susanne chui
Blog post

Shedding a Light on Woodlight

posted July 9th, 2021

Co-Artistic Director, Susanne Chui, reflects on her part of the creative process behind Woodlight, a film conceived and directed by Erin Donovan and produced by Hear Here Productions

When Erin Donovan invited me to take part in what was to become the film, Woodlight, I jumped at the opportunity. It was July 2020, 4 months into the first COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. I had just returned to work after having my second child, and there was no sense of normalcy. Working from home, trying to reconnect with my working self, feeling fearful, isolated, mourning the loss of my father who had recently passed away, overwhelmed by everything that was happening in the world at the time, Erin’s invitation to be creative and to go into nature was so deeply needed. I would go out everyday for a walk in my neighbourhood and find little pockets of green – community gardens, stretches of woods – to find solace in nature. Although I had felt connected to nature before this time, now it felt urgent and essential. I recall one day I was walking in a small stretch of woods behind Needham Park in North-end Halifax where I spotted a patch of green and without thinking my body just laid itself down and I pressed my face into the moss. I needed to imprint my body into the earth, to embrace it, to be embraced, to blur this imaginary line I had created between myself and the natural world. So, needless to say the opportunity to spend time alone in the woods was a gift.

To begin the process, Erin, Alice and I met a few times and Erin showed us the three locations that she had been imaging for the film, in a forest area near her home in Mahone Bay. The first spot was a clearing in the woods where a tree had fallen and slowly been bleached and dried by the sun. It was very remarkable -- the sculptural, stoic tree truck, laid so bare in the open, exposed in its death, yet also so still, beautiful and serene. It reminded me of a ship, and also like a large animal bone. I spent time in the area alone sitting and writing and I became very quickly aware that the stillness of this tree acted as a counterpoint to an incredible amount of activity and life.

I wrote:

A clearing. Soft pine needles. The ground is moving. I am a visitor here. The ants – this is their territory – the ground, the trees, busy busy, excuse me, pardon me. A highway of ants too busy to notice me. No reason to question their place in the world.

I also became painfully aware of how disconnected from nature I had become.

One leaf falls from the tree, I don’t know the name of it Oak? Maple? I am uneducated. My city brain tries to hug a tree and immediately the ant says “Ah, excuse me. We are busy, do you mind?” The birds laugh at my stupidity, the crickets chuckle. How is it that I have become so distant, so disconnected from the world?

Becoming attuned to the fullness of nature, it’s expansive, connected non-linear quality immediately shed light on my inner mind-state which was, in contrast, disconnected, distant, discursive. In the hot summer sun, I sat with this dichotomy.

Moving closer to the tree, sitting with it, on it, feeling its body, conjured another wave of feelings, thoughts, and images. My first impressions were how deeply I could feel the support of the trunk; when I gave my weight fully to the tree I could extend from it like a phantom limb. Through this action I could connect with the process by which the limbs of the tree grew. Again, I became aware of the ants moving throughout the tree and saw how this tree, in it’s stillness, was acting as a structure for movement for me and my ant friends.

I became aware of time, the lifespan of the tree, from seed to now. Wondered how it fell, aware of how it took on many roles in its lifetime and even now, in its stillness and supposed death, it was still supporting life. Inevitably this train of thought led me to mortality, to that of the tree, to my father’s life and to my own life. The surface of the tree felt like skin and reminded me of the colour and texture of my father's hand. Many thoughts and emotions flooded my mind-body.

We have no control. Time continues. We age, we dry up, my bones will also become brittle and break. I too will become bleached by the sun and lay still, blood and sap no longer flowing through our veins, just a shell, a container, a vessel. I know, I’m heading this way too. I feel you. But for now I can dance. Let me dance for you, with you. Hopefully it will be some time before I join you back to the earth.

It was from these various meanderings that I worked on the choreography for the project and these themes (and my ant friend!) appear consciously and subconsciously throughout the film. My movement was layered with Erin’s and Alice’s own individual responses to the space, reflected in their music and poetry, and then further refined in the editing process. The result was Woodlight: Field and Tree -- a collective reflection of a moment in time and place.

Stay tuned for the next two films Tree/Bridge/Water and Green Moss Meadow, which we filmed in two other equally magical places in the woods outside Mahone Bay. Hear Here Productions hopes to have these edited in the coming year.

There are a few artists and writers who have influenced my artistic process and who I’d like to acknowledge here. When working on this project, I was reading two books about nature: Braiding Sweetgrass By Robin Wall Kimmerer and David Suzuki’s The Sacred Balance. I drew on land-based practices I experienced through dance artists Helen Poyner and Misha Horacek. Awareness and listening practices that underlie my practice are grounded in my work with Lin Snelling, Jerry Granelli and Erin Donovan.

Land Acknowledgement
This project took place in Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral and unceded home of the Mi'kmaq people, who have inhabited this area, also known as Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, for over 11,000 years. As treaty people, we would like to acknowledge and give thanks to the original and continual keepers of this land, as we strive to work together to care for the earth and each other.

About the Film 
Woodlight (Field & Tree) is the first of a three-part series of films that combine choreography, poetry and music in outdoor settings in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. This is a collaborative project headed by Hear Here Productions’ Erin Donovan (artistic director, musician, composer/sound designer) in collaboration with Susanne Chui, Mocean Dance (choreography, dance, artistic advisor), Alice Burdick (poet). Watch the film here.