Stories from Camp (Bearnstow, that is)

by Susan Douglas Roberts

Dreaming my way in

I wake up Sunday morning on the Bates campus. I’ve come this far with Heather (Hutton — she’s my designated driver to camp), who will be here for the next three weeks. It’s just 45 short, winding-the-back-roads-of-Maine minutes to Bearnstow from here. I’ve waked up laughing and before I forget it, I tell Heather my dream. I am standing over a large (larger than I’ve ever seen) terrarium and holding Don (my husband) in one hand. He’s quite small, and he’s saying, “I want to go there,” pointing at the terrarium. It’s not your normal “tropical” terrarium — it’s more “woodsy.” It’s lush in a woodsy kind of way. It makes sense to me, this dream does: Don’s the “gear guy” in our family. I am openly nervous about a week in the Maine woods — at camp — even though it’s a week in a cabin, with a bathroom! Lions and tigers and bugs, oh my. But Bebe Miller and company have set up camp for an improv/site-specific composition adventure with Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig, and I’m, well… I’m apprehensive but game. So there I am lowering Don into the terrarium: he’s excited, wiggling around to get out from between my fingers. I set him down, and as dreams would have it, next thing I know, I’m in the terrarium too. I make my way through some of the foliage, and in the next tangible (?) moment, find myself face to face with a snake. No, really, face to face. But it’s okay because — big black-gray monster that he is — he’s not moving. He’s frozen, stationary. I am clear about the immobile nature of his being but, nevertheless, the shock of it is enough to wake me up. And I am laughing. I’m laughing at Don in miniature, and the ridiculousness of the terrarium. Heather is laughing too.

We get to Bearnstow. I find Bebe and Alice making up the beds in my cabin. I discover that there are only eight of us in the workshop (“Heaven,” I think. “Forget the giant Maine black flies. This will be a really intimate week. This is going to be great!”). I meet Reg (Camp’s owner) as she comes flying out of Cabin 5 on a horizontal trajectory. I tour the cabin where we will dance. It used to be the mess hall; now campers “mess” at the long picnic tables on the screened-in porch. I stick my toes in the pond (pond? I thought ponds were small! Nessie could easily be working this place as a summer hideout). And just before Heather leaves, we come around the corner of a cabin right in the center of camp and — I am face to face with a black gray snake, frozen in coiled time, in a large glass terrarium. There he is amongst stuff one would pick up at camp — greenery from the woods, a few rocks, pinecones. I just stare vacuously at it, at first. Heather breaks into the moment: “Susan! It’s your terrarium!”

I go to the beach, pond’s edge, and write in the sand: “I am here.” The water reclaims the moment. But it can’t/won’t erase the essence.

Day 1 becomes a week

After coming to agreement the night before on a totally reasonable schedule (breakfast at 8 am; first session two hours later), we meet in the dining hall for our first round of improv. Sara guides us through a warm-up; timelessness has already set in. We begin to gather motional information. In a seamless progression, we soon find ourselves paired up and dancing. Being from the land of endless space, I am immediately challenged by 10 people dancing in very (very) close quarters. But I check my reservations on the porch and focus on vertical space. It’s glorious. And it’s also clear that we are inventing trust, moment to moment.

The question of the morning is “How do you start again?!” And I wonder if anything but the water can truly reclaim a moment.

Afternoon, after a swim, after KayCee and Alice care for the horses, after a while, we gather again. This time we go out and about. We separate to find and explore a space that intrigues us. The sound of camp’s bell calls us back together. After checking in with the group, we return, solo, to our chosen spaces with the assignment to (1) find a still moment inside our terrain, (2) create a movement for that space, and (3) develop a repeating gesture for the space. We must also decide from what point the audience will view our work. The space works its way inside of us: From a vantage point above, we see Amelia emerge upward out of a crevice, wearing a shawl of lichened leaves; from below we see Alice fold herself down into the horizon line of a ledge just above our heads; at a distance we see Tzvetta pull us into a strong, vertical moment — emphasizing her height, her place in the trees — is she taking the tree’s temperature? Ali runs zigzags across the mossed-over tennis court and laces herself through the trees at the edge. Rishawna is on the rocks — is the water flowing above or below her?

Beyond Day 1, I have no sense of the days as separate entities. We dance inside and out. We dance inside the dining hall, inside our cabins, inside the horse barn (well, KayCee does!). We dance in, under and above the water; on, over and emerging from the rocks; amongst, behind, on top of and pouring out of the trees. Sara suggests — when you get stuck choreographically, or in performance, stop… get smaller, more detailed. Specify. Find your focus. So we reach for essence.

Stop. Go. We watch Alice guide Patrik through contact-based improv that brings the rest of us forward in our space, mesmerized. Stop. Go. Tavia takes chances at the “Solarium” — a large flat rock that rises out of the water — that also have us forward on that edge. Stop. Go. Patrik’s quietly deliberate presence draws us in so that we hang on his words, when he offers them. Stop. Go. Reg and Sara and Patrik delight us with stories of Nik, Murray and companies. Stop. Go. Has anyone seen that mink today? You do know it swims . . .

I find myself wondering if I’ve ever actually heard a loon before now. What incredibly forlorn noises in the middle of sightless black nights. The loons sing, in a compelling round. And I find myself also wondering if this is how the sirens sound? And is it possible I have actually heard the songs of these strange creatures? Perhaps in my dreams? Maybe this is what called me to camp?


