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On Buckroe Beach: Filming 'Dance of the Orcas'

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Omiyẹmi (Artisia) Green stands on Hampton’s Buckroe Beach, her senses sharpened, her mind stirred by the swirling echoes of ancestors, of her own present journey, of the aspirational performances of the dozen university dancers who are being filmed as they act out a screenplay of her choreo-ritual “Dance of the Orcas.” The breeze is slight. The tide inches in. In the moment, she is triumphant.

“Dance of the Orcas” was inspired by the 17-day ordeal in which the orca whale Tahlequah (J35), forsaking nourishment, pushed her infant, its heart unbeating, through the Pacific Northwest, explains Green, associate professor of theatre at William & Mary. She dubs the orca’s journey “a tour of grief,” one enabled by Tahlequah’s “community,” those members of her endangered pod who swam near, who dove with her at the end when it was time to release the infant corpse to the deepest eddies within the waters.

On the beach, the cameramen swarm, capturing the sequences of dance from four or five angles, framed themselves by the costumed skirts that billow in representation of wind and wave.

“There is a scream; you have to listen for the scream,” Green says, a scream both lyrical and deeply personal. For her, it is nature operating as a mirror.

“Dance of the Orcas,” the film, is being created as a collaborative venture between the W&M department of theatre, speech and dance, The Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation, the Program in Africana Studies, Omiwerx and Christopher Newport University’s department of theatre and dance. It is scheduled to be presented by the department via streaming on-demand beginning on April 29. Digital tickets are available at the W&M box office.

As filming continues, passers-by are curious. Offshore, pleasure boats slow as occupants take in the scene. Overhead, a drone circles. During a break, a woman identifying herself as a national news correspondent interacts with Green. They each speak of Jamestown while pointing in the opposite direction toward Point Comfort, agreeing that the later location is where slavery in the colonies actually began. Actor Audrey Bucknor ’21 approaches, brushing damp, clinging sand from Tahlequah’s dark costume of mourning.

A psychological sciences major at William & Mary, Bucknor calls the “Dance of the Orcas” a perfect vehicle for her as an actor.

“This is more of a personal journey for me,” she says. “Not only do I get to do what I love which is acting and expressing emotions, but I get to take my own past, my own issues, my own take onto the role and see it come to life. It helps me to heal; it will help others to heal.”

Bucknor sees a distinct connection between her science major and the arts.

“Psychology is all about understanding people, understanding ourselves,” she says. “Art is arguably the same thing. When you combine those two, you get understanding of what it means to be human and the ability to express it.”

“Audrey is right on point,” Green interjects. “I was also a psych major, a beautiful discipline from which to approach art. What we’re doing with art is trying to understand the motivations behind behavior.”

She uses the term “eco-therapy” to suggest how, in “Dance of the Orcas,” the natural environment serves as a “modality of self-examination and healing” for Tahlequah as she “does a deep excavation into her own consciousness to give birth to some of the emotions she’s been holding onto.”

Green looks across the water. Gulls pass by, a pod of dolphins reportedly is approaching. Eddies form and dissolve into the Chesapeake Bay.

“One of the natural forces in this play is Yemoja, the mother of the children of fish,” Green says. Yemoja represents the top layer of the ocean; Olokun, the owner of all waters, is the bottom layer, she explains.

"Tahlequah turns to the forces of Yemoja/Olokun to put her pain in the past," Green says. The ocean, she adds, is “considered a sort of a liquid graveyard.” As Tahlequah journeys, we are “invoking the memory of the transatlantic slave trade, and the memory of those who chose or who were pushed off the ships, and their home is in the ocean,” she says.

In” Dance of the Orcas,” grief transitions to wholeness as the audience is both pushed and pulled from despair toward the precipice of healing. As she stands on the beach, Green's triumph is both personal and universal.