Transforming the Miami landscape one dance at a time

A moment from rehearsal for Jenny Larsson's “LAND” at the FIU Nature Preserve
A moment from rehearsal for Jenny Larsson's “LAND” at the FIU Nature Preserve Photo courtesy of Pioneer Winter

If, over the next few months, you see dancers emerging from the midst of a tropical garden, or around a famously sacred tree in Little Havana, no, it's not because theater space is suddenly in short supply. It's "Grass Stains," which is enabling Miami dance artists to let their imaginations loose on the land and cityscape.

The site specific dance series was created by Pioneer Winter, a prolific choreographer, filmmaker and arts producer. Staging dance in unexpected settings has become a trendy way to liven up arts or public events recently. But Pioneer wanted to help Miami dance artists do something more challenging and thoughtful than dropping a dance onto a street or an outdoor sculpture.

"I noticed so many artists rehearsing in the dance studio, and I would be like 'what theater are you doing this in?'," Winter says. "And they'd be like 'we're presenting this on the beach.' And I was like 'that's not site specific, it's copy and paste."

"Our weather is so beautiful, you know we're going to have this. So why not heighten it?"

There are four performances remaining in "Grass Stains," which kicked off last month with Marissa Nick's "Mira El Mar," which presented sand-dwelling, post-sea-level rise humans on the beach in Surfside. Next up is Jenny Larsson's "LAND," this Saturday and Sunday morning at the FIU Nature Preserve. It'll be followed by experimental flamenco dancer Niurca Márquez' "Ofrenda," at a giant ceiba tree near Domino Park in Little Havana October 30.

Conceptual and performance artist Augustina Woodgate, the only non-choreographer in the series, will do a 25 hour performance on Nov. 6, interviewing people throughout Miami for a live internet radio broadcast. Grass Stains will finish up with Ana Mendez' "Transplants" on Dec. 17 at The Kampong Tropical Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove.

In 2014 Winter received a $20,000 arts challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the series, matched by a grant from the State of Florida. Most of that went to the five artists (selected from 57 who applied); and towards an extended mentorship with Stephen Koplowitz, a multi-award winning choreographer and director specializing in site-specific work, who until August was Dean of Dance at Cal Arts in Los Angeles. Koplowitz helped each choreographer to explore ideas linked to their locations, neighborhood and history.

"I've always been interested in the idea of emerging artists having the opportunity to be mentored... and I also saw the need for us in Miami to have more rigorous site specific training," Winter says.

Larsson, who uses live musicians as well as dancers, aims to highlight the natural fragility of the preserve, where FIU administrators plan to convert almost 3 of the park's 13 acres into athletic playing fields.

"We talked a lot about public space and common space and how there's no such thing as public space," says Winter. "Jenny is dealing with questions of ownership and property and territory."

Márquez and her three dancers have come to know the neighborhood around the giant ceiba tree on Memorial Boulevard in Little Havana. Ceiba trees are sacred to Santeria devotees, as well as in other African and Latin American syncretic religions, and for years Santeria followers have left offerings around the roots of this Little Havana tree. Artist Ana Mendieta did a work there in 1981 which is famous in the art world, and it is also close to a monument to Cuban exiles killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion. So the tree and the area around it, are freighted with different meanings and memories.

"She's looking at ritual, at this idea of a sacred space," Winter says. "It's definitely a space that is politically charged, but this tree was there long before anyone bookended it with monuments."

Woodgate, whose numerous exhibits around South Florida, nationally and internationally include work that plays with ideas of time and geography, as well as interventions and installations, will create a kind of physical and temporal map. She'll drive to different locations around Miami, interviewing people once an hour for 25 hours on Nov. 6, when we switch from daylight savings to standard time (adding an extra hour to Woodgate's performance day), and broadcasting the interviews via online radio. "It has to do with time in the tropics, and how our relationship is different because of the lack of seasons and the relationship with the Caribbean," Winter says.

The final Grass Stains event is on Dec. 17, when Ana Mendez will do a four hour performance at The Kampong, a century old tropical botanical garden which was the home of Dr. David Fairchild, founder of Fairchild Tropical Garden, and his wife Marian - the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. The Kampong has a rich Miami history; the Fairchilds hosted famous visitors, including Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, there; and laid the groundwork for Everglades National Park with Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and others. It is a rich natural site with thousands of plants, many foreign to South Flroida. And it's an emblem of preservation in a city, and neighborhood, that has changed enormously.

"When it was started it was a time of great development," Winter says. "The area has changed drastically with gentrification, and the destruction of neighborhoods in the name of development."

If you go

What: Jenny Larsson's "LAND"

When: 10 and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: FIU Nature Preserve, 11200 Southwest 8th St., Miami

Info: Free, but admittance is limited and rsvp required, eventbrite.com/e/grass-stains; details on "LAND" and future performances at Facebook/Grass Stains

What: Niurca Marquez' "Ofrenda"

When: 3:30 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 5 p.m. and 5:45 p.m., October 30

Where: Ceiba Tree on Cuban Memorial Blvd., 1300 block between Southwest 8th and 10th Streets, Miami

Info: Free; info at Facebook/Grass Stains

What: Ana Mendez' "Transplants"

When: 12 to 4 p.m., Dec. 17

Where: The Kampong, 4013 Douglas Road, Miami

Info: Free with $15 garden entry fee; details at Facebook/Grass Stains