Still Point: a landscape and art collaboration

Singers perform in one of the landscape/art installations at Still Point. — Photo by Cheryle Alexander

Nature became art, and art intertwined with nature, during Still Point, a magical landscape and performance experience last Friday and Sunday. The public was invited to witness the unique installation/performance on a serenely beautiful property in West Tisbury during two guided tours. Still Point, an art and nature experience was a collaboration between landscape artist and patron of the arts Claudia Miller, whose thoughtfully laid out West Tisbury acreage provided the site, and director/choreographer Wendy Taucher of New York and Martha’s Vineyard. The two women have been working on the piece — from conception to selection of material and casting to logistics — for the past two years.

On Friday afternoon, a group of over 120 people gathered in a large barn and its adjoining veranda. They chatted while waiting — not quite sure what to expect — for the adventure to begin. Then, after a brief introduction, the audience was split into four groups and shuffled off in four different directions.

The weather was perfect. A warm, bright, Indian summer day. Following an all-but-silent guide, the guests walked along winding paths, first skirting a pumpkin patch, then passing from open field to canopies of trees where the sun created a dappled surface on the path.

There were pleasant surprises, both planned and fortuitous, to be discovered along the way. A beautiful rock sculpture by Dave Brown, a feat of both engineering and aesthetic vision, was on display just off the path. A pond lay behind a scrim of foliage. A formation of geese flew overhead, causing the walkers to look upward. Then, shifting their focus back earthbound, they were greeted by a serene Buddha sculpture sitting unobtrusively on a large rock to the side of the path.

More Buddhas popped up often along the way, perched in trees or on rocks, festooned tastefully with sunflowers and feathers. A copse of starkly white, branchless tree trunks presented itself as an organic sculpture garden.

After a lengthy walk, the visitors arrived at a semi-clearing for the first of four 10-minute performances. A group of six opera singers, both men and women in orange ombre robes and tunics, surrounded an incongruously placed piano. Strolling through the trees, gazing off contemplatively in different directions, the group filled the woods with otherworldly music. The piece they performed was an arrangement by Ms. Taucher and pianist Dror Baitel, based on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The singers, like all the other participants, were accomplished professionals recruited from Ms. Taucher’s company of New York City singers, actors, and dancers.

While one group of visitors was immersed in this nature and art experience, the others were playing witness to three disparate performances. Then each group moved on to the next prearranged location. Each piece was created specifically for its particular site.

At a clearing surrounded by Tibetan flags and a large Buddha meditating next to a sea-washed driftwood tree, a solo dancer interacted with a row of inverted stumps, her movements and poses emulating, or responding to, the twisting root formations.

From atop a log bench, actor Donovan Dietz gave a powerful dramatic reading of a poem which combined a work by T.S. Eliot with poetry by West Tisbury Poet Laureate Justen Ahren. An excerpt from Eliot’s Four Quartets referred to as The Still Point of the Turning World was the inspiration for Mr. Ahren’s contribution.

At another clearing, a quartet of singers stood arranged around and atop a large flat rock. Unaccompanied, they harmonized beautifully on a chanting arrangement of four of Bach’s chorales. Chirruping insects filled in the pauses. The piece, intentionally nonverbal, had mystical and spiritual overtones.

The latter performance was Ms. Taucher’s jumping-off point in the creation of the performance part of the installation. During an initial walk-through of the property, she was inspired by a view from a particular vista. “I decided when I was up on a hill that I wanted to use the Bach chorales,” Ms. Taucher said in a post-event interview. “I knew that I didn’t want to use language. I changed the lyrics to syllables. That was the first idea for how I wanted to connect the piece. Bach music was the key to everything.”

“It really did feed on itself with all of the collaborations. Justen came in and listened to the arrangement. He wrote a new poem and found Still Point by Eliot.”

Ms. Miller was responsible for the landscape backdrop. “My home and my land is a canvas for me,” Ms. Miller said. “Because I do collages with what I can find and coordinate, that’s what I love. I walk these woods with that in mind. Nature doesn’t need much improvement. Rearranging is more what I do with what is already there.” She was also involved with every piece of the performance aspect. Ms. Taucher only signed on to the project with the promise that it would be a true collaboration with Ms. Miller.

“The property itself is a work of art, the vistas, the landscapes,” said Ms. Taucher. In her introduction to the event, Ms. Taucher explained the project: “Still Point is a place. It’s a canvas for Claudia Miller, and also an inspiration.”

After the initial guided tour, guests were invited to stroll along the property and revisit the four arenas where the performances were playing out in a continuous loop. Most took advantage of that opportunity, taking the time to stop, admire the art, immerse themselves in the surroundings, and enjoy a meditative, multisensory, self-guided experience.

“We designed it so that people could either re-experience it or check out other paths,” said Ms. Taucher.  “The audience really did become part of the event. The reception to the piece was great. I try to do the work and let the work talk to me, and if it’s well received, that’s a bonus.”

Ms. Miller concurred. “I wanted this to be as natural as possible,” she said. “To invite people to have an artistic experience in nature so that we, as humans, can interact with nature and be more cooperative than destructive. Through the arts we find harmony and I think that’s what we achieved. I was very happy to see [among the visitors] that there was curiosity and open mindedness.”

Friday’s guests, without exception, seemed to fully appreciate an experience that was as uniquely and indefinably magical as the Vineyard itself.