Choreographer Pioneer Winter had just started on his largest work to date when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shuttering rehearsal halls and performance venues overnight.
“Birds of Paradise,” a co-commission from the Arsht Center and inspired by the 42 very different varieties of the colorful tropical plant, was intended to honor and celebrate “the enduring nature of queer and marginalized people to shape themselves into something that is desirable, vulnerable, fierce and reborn,” explained Winter, who burst onto the international dance scene a decade ago.
Winter had to reimagine the work as he and his LGBT dancers found themselves unable to rehearse for 11 months.
The result is “a provocative, immersive piece perched between fight and flight.” Featuring film, installation and live dance performance, the concept quickly evolved through collaboration with the performers, filmmaker Ron Baez and White Elephant Group media company, sound artist Juraj Kojš and costume designer Chaplin Tyler.
“Because of COVID, the family has gotten bigger and it’s been incredible,” Winter pointed out.
Throughout his career, Winter has focused on relationships, queerness, memory and power, all examined and expressed through an LGBT perspective. In “Bird of Paradise,” he goes further, introducing themes of agency, survival and transformation as expressed by dancers Frank Campisano, Gabriela Cruz, Josue Garcia, Niurca Márquez, Barbara Meulener, Katrina Petrarca, Lize-Lotte Pitlo and Shamar Watt.
“Even when we came back in January, it was apparent there was tension and fear. There wasn’t a vaccine yet and that’s when I decided to treat everyone as individuals. Now we’re coming full circle, keeping individuality but acknowledging everyone’s journeys through the pandemic,” Winter said.
Eight intense days of filming followed months of individual coaching and rehearsals.
“Each solo takes place in a dark void. We filmed in the black box, an undefinable space, existentialism, a lot of those moments where the performer is in this void where they are either embracing it or trapped within and the audience is there with them,” he explained. “It’s about being with each other on each other’s terms, honoring the individual within the intersections of this constellation.”
Then Winter spent three months with Baez and his White Elephant Group team editing the performances.
“All the sound is original, made in collaboration with the performers. Not only does the music play, we hear their voices, their breathing, their sighs, their heartbeats [and] voiceovers. There are moments of breaking that wall, although I sometimes question whether that fourth wall even exists in anything I do. I like addressing the audience directly,” Winter said.
Audiences will experience the results of this unconventional process and unprecedented performances in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, Sept. 16 – 19, when the work finally receives its world premiere.
“It’s been a challenge because I’ve never worked this way before,” he concluded, “continually having to pivot. How can we keep the integrity of the piece while being forced along a different path? It’s taken innovation to continue, and for a project that’s about resilience, I think we’ve really demonstrated that.”
“Birds of Paradise” by Pioneer Winter will be presented Sept. 16 – 19 at the Arsht Center in Miami. Tickets are $40 at ArshtCenter.org.