A choreographed troupe of farmers rehearses for “The Symphonic Body/Food.”

In a roomy warehouse-turned-studio on the South Side, an orchestra is rehearsing for an upcoming performance. But this is no ordinary ensemble, as its members have no instruments and produce no music. Instead, they use their hands and bodies to mime a series of movements adapted from their everyday lives.

“Let’s make it a little bigger,” conductor Ann Carlson says, standing in front of the group. “Embarrass yourself!”

Carlson, a New York-based performance artist and choreographer, has come to town to create a work called “The Symphonic Body/Food,” to be presented April 12–14 at the Wexner Center’s Mershon Auditorium. It’s the latest in a series of dance works she describes as “site-responsive” pieces involving a “gestural orchestra” of people united by a common theme and choreographed based on movements Carlson observed them using in their daily work. In this case, the participants are all involved in food production or distribution.

Why is food an appropriate theme for a piece set in Columbus? Carlson explains it was requested by the group that invited her to create the work: the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation, or InFACT, an Ohio State-based effort to address food-related problems around the world. Thus, all 40 or so “orchestra” members devote themselves to food in some way, and Carlson estimates that up to half are urban farmers and food activists.

Since last fall, as part of her residency at the Wex, Carlson has been meeting with prospective participants and developing the movements that will symbolize their work. “I went to the farmers’ fields. I talk to them about what their days are like. I really just sit with a yellow pad, and I write down their gestures that I see.” She then helps each participant distill these everyday movements into his or her stage “portrait.”

Back at the rehearsal in mid-February, it comes out that one such portrait represents a food activist who isn’t in attendance: Patrick Kaufman, co-founder of Franklinton Farms, who died of melanoma last year. Bill Dawson, a program manager at Franklin Park Conservatory, says Kaufman’s portrait includes his habit of giving the earth an affectionate pat each time he planted something—“planting with love,” as Kaufman called it. “Let’s bring Patrick Kaufman into the room,” Carlson announces minutes later, then leads everyone through repetitions of the late activist’s signature moves.

Though “The Symphonic Body/Food” mostly consists of silent movements, it’s punctuated by words taken from the participants’ work: non sequiturs such as “It smells really bad!” and “mise en place,” the French culinary edict about kitchen organization.

During the piece, dancers sometimes perform the movements of their portrait individually, with or without words. Other times they work in unison—crossing their legs, standing, raising their hands—and occasionally they turn and converse loudly with one another. When the portraits are alternated with segments of synchronous movements and verbal cacophony, Carlson says it creates a work that’s “part social structure, part dance, part jazz improvisation and part window into actions that are going on every day.”

She adds that it’s an opportunity to discover Central Ohioans, both onstage and during a post-performance gathering, who care about food issues. “I was shocked when I got here, how much food activism there is here,” she says. “I was really impressed.”

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