The Privilege of the Pastoral

Grove raises crucial questions during a period of global outcry By Erin Baldwin
  • Photo courtesy of Unsplash

May 30, online performance presented by Julia Alpin and Terrill Maguire.

It is impossible to separate Grove, by Julia Aplin and Terrill Maguire, from the current socio-political context: a time of global outcry with discussions of racial and class inequity dominating the public sphere. The performance, on May 30, raised crucial questions regarding the accessibility of nature, the populations disproportionately affected by both the global pandemic and systemic violence and the privilege of retreating to the pastoral. Provoking these conversations is precisely what gives art its purpose and proves Grove’s relevance during a time of outrage and crisis. 

Part of the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms livestreaming series, the virtual screening of Grove features Aplin and Maguire, who also take on the roles of co-choreographers. They are accompanied by musician John Gzowski who masterfully combines the use of banjo, dobro guitar, percussion box and harmonica to create an eclectic and charming score. 

Aplin and Maguire dance through a rugged terrain of fallen logs and stumps mixed with high standing trees, greenery, and detritus of fallen leaves, branches and bark. The early evening sun casts a golden light through the canopy of trees and illuminates the dancers as they move nymph-like through the woods. Crouching, gazing and wrapping their arms around trees, Aplin and Maguire drop into lunges and fluidly wave their arms while purposely moving from clearing to clearing. Wearing flowing ankle-length skirts, heavy combat boots, long-sleeved shirts and a mix of vests and heavy belts, Aplin and Maguire acquire elf-like appearances that further amplify their pastoral setting. This is of course then juxtaposed against the two-dimensional screen through which it is viewed, creating a layer of remove from the artists’ magical natural sphere.  

Flexed feet and bent-legged arabesques mix with kicks and exaggerated steps as pronounced flamenco-style arms explode into violent slapping motions and then stillness. One of the most poignant moments comes as Aplin finds herself tangled in a knot of tree branches evocative of barbed wire, struggling to break free. Another as Maguire uses a partially fallen log as her partner, holding on to it from below as she extends herself backwards towards the forest floor. At times, the dancers become barely visible as the camera pans back and the rustling leaves and tree trunks take on the central role. Overall, Grove suggests the possibility of communing with nature along with the inevitability of the struggle that entails. Yet during a time when Canadians remain in quarantine, it also asks who is privileged enough to access the solace and excitement such a setting has to offer. 

The question of who can escape to the natural world in times of crisis often leads to one answer: the “elite.” Statistics on COVID-19 have shown that, in both the United States and Canada, the virus disproportionately affects those with low incomes and visible minority status. Those more likely to be infected by the virus are also more likely to experience police brutality and extreme violence, as the Black Lives Matter movement has greatly illuminated. While finding solace in nature may be desirable, it is likely inaccessible to the majority of the population who lack the financial resources, good health and mobility to retreat from the chaos of the urban into the pastoral world that Grove evokes. 

While it’s impossible not to connect Grove with discussions of privilege and accessibility, these conversations can only be productive. Along with destabilizing many institutions, the current political climate has similarly forced the performing arts world into a period of self-reckoning. Who has access to art? Who is given the space to participate in and perform art? What do we privilege and fund as art? Alongside these questions, Grove also suggests the merits of virtual performances. While the natural setting may provoke desire and frustration in those unable to physically access it, Grove offers the viewer a chance to experience the pastoral digitally, which, though indirect, has value. 

If the best art exposes and illuminates, Grove – perhaps unintentionally – sheds light on the inequities of our contemporary society, acutely capturing a historical moment. In doing so, Grove participates in a widespread movement to bring forth the 20/20 vision joked about at the start of this year, in a way that none of us five months ago could possibly have imagined.

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