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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Dance lessons

This sense of motion and movement is what gives a landscape its power and energy and is all too often left unconsidered by gardeners as they create a space or plant a grove of trees.

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A dance performance last night at Chesterwood, the home of the sculptor Daniel Chester French, was not only a perfect way to spend the solstice but also a reminder about one of the least considered aspects of garden-making: movement. Ian Spencer-Bell, an artist in residence at Chesterwood, reenacted a dance by the modernist dancer Isadora Duncan, who performed at this Stockbridge home in the late 19th century.

The contrast between art and nature is evident throughout the landscape at Chesterwood.

Duncan was a defining and seminal figure in the early days of modern dance in America. She apparently came to visit the preeminent sculptor with the intention of getting a greater understanding of the sense of movement that French seemed to capture in the clothing of his subjects. Perhaps the fact that French sculpted marble to replicate the sense of movement in a piece of cloth or drapery intrigued Duncan and she hoped it could inform her work. Little is known about her visit other than that she performed for French and his friends, but it is not hard to imagine that his artwork inspired her costume choices, often filled with the illusions to classical garb that were seen in French’s work as well. One cannot help but think she could sense in his work action frozen in time, not unlike a dancer’s costume carefully draped around the performer’s body, awaiting the first movement at the beginning of a dance, like a flower, stationary in the calm, ready to be set aflutter by a soft breeze.

The art and architecture of Chesterwood hold form while the garden swirls around them.

Sitting in the garden awaiting the performance, my friend Abby and I could not help but notice the wonderful contrast between the movement of the landscape and the solidity of the art and architecture of Chesterwood. Columns, walls, statues, and marble fountains seemed to hold steady as the plants (and water) adjacent to them animated the space with their movement. The contrast between them seemed to bring each to life. Sculptures seemed enlivened by the surrounding greenery and the plants felt more energized in contrast to the sculptures which surrounded them.

Peonies, with their petals ready to shatter and fall, celebrate the ephemerality of the garden and the excitement that movement gives to a landscape.

A row of peonies, fully open and on the verge of dropping their petals, reminded Abby and me of the forward movement of time in the garden, an element that would be reinforced when Spencer-Bell casually tossed about rose petals near the end of the final movement of the Duncan piece. The dramatic moment of a flower breaking had an energy and ephemerality that seemed more obviously artful, but other aspects of the garden reflected a sense of movement in more subtle ways. A stand of trees stood en pointe at the edge of the woods, like a company of ballerinas waiting for the music to begin, with their jaunty angles all akimbo and filled with the force of life. A slight breeze set the Boston ivy climbing their trunks ashimmer and the illusion that they were about to break into movement was complete. This sense of motion and movement is what gives a landscape its power and energy and is all too often left unconsidered by gardeners as they create a space or plant a grove of trees.

The trees at the edge of the wood have the composition of the opening of a ballet.

This memorable evening reminded us that we should not forget the power of swaying grasses, quaking seedheads, and shimmering foliage and how they can animate a garden. As the performance came to a close and Abby and I walked to the back of the area where Spencer-Bell had been performing to view a collection of Japanese irises that were flowering and dancing in the wind, we came to realize that while one performance had ended another one would continue on till season’s end.

The dance of these Japanese irises animates a serene environment.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

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