot with our unconscious patterns,” she explains. “Because we’re not conscious of them, that’s the problem. We can see them manifested in the physical world: we’re working too much, we have high rates of drug abuse, high rates of cancer, high rates of manic depression. There are reasons why all that exists, it’s not just random; and those reasons lie in our unconscious patterning.
“But it’s not just all random, this life didn’t happen ‘just because.’ It’s patterns that have come down the line generationally. We’re here now because of those patterns; what are we going to do about it?”
While not necessarily presuming to provide a uniform answer to that question, “First Breath” broadly addresses elements of our conditioning, with an aim toward opening awareness about how those influences affect us – and offering a sense of empowerment to change our patterns, if we so choose.
The program’s first act centers around an a cappella vocal performance by an eight-voice choir, who will perform in the dark. Audience members will be invited – though not required — to experience the performance blindfolded.
Junkersfeld said the music aims to explore the sounds within our heads, culminating with the metaphor from which the whole show derived its title.
“These are all sounds that live inside of us in those dark places, in our dreams and subconscious — from nature sounds to lies that we tell ourselves, lies we’re told from childhood, lies from our government, crazy voices in our heads, sacred songs,” she says. “That all leads into the final soundscape, which is the sound of being birthed from the womb, out the birth canal, the roar of the mother, and the baby’s first breath.”
The second act, titled “Rites of Passage,” draws on themes that emerged when Junkersfeld sent out an informal survey to friends, asking questions about how they related with their parents.
“I got back many responses that talked about fathers being absent or alcoholics; mothers being sexually or emotionally repressed; parents always busy,” says Junkersfeld. “We looked at those as a cast and came up with six major patterns we saw that we’re representing through theatre. So it’s six scenes, plus a last scene that’s our idea of how we individually differentiate from our parents and our society and become our own person, fully empowered.”
The program’s final act, titled “Orientation,” features a mish-mosh of performers addressing the question of how one finds individual voice while reconnecting with our own fundamental nature and the natural world that surrounds us.
“It feels really important culturally, not only to find our own voice as a writer or a ceramicist, but to find the actual, physical voice, which is suppressed a lot,” Junkesfeld says, noting that the final act will include an opportunity for audience members to join in the singing if they so choose. “There are so few places where we are allowed to speak or sing or yell. We look at how to bring that voice back in a good way.”
Junkersfeld is well aware that all this probably sounds a little touchy-feely. Certainly “First Breath” won’t please those who expect to sit idly by for an evening of frivolous entertainment.
But, for her, the most important art is art that opens our fields of experience, vision, and emotion.
“What I really want to do is move the heart, wake people up to the life force inside,” she says. “We as artists are really striving to look at the patterning in ourselves and trying to confront things in ourselves, while at the same time creating really entertaining and powerful art that shows the joy and expressive potential of the human spirit.
“We have the right to be highly expressive, powerful people together — we need that, I think. That’s what this is all about.”