"The Unearthing” started with some digging. Last spring, while local activist and artistic educator extraordinaire Zap McConnell was in California for a dance production, she happened to be doing some research on mountain top removal. On the website Ilovemountains.org, she typed in her zip code and uncovered the fact that much of Charlottesville’s power comes from mountain top removal coal from Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, an area that she visited during her time teaching at the Living Education Center. “When I saw that, it just really hit home,” McConnell said. “I was also just striving to bring together all of these different aspects of my life.” After taking a long walk, she sat down at a café and started drawing. “The images came, and I started trying to make them happen.”
“The Unearthing” transforms the IX Building’s old gymnasium into a dance, theater, music, and visual art venue. (Photo by Will Mays)
McConnell envisioned merging her passions and pursuits in activism, art, dance, and education into one large-scale project. She also imagined bringing together her network of collaborators from Mexico, California and Oregon to help realize that project and facilitate an international artistic and cultural exchange. For many people, such an ambitious idea might never get beyond ink on the page, but McConnell isn’t one of those people. By December 20, she had raised enough money to fund “The Unearthing,” which kicks off its two-week run of performances at the Ix Building this Wednesday.
When McConnell’s collaborators arrived in town in January, the first phase of “The Unearthing” quickly got underway. To offset the carbon footprint of the performers’ travel, “The Unearthing” presented a workshop series at The Bridge/Progressive Arts Initiative, including talks about mountaintop removal and cultural identity. The workshops also allowed McConnell to incorporate activism and education into the project without making them overt aspects of the performance. “Part of that is paying back my carbon footprint, and part of it is actually freeing myself a little bit, so I don’t feel like I have to be so didactic in my art,” she said. “We can be a little bit more poetic.”
It’s fitting that “The Unearthing” will take place in the old gymnasium of the Ix Building, since it’s not far from the site of A Charlottesville Wunderkammer, the legendary carnival that McConnell helped orchestrate as artistic director in 2006. While that production featured a motley assortment of circus and sideshow acts, this show has a more grounded tone. With sculptures by UVA graduate students and local artists and an installation made from discarded materials that were salvaged from around Charlottesville, “The Unearthing” will transform the gym into an intricate backdrop for the two-hour program of dance, theater, music and visual art. During the first half of the evening, the audience will be led from scene to scene. “There are so many different incredible perspectives and vignettes,” McConnell said. The second half will give people the freedom to explore the space and performances on their own, enjoy a drink in the “salon/saloon” and peruse artwork from the installation, all of which will be for sale, with half of the proceeds going to The Ilovemountains.org and other environmental organizations.
A final dance will cap off the evening, sending the audience on its way having hopefully experienced its own personal unearthing. “Ultimately, the most important thing to me is to encourage our imagination—to brush it off, give it a massage, wake it up,” McConnell said. “It’s shocking how the public school system in our country has crushed people’s ability to hold complex thoughts. Everyone says, ‘Just make it simple. What’s the sound bite?’”
When the final Ix performance wraps up on February 12, it will be the last hurrah in Charlottesville, but not the last for “The Unearthing.” Leaving behind all of its materials, the cast will travel to Puebla, Mexico in the spring to present an entirely new version of “The Unearthing” as part of the Puebla Ciudad Mural project, a collaborative mural project in the barrio of Xananetla, and Performática, an the international dance festival. “It’s going to be drastically different,” McConnell said. “There’s something exciting to me about making a piece based on being in the present with all of this stuff and then to go reset it in a location that is an abandoned dilapidated furniture factory in broad daylight.”
As Feedback was searching for the right words to describe “The Unearthing,” we turned to our trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which told us that “to unearth” means “to dig up out of or as if out of the earth.” That tongue twister of a definition is a great fit for McConnell’s vision, as its words seem to be fighting hard against being reduced to an overly simple phrase, just as “The Unearthing” resists being squarely placed in any category or even country. “I’m not doing one thing,” McConnell told us. “It is complex. That’s what it is.”