Reg bought camp sometime in the 1940s. She was already working at Henry Street Playhouse, with Nik and the crew. I don’t know the exact details, but I know that she brought city kids to Bearnstow in the summers, eight weeks at a time. Bebe was one of those kids. She was at camp yearly from age 6 to 19. Reg has fifty years worth of stories about camp. She knows every plant and animal, every neighbor’s dog, every turn of the wind. Reg runs camp and camp runs Reg. You wouldn’t want to unravel that knot. It just is.

Reg is in her 80s. She revealed that little detail about mid-week, when a group of campers went to Bates to hear the Contact Round Table/Discussion. She was telling those gathered in the auditorium of her improv adventures during the past week with 20-somethings. “And I’m in my 80s,” she adds. Could have knocked me over with a loon’s feather.

Reg told a story in the car on the way home that made me want to just hang out and follow her around for several years. As this story goes, several years ago she had gone for a ride on horseback with a couple of campers, somewhere on the road near Bearnstow, when they heard a bit of commotion in a nearby ditch. On approach, they discovered a skunk with a baby food jar stuck on its snout. “Get down and see what you can do for that skunk,” Reg says to the kids. “No way,” is their reply. So Reg hops off her horse and goes over to see if she can pry the jar off the skunk’s nose. In spite of the fact that the skunk puts his front paws on her forearms, and pushes against her pull, she can’t loose the jar. So, she picks him up by the jar and walks off in search of a hammer to break the glass, swinging the skunk as she goes. Eventually, as a result of all the back and forth action, the skunk slides out of his dilemma. He runs off — without spraying her — and when he gets about 20 feet away, stops, turns around, and bows his head to her before disappearing into the woods. There’s a memorable improv.

Cabin Dances

I’m already thinking about the stories a particular space holds after seeing Jane Comfort’s new work at Bates (the weekend prior) when Sara and Patrik give us the assignment to make “cabin dances.” Construction began on Bearnstow in the late 1800s; campers have been coming to these ten cabins for years. I wonder what secrets our cabins have heard? What they know about the dreams and deeds, fears, discoveries, rites of passage, acts of courage (and idiocy!) of so many campers?

There are three cabins and six cabin mates involved in this adventure. We are given a format for creating our work. It’s a compositional structure that starts with ABABAB (unison moments designed first by person A, then B, then A, and so on), is followed by some specific directions (“slide into a new shape . . . pause” and “around around around,” for example), and finishes with ABAB (in unison.) Our cabins are simple, all with basically the same floor plan and “set pieces”: four cots, a dresser, a couple of rocking chairs, a small table. Architecturally, there is a small, screened porch and a larger “L”-shaped room, with the bathroom and “counselor’s quarters” off the large room. We are to design the dance and, as always, designate where the audience is placed.

The three cabins sit in a row next to each other on the path facing the pond. During the time we have been given to work out a plan, there is much racket in this area of camp — sounds of furniture being moved; stamping, dropping and dragging on bare wood floors; shrieks of laughter, often surprise.

Our first showing is Friday night, after dinner. We start at Ali and Tavia’s cabin. Peering in from the front porch windows, we catch them propelling themselves through the space: back and forth between rooms, up and down in the expanse of vertical cabin space (we later learn Tavia had actually thought of climbing up on one of the ceiling beams), out of the rockers, onto the floor. Their work is a blend of activity and stillness — and — creates a sense of remote intimacy. This combination is reflected back to us, regularly, from camp. Now we find it concentrated in their dance.

Watching Tzvetta and Rishawna in their cabin dance is like being drawn into another time. Something about their humming, how it penetrates the quiet — how they bring it up and then drop it in the silence again — seems to echo that forsaken cry of the loons, connecting interior space to exterior space. The second part of their dance we view from the path. For the entire presentation, they are framed in the cabin’s window; their only light is a candle. With ghostly inaccuracy, we sense their dance more than we see it. In the darkness of camp, we are left to wonder: Who really inhabits that cabin?

Amelia and I take the humorous track. It didn’t start that way, but who can be serious next to Amelia’s infectious playfulness. Besides, she had picked up costumes for us: matching checkered shirts — at the dump. So we create a sort of “Adams Family goes to camp” scenario and hang from the walls, make repeated and unexpected use of the space under the beds, and take advantage of creaking doors and floors.

Three stories are revealed. There must be hundreds more.

Moving toward the end

It’s Saturday — last day of camp. We have invited the Bates “campers” to come up and take a look at an accumulation of ideas, images and short compositional delights created over the past five days. One lesson learned (quickly) dancing in the woods is that it doesn’t take much to create interest. There is so much liveliness in the space already, so much motion. Sara and Patrik guide visitors through camp. They come across Tavia’s group dance, a chorus rising up out of the rocks, into the height of the trees and descending back out of view again; Alice’s tableau, a tree with human roots; KayCee’s lesson on the Zen of lifting a log; Ali’s Butoh slow rock dance; Tzvetta and Amelia’s precision diving board dancing; Rishawna, Alice and KayCee’s underwater dance, green-blue water cradling multidirectional and somewhat distorted flow of limbs, hair, breasts — a disorienting mixture of human form and pure motional design. It is a delicious showing. All of this is punctuated by Sara and Patrik’s dance at water’s edge; an invitation is extended to onlookers to dive into the depths of the performance itself. And they do.

A fitting end to camp.

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