Salted with Sharks

Chaotic Harmony: Dancing Gwen Frostic’s Legacy

In Culture Bluffs, On and off the Apron on June 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm

IN 1978, GOVERNOR Milliken proclaimed May 23 Gwen Frostic Day, and in 1986, Benzie County’s own artist-naturalist was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. A dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Northwest Michigan Folklife Center, Gretchen Eichberger considers Gwen Frostic an icon of northern Michigan culture. In collaboration with the writer Anne-Marie Oomen, who adapted the script from Frostic’s writings, and Breathe Owl Breathe, who created the score, Eichberger and a team of dancers will bring Frostic’s work to life in a new way this summer. The Alert spoke with Eichberger about the production, and talked to Elbertians who played their part in the creation of Presscraft Papers and Gwen Frostic Prints, a world-famous and—unusually for here—year-round enterprise. Said Governor Milliken in a recent e-mail to Eichberger: “Nothing could be more appropriate than Chaotic Harmony, a heartfelt act of innovation inspired by Frostic’s words and art.”

Eichberger performs part of the section “The Air Is Moving” at the Jean Parsons Center in Lake Ann. She produced the work during a residency at the Parsons Center, where the free public preview will be held June 12.

Named after one of Frostic’s books, Chaotic Harmony will be the first-ever major multimedia exploration of Frostic’s legacy. The piece is structured according to the themes of communion with nature and natural processes that informed Frostic’s ethereal handmade block prints, and it also explores Frostic’s labor; for example, the “Dance of the Press” section interprets the industrial nature of the print shop Frostic operated for more than forty years, first on Main Street in Frankfort and then on the 250-acre River Road preserve she moved to in 1964.

Dorothy Mix of Carlson Road worked as Gwen Frostic’s secretary for 17 years. “I’m not much of a naturalist, but I became more of one working there, learning to recognize different birds.” Mix said the best part of the job was traveling with Gwen and hearing the accents of customers calling from all over the country. There were five presses when Mix started, in 1967, and three times as many by the time she left. “She called the Heidelbergs the Cadillac of presses, and the oldest ones were just as functional as the newer ones.” Joyce Gatrell, of George M. Street (now Cartwright St.) worked at the shop for 13 years, starting in the stationery department arranging cards and envelopes into folders and filling orders. “The orders went all over—Ireland, Japan,” Gatrell said. “Gwen had an apartment upstairs, and sometimes I would go up there and do her dishes or straighten up. It all depended on where they needed me. It was a great place to work, though the pay wasn’t that good. I enjoyed seeing what she would come back with after her sketching sessions of cranes and herons.”

Frostic had a condition akin to cerebral palsy resulting from a childhood case of polio, according to her nephew Bill Frostic, who has worked at the shop for 45 years and is the press manager there. “She never considered herself handicapped,” he said.

“Yes,” says Eichberger, “We’ve created a dance work about a woman who was not given her full capacity to move. She had a boundless imagination, though, and used her abilities to the fullest. In her writing you notice lots of references to birds and their ability to free our souls. I believe herimmense success as an entrepeneur and artist stemmed from the independence she had to develop at an early age.” “She was pretty much self-taught from the beginning,” Bill Frostic said. Eichberger and Oomen discussed the basic framework of the script with Trevor Hobbs, Andrea Moreno-Beals, and Micah Middaugh of Breathe Owl Breathe. Eichberger gave the composers moods and timing for each section of the script, and the choreography was developed by all the dancers, some of it inspired by the music, some by the text alone, to emphasize rhythms that exist in the writing but are not always evident on the page.

Dancers were chosen in an open-call audition in April. What does this choreographer look for? “Everyone is a dancer,” Eichberger says. “A beautiful physique seems like a logical and given requirement, but you have to possess the ability to move with confidence. We are all given enormous potential to create beauty with these remarkable machines that house our souls. What I appreciate most in human movement is the emotion behind it.” Eichberger wanted local dancers with an understanding of Frostic’s impact. “I asked that they familiarize themselves with her writings and read works in the environmental genre—Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, H. D. Thoreau, Bill McKibben, Carl Sagan. And I asked them to meditate, to bird-watch, to sit in the woods and just observe.

Hughthir White records the shop’s Heidelberg presses for Chaotic Harmony’s musical score, written by the Michigan trio Breathe Owl Breathe. The dance ensemble includes White, of Empire, Denise Sica of Omena, Cornelia Dhaseleer of Charlevoix, Holly Wren Spaulding of Cedar, Tim Joseph of Brethren, and Jen Sperry Steinorth, Tom Czarny, and Jamaica Lynn Weston of Traverse City.

“Finding formally trained dancers is not easy in northern Michigan, and most dancers here do not receive monetary compensation for their art.” For now grants and family foundations are the production’s primary funding, and Kim and Greg Forshee, the current owners of Gwen Frostic Prints, are donating all the programs and printed promotional materials. “The performance is a true tribute, and we wholeheartedly support it,” says Kim Forshee. Additional money is needed for lighting and sound, costumes, and still and video photography, as well as travel reimbursement for the artists, who are volunteering their time. “Art is work too!” says Eichberger. Gwen Frostic would probably agree.—Emily Votruba

  1. […] the Alert’s coverage of the making of Chaotic Harmony here. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "0"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

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