In Search of Air

Last night I went to the Flynn Space to see Lida Winfield’s new one woman show, “In Search of Air’, which  traces her experiences growing up with dyslexia. Lida is  a dancer and theater artist who has taught in Vermont and Massachusetts for several years. She has received high marks as both performer and teacher.

“Air”, which was co-directed by Matt Wohl, explores Lida’s experiences in, and with, school, from first grade through the present. (She is now a graduate student at Goddard.) Like many students with significant learning disorders, Lida was discouraged, mocked, and eventually placed in the special education room with a large number of other hopeless, enraged young people. Many of her teachers did all of the things we know, from many years of thorough research, harm children deeply, sometimes irrevocably. Watching and listening to Lisa, I found myself feeling both sadness and rage on her behalf, and on behalf of all children who encounter such shaming and disrespect. (Her teachers acted consistently in just the harmful ways I have sought, and taught my students, to avoid, and when observed, challenge.)

As so often happens, for Lida puberty brought an escape into drugs, alcohol and sex. She was drawn to the “wrong” boys, those young men who shared her rage at their lives and selves. The challenges of puberty were heightened, for Lida, by the death of her mother, her primary source of emotional and academic support.

“Air” examines all this, then follows Lida, as, with the help and love of her father (who was in the audience last night),  friends, and a few teachers, she finds herself as a person, student, and artist. The journey is filled with hope, wrong turns leading to despair, and courage. The artistry Lida exhibits in her writing, choreography and performance are a tribute to her skill, intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience.

“Air” combines improvisational dance, music, spoken and prerecorded text, and lighting, to great effect. Much of her choreography was improvised within a frame, and the movement performed either to silence or to the spoken text.  When she utilized recorded music she chose music from First Nations traditions of North America and Africa.

As I listened to the music (only the last piece was from Africa), and watched and listened to Lida’s performance, I thought about the experiences of so many Native American children in the residential schools of the past, and the urban schools of today. These children were, and frequently are, disparaged and ridiculed, very much like Lida. Also like Lida, in adolescence they turn to drugs, sex,  and violence. Unlike Lida, they frequently drop out of school. If they are female, they may have children at an early age, as did some of Lida’s friends. They are also at elevated risk for self harm or suicide.

During a brief Q&A I asked about her use of First Nations music, curious whether she had made a conscious connection between her experiences and those of First Nations children. Her response was that she chose the music because she liked other languages. (Much of the music included sung text.) This was greeted by delighted laughter from the audience. I felt the presence of the Trickster: her answer was totally unanticipated and delightfully direct. I also felt the return of that old sadness and shame.

In every classroom there are many students with “special” needs, although those needs may not be obvious to teachers and staff. Even when children’s challenges are identified, there is often precious little time, in today’s school environment, to be of help to those who most need it. Lida’s performance was profoundly moving, and by turns heartbreaking and humorous. She brought the viewer into the mind and heart of a bright, struggling student, making visible the frustrations and heartaches of that can accompany difference. I believe  attending a performance of “Air” would be an invaluable experience for teachers, parents, and students. The opportunity may come, as Lida hopes to tour the show.

I highly recommend seeing “Air” should Lida come to a venue near you. If you are an educator, or the parent of a child with a disability,  I encourage you to bring Lisa and “Air” to your community. This work deserves, and needs, to have a wide audience. You may contact Lida via her website.

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