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UI team turns dance piece into podcast during pandemic

University of Iowa dance students rehearse in the hallway outside the ungulate hoofed exhibit in the UI Museum of Natura
University of Iowa dance students rehearse in the hallway outside the ungulate hoofed exhibit in the UI Museum of Natural History’s Mammal Hall in Iowa City. They were photographed in February, while developing a modern dance performance that was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So the students turned their visual production into an interactive audio podcast titled “Mammals in Captivity.” (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Miracle)
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Stephanie Miracle and her University of Iowa student dancers have created a minor mammal miracle.

COVID-19 shut down the UI in late March, just three weeks before the students were to dance their audiences through Mammal Hall at the UI Museum of Natural History on April 18 and 19.

With classes no longer meeting and the students no longer on campus, the participants began Zoom meetings to brainstorm new ways to channel their efforts and energies.

“We had some discussions in April about what to do, but most everyone was overwhelmed by shifting everything online, so we waited until after graduation,” said Miracle, a visiting assistant professor in the UI dance department. “We designated a two-week residency on Zoom, where we had several meetings a week with the entire team, and started researching and re-imagining together.”

That process wrapped up at the end of May, and the core team of collaborators spent another month editing the final version.

The podcast is ready for viewing, but don’t expect to just sit on your couch and be a passive listener. This event was dreamed up by dancers, so their at-home audiences will be urged to jump up at various points and explore the environment around them. They might not be seeing deer with massive antlers, like they would have passed by during the intimate dance performances planned inside the museum, but listeners can hoof it at home at their leisure, as often as they like.

The “Mammal Hall” modern dance piece has morphed into “Mammals in Captivity,” a 25-minute podcast. Miracle said the new title reflects the quarantine experience, as the team members worked to create a re-imagined all-audio experience, with a still photo, but no video.

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“We couldn’t get back into the museum, and that was our performing space, so we couldn’t film there,” Miracle, 38, of Iowa City, explained. “Also, part of the live performance was a kind of deconstruction of a museum tour, and sometimes museum tours have the little audio guide, so we really leaned into that concept of creating and all-imagined museum tour.

“Another thing I was interested in — I felt quite saturated with screen time. Screen time with my online classes, and then also within dance, with a lot of video being made accessible — just watching constantly on the screen. I was finding a lot of relief in listening to music or podcasts, because I could interact with my environment,” she said.

“I could move around, I could change my setting, I could close my eyes. So all of these things were inspiring the choice to make it an all audio experience instead of a visual one.”

The podcast begins with the sounds of nature, as well as music composed by Ramin Roshandel, and moves into narration, sensory exploration and bits of history and science.

Among the other performers and co-creators are Danica Clayton, Bennett Cullen, Sabrina Duke, Jenny Fairman, Laila Franklin, Hunter Glenn, Julia Miller, Alyssa Simpson, Anna Wetoska, Dorothea Yu, stage manager Mariana Tejeda and MFA dance student Michael Landez, who served as Miracle’s assistant director and helped lead the artistic research.

They guide listeners through the museum’s various sights, describing them and asking listeners to imagine what they’re seeing, hearing and feeling. Solo voices give way to overlapping voices, interspersed with chants and archival recordings from museum exhibitions, including the voice of Donald Wanatee, a Meskwaki elder who helped the create the museum’s display on the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.

All of these voices unite to create an interactive experience and spirited history lesson designed for all age groups.

“We want it to be as accessible as possible,” Miracle said. “It can be geared toward audiences that have an interest in museums, which could be young and old, and also artists and performers who already have a leaning toward creativity and expression and new ways of looking at things.

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“It is really fun for people who are familiar with this museum in Iowa City, but anyone who has been to a museum or been to a natural-history museum can relate to the descriptions,” she noted.

It also has practical applications for teachers, and for parents who are trying to find educational experiences for their little learners who have been out of their classrooms during the pandemic.

“Because we’re all having to do most of life from home, we wanted to create an experience felt very multisensory in a simple way, and invite an imaginary participation with a space that promotes education, that promotes an understanding of the natural world and the history of a particular place. All of that makes sense. We learn through our bodies, we learn through our senses as well as hearing information or reading information. It’s really a whole-person experience.”

The free podcast will remain online indefinitely, so even if the time comes when the dance piece can be resurrected and performed inside Mammal Hall, the voices of the students who have graduated will live on.

It’s also inspiring interest in more such projects, and perhaps even a film, but nothing else is in the works at the moment. Miracle is just reveling in the way the dance piece has found another life.

“This experience was just so exciting,” she said, “because dance is a visual form, so to translate it into something that is an audio experience feels really fresh and new for us, and that’s exciting. As a team, we were all trying to use the restrictions and difficulty during this time toward something that felt generative and innovative, instead of stifling.”

Even though they all became “mammals in captivity,” they found a way to free themselves.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

How to listen

• What: “Mammals in Captivity,” a 25-minute participatory podcast

• Who: University of Iowa dance students and faculty

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• Where: soundcloud.com/ramin-roshandel/mammals-in-captivity

• Cost: Free

• More information: stephaniemiracledances.com/mammal-hall.html

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.