Feb. 15 2017 12:39 AM

Ambitious dance work takes on human trafficking, addiction and abuse

“Among the Darkest Shadows,” featuring Inlet Dance Theatre, tells the story of two young people caught in the world of human trafficking. In this scene, a pimp lavishes women with money and gifts to earn their trust and dependence.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

Human trafficking, prostitution, heroin addiction — these are not typical topics for a dance performance. But “Among the Darkest Shadows,” a cross-country multi-partner collaboration that opens at the Wharton Center tomorrow, is anything but a typical dance show.

The evening-length piece, co-commissioned by the Wharton Center and Des Moines Performing Arts, straddles the line between theater and dance. While the choreography was developed by Cleveland’s Inlet Dance Theatre, the storyline was written by Los Angeles-based playwright José Cruz González, who specializes in magical realism.

“There’s no dialogue; it’s all voiceover,” said director Bert Goldstein. “José was intrigued by the idea of writing without language.”

“Among the Darkest Shadows” follows two characters, a young women named Pinta and a young man named Lodi, who are lured into the world of human trafficking — Pinta into sex trafficking and Lodi into labor trafficking. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, there were over 7,500 cases of human trafficking reported in the U.S. in 2016, of which at least 5,550 were cases of sex trafficking and 1,050 were cases of labor trafficking. Michigan placed seventh-highest in the nation for reported human trafficking cases in 2016 with 246 cases.

“This whole issue is so close to everybody, but most people aren’t aware of how close,” Goldstein said. “It’s frightening.”

Bill Wade, founder and executive/artistic director of Inlet Dance Theatre, sees this production as a way to build necessary awareness around the issue of human trafficking.

“Awareness is 90 percent of the problem. If you can bring true awareness to what you’re grappling with, that’s enormous,” he said. “Once people are aware, they can’t not be aware anymore, and then they have to make decisions. Am I going to passively observe? Am I going to ignore it? Or am I going to choose to do something about it?”

And while the piece centers on the issue of human trafficking, the story also touches on difficult subjects like domestic abuse, prostitution and drug addiction. Dancer Michelle Sipes, who plays Pinta, hopes that the work will help audience members see the warning signs in their friends and family or even their own lives.

“The piece is a door-opener for hard conversations,” she said. “It’s hopefully going to allow people, wherever they’re at in life — they may not be where the characters are at in the story, but they might be in a situation that has common ground, and they might feel more comfortable being able to address those topics or being able to go to somebody for help.”

In addition to public performances in East Lansing and Des Moines, “Among the Darkest Shadows” will offer educational performances for local schools.

“Between Lansing and Iowa, 3,000 middle school and high school students will see the piece,” Goldstein said. “We expose the consequences of risky behavior. We have a no-holds-barred depiction of drug addiction, and it’s all told through dance. It’s not someone telling you, ‘This is what happens when you use heroin.’ We show it through dance, and it’s very effective.”

While Inlet Dance Theatre often addresses social issues in its work, this piece, which features a cast of seven dancers, presents some unique challenges.

“We’ve tackled things in smaller projects. This is a very large project,” Sipes said. “Having a social agenda within the choreography is not new to us. But on this scale, it’s definitely a leap. And the overall timeline within the piece is a bigger scale than what we’re used to. The journey of the characters is far longer than what we’re used to tackling on stage.”

For many of the dancers, “Among the Darkest Shadows” is the first evening-long piece they’ve done. “A lot of our repertoire is five minutes to 15 minutes, and we do multiple pieces in a concert,” dancer Dominic Moore-Dunson, who plays Lodi, said. “The difficult but rewarding thing is building these characters over the span of an evening, as opposed to a 15-minute moment with those characters.”

Goldstein, director of the MSU Federal Credit Union Institute for Arts and Creativity at the Wharton Center, has overseen theatrical productions that deal with heavy topics like PTSD and racism, but he’s never directed a serious dance work.

“When (Wharton Center Executive Director) Mike Brand and I started Wharton Center theater productions, we wanted to think outside the box. We don’t do a lot of conventional stuff,” he said. “I’ve had shows with choreography, where you tell the choreographer what you want, and he or she goes to work on it, but I haven’t done something like this. Putting this together was fascinating.”

For Goldstein, Inlet Dance Theatre was a natural choice for this genre-straddling work.

“When I saw and met Inlet Dance several years ago, their work lent itself to characterization,” he said. “They were playing characters in these smaller pieces, and I could see it translating into a play. That’s one of the many things that attracted me to this company.”

Goldstein traveled to Cleveland regularly over the past year, working with Wade to shape the story.

“I spent two days this summer just talking about acting values. We didn’t even work much on choreography,” Goldstein said. “Ultimately, they’re interpreting a play. We broke it down the way I would with any play I direct, having conversations, asking them to do homework.”

Wade also worked closely with González, sending videos via Internet as the choreography developed.

“Jose created a narrative, an architecture,” Wade said. When they started working, González left the physical layout of each scene to Wade and adjusted his writing accordingly. “Some things make sense when you read them, but when you physicalize them in the space, you realize you don’t need it or you need something else,” Wade said. “It feels like a true collaboration.”

Wade tries to bring a spirit of cooperation to all of his work at Inlet Dance Theatre.

“In our company, ultimately I’m the choreographer, but I build all of my work collaboratively with the talent that’s in the room at the time,” he said. “You get a richer result when you open source the concept.”

While this new work touches on dark subjects, it carries the hopeful message that the cycle of abuse and exploitation can be broken. Wade drew this message directly from survivors of human trafficking that he talked with over a year ago, before beginning work on the piece.

“Every single one of the women we talked to said, ‘You have to make sure hope is evident in the piece,’” Wade said. “And it is.”

“Among the Darkest Shadows”

Inlet Dance Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16; 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19
Tickets start at $19.50/$18 students
Pasant Theatre
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com