Shana Simmons Dance’s The Missing Peace explores the response to physical- and mental-health challenges | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Shana Simmons Dance’s The Missing Peace explores the response to physical- and mental-health challenges

The multimedia contemporary dance work is unified by messages of struggle, hope and resilience

Shana Simmons Dance’s The Missing Peace taps explores the response to physical- and mental-health challenges
CP photo by John Altdorfer
Shana Simmons, JoAnna Dehler, Brady Sanders, Sara Spizzichini and Jamie Erin Murphy rehearse The Missing Peace

A trio of familiar ills affecting hearts, minds and bodies takes center stage in Shana Simmons Dance’s The Missing Peace. The latest work from the Pittsburgh-based company will be performed in the round, March 2-10, at Bricolage’s intimate 50-seat theater. 

Begun, in 2016, as three separate projects by dancer/choreographers Shana Simmons, Brady Sanders and Jamie Erin Murphy, the 65-minute The Missing Peace combines and expands on the original trio of diverse dance projects about identity, Alzheimer’s disease and suicide to create a multimedia contemporary dance work that is unified by messages of struggle, hope and resilience. 

The first of the work’s three sections will be Murphy’s “Me vs.” Set to a score by Mexican electronica artist Fernando Corona (a.k.a. Murcof) and arranged by PJ Roduta, Murphy says the idea for her piece about identity and self-discovery came from her journey of artistic rediscovery after she stopped working collaboratively with former Murphy Smith Dance Collective co-founder Renee Danielle Smith. 

“I was feeling very lost and boxed in to these ideas of where I thought I should be [as an artist], and what I should be doing and how I was supposed to be creating,” says Murphy. 

That struggle to rediscover herself led Murphy to become interested in how others have dealt with figuring out who they are and how they self-identify.  

The piece was originally performed as an 8½-minute piece at the Kelly-Strayhorn’s 2016 newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. Murphy, through subsequent research and conversations with individuals and therapists, including Katherine Zitterbart, then expanded “Me vs.” to a 20-minute piece with a cast of eight dancers who largely use their own personal experiences to examine the work’s themes.

The next piece, Brady Sanders’ “WHAT REMAINS,” explores his firsthand experiences with family members and Alzheimer’s disease. 

“It was a part of my growing up,” says Sanders. “I can remember at age 5 or 6, car rides to my Dad’s mother’s house in Southern Illinois, and them dealing with what the disease meant for her and how it was changing her life.”  

Sanders says his grandmother on his mother’s side also later developed Alzheimer’s and now at age 31, he has been grappling with what that family history of the disease will mean for his parents’ future and his own.

The 20-minute, non-narrative “WHAT REMAINS,” is set to an original soundtrack by Pittsburgh composer Robert Traugh, and incorporates interview clips with individuals affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. In it, five dancers plumb the depths of life on both sides of the disease — those suffering from it, and those affected by a loved one with it. 

“The perspective, although different, has a lot of the same emotions associated with it,” says Sanders. “Frustration, anger, fear, loss — these kinds of things work on both sides of the aisle.”

Referencing his own grandparents’ desire to exist in the past, as well as research done in collaboration with the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Sanders says the movement language for “WHAT REMAINS” incorporates a sense of moving backward and unraveling. Helping to further illustrate those themes of loss will be four dynamic sculptures, by artist Jeff Hurr, placed onstage that change and degrade throughout the piece. 

Rounding out the program will be Simmons’ “Stop?.” Inspired by her former roommate’s boyfriend’s suicide, the 25-minute piece features a cast of six dancers, including Simmons. It is set to music by New York City percussion quartet, So Percussion and others (and arranged by PJ Roduta), along with live dialogue.

Simmons says that to get a better understanding of this sensitive subject, she turned to Jennifer  Sikora, associate area director of the Western PA Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), who consulted on the work and its subject matter.

Simmons says “Stop?” is a glimpse into one person’s experiences with depression. In it, multiple dancers comprise that one individual, and conversations explore our language norms and various support networks for those with depression. Its goal is to enhance public awareness and promote a positive message for those struggling with the illness.

While each of The Missing Peace’s component dance works can stand alone, Simmons feels they work even better connected together.  

“There is such an interesting artistic voice within all three of the works that is the choreographer’s voice, but overall, the whole show makes sense together,” says Simmons.