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Five O'Clock Tea Reflections: Serving Dance Steeped in Memories

by Bonnie Rosenstock
February 21, 2014
The Performance Project @ University Settlement
Speyer Hall
184 Eldridge Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 453-4532
There is an old Chinese adage, "When two people meet while drinking tea, they have a destiny together." In Five O'Clock Tea Reflections, installation by Michele Brody, choreography and dance by Sabine Heubusch and reading by Caroline Samaan, tea and empathy flowed among the assembled turnout. Although we might not be fated to be together forever, we felt a simmering of conviviality while sharing this heart-warming multi-sensory experience.

Brody, a three-dimensional visual artist and native New Yorker, has been preparing and serving tea in roving carts at events throughout the city and repurposing the tea-soaked bags into writing paper since 2007. The elongated unbleached German "t-sacs" are made from abaca, a strong fiber from the inside of a banana tree. Brody dries them and irons them flat so that the sacs are transformed into variegated earth-toned patterns, ripe for stimulating recollections of tea. "Each tea bag is a little landscape, which is pieced together as a whole landscape," Brody said. "They are like quilts that invite people to read."

The pre-performance aperitif on this cold winter's eve was a (non-alcoholic) tea service in the theater's foyer, a choice of a strong pungent jasime/pu-erh/pochon combo or a fragrant jasmine (courtesy of SerendipiTea of Long Island), served in handmade ceramic pinch pot teacups. When the massive wooden doors to Speyer Hall were opened, the audience was invited to walk around the room and read Brody's exhaustive collection—more than 800 tea bags—inscribed with stories, poetry and drawings.

The four-inch-wide by seven-inch-long bags, displayed on three walls, were suspended on horizontal copper rods, resting on thin netting and adhered with small clips. Two of these displays held teacup books, with blank tea bag pages for audience members to write their own stories. Set on the floor was the copper frame outline of a teahouse, which had tea stories attached to the bottom rod. "I normally have tea bags all around it, but I ran out," Brody admitted.

A stainless steel wheel, fluttering with tea bags, hung from the center of the room. "People commented that the tea bags looked like Tibetan prayer flags," said Brody, "so I wanted something floating in space from the ceiling and to surround the dancer."

Brody introduced the event by relating that her grandmother danced ballet at University Settlement when she was a little girl. Her aunt sewed her costumes. "Coming here helped her from not feeling poor," said Brody. "She could be creative and be herself and not have to think about the hardships of daily life." Brody's mother was also a dancer and studied with José Limon.

Although Brody has a movement background, she felt visual art suited her more. Heubusch said that Brody's dance knowledge was key. "Not every visual artist has that," Heubusch said. "It's what bridged it for us."

This is Brody and Heubusch's third collaboration—the first two projects, The Dance of the Sentinels and Drawing Roots were non tea-related. Five O'Clock Tea Reflections, premiering at chashama 461 Gallery in Harlem, featured a different reader—and Brody and Heubusch worked very closely in deciding which stories to present. Heubusch noticed that some people recounted having tea in other countries while traveling. She researched the history of tea and decided to use the narratives that were related to its three pivotal countries: China, where tea originated; Britain, which established a colony in Hong Kong and brought tea back to its country; and India, where the British created tea plantations in this colony (tea was native but not cultivated) in order to wrest control from the Chinese tea monopoly.

Heubusch created the choreography with each story in hand. The memories—of loss, love, family, adventure, encounters, tea customs—were choreographed into a tight structure, except for an improvisation to Chinese music. Some movements were gestural or acted out; others extended outward into space. "My work has captured that sense of time and memory," she said, "like the hitchhiking woman who could be overwhelmed with the tea she had, her heart racing. I experienced that with my first strong coffee, so I could relate and moved more curving, bending in, feeling that pain internally again." When dancing to stories of loss and pain, she relived what she felt when her father died. "It almost made me cry, reflecting what was inside of me."

Heubusch, who has a degree in music and movement education, experimented with different dance styles, like contemporary, Japanese Butoh and some hip-hop (for the hitchhiking story). "I let the stories speak to me and intuitively find the right movements and then perfect them," she said.
After Heubusch choreographed the entire piece, she and Samaan, a professional actor with a rich, engaging voice, worked each story line-by-line and step-by-step through eight rehearsals to hone this pitch-perfect in-sync 50-minute presentation. "She made her own signs and symbols in every line—where to pause, where to go up or down, so she could remember," said Heubusch.

For England, Heubusch wore a short, tight skirt—resembling the color of tea-stained bags—and high heels. "I wanted something composed around the time tea was big in England, in the 1700's," she said, "something elegant and light-hearted, which fit a tea society. I was looking for an English composer, but couldn't find one. Then I realized Haydn, an Austrian, was living in London for a few years, so I went through his music and it just clicked," said Heubusch, who is Austrian.

In the India segment, she donned a headscarf and danced barefoot to the strains of classical Indian music. Her travels to India evoked the images of bright colors, workers and ambience. Her broad, sweeping movements were joyful and breathtaking, enhanced by the flowing fabric of her trousers and shirt. "The landscape made me leap, jump and turn," she said.

For China she wore a silky pants suit and no shoes. One of the stories was the legend of a monk who couldn't meditate; he tore off his eyelids and tea grew in the spot where his eyelids fell. Heubusch's dance-mime was compelling and poignant.

And that Chinese adage, in the first paragraph, came from Joyce Maio, a tea educator, who was a guest reader for the first of the two performances. (The second night's guest reader was a student from a nearby literacy class, where Brody served tea as they practiced writing in English.) Maio, who is French, met Brody several years ago at a tea project at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden during the Cherry Blossom Festival. She wrote about her visit to the Chinese countryside to see how farmers made tea by hand in the traditional way and fell in love with a German man. Those perceptive villagers, noticing their attraction, made a point of telling them that ancient wisdom. The two are now living together in New York.

The ladies brewed up a memorable evening.

For more information about Brody's installations and upcoming events, visit www.michelebrody.com.
For Sabine Heubusch's work: www.spinelight.com.
Full view of Michele Brody's installation for 'Five O'Clock Tea Reflections' with dancer/choreographer Sabine Heubusch, reader Caroline Samaan and lighting design by Drew Vanderburg.

Full view of Michele Brody's installation for "Five O'Clock Tea Reflections" with dancer/choreographer Sabine Heubusch, reader Caroline Samaan and lighting design by Drew Vanderburg.

Photo © & courtesy of Doug Beube


Sabine Heubusch expressing the loss of a beloved father from a Chinese tea story with Tea Cup Book by Michele Brody.

Sabine Heubusch expressing the loss of a beloved father from a Chinese tea story with Tea Cup Book by Michele Brody.

Photo © & courtesy of Gilad Kfir


Sabine Heubusch dancing an Indian tea story from Michele Brody's installation.

Sabine Heubusch dancing an Indian tea story from Michele Brody's installation.

Photo © & courtesy of Gul Cevikogly

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