Imagine a darkened driveway or patio or apartment parking lot in the gloom of a winter’s night. One by one, a series of flameless candles flickers on the pavement, delineating a softly illuminated space. Two neon-lit figures seem to magically appear. As music starts to waft through the air, the pair begin to dance, creating a whimsical play of lights.
Welcome to a performance of “Lighten Up,” a three-minute original dance that veteran choreographer-dancers Lynn Modell and Ruth Benson Levin have been “touring” to area neighborhoods over the past few weeks to bring a moment of delight amid the stress of the pandemic. “Originally we thought about people who could use some cheering up for some reason,” says Modell. “Then we thought that with all that’s going on, who couldn’t use some cheering up?” Amen to that. (Their recent performance in my family’s driveway was the highlight of our day.)
Modell and Levin, both 67, have been artistically collaborating on and off for decades, since their undergraduate days as freshman dance majors at Adelphi University. After graduation, both moved to Boston and formed a dance company with other Adelphi alumnae called Kineticompany (1976-84). While continuing to make dances, both have had long careers teaching dance at Boston-area colleges and at Brookline High School. Together, and individually, they have created videos and performed live at New England venues ranging from the Dance Complex and the Dance for World Community Festival to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
After retiring from full-time jobs, Modell, a Newton resident, and Levin, who lives in Wayland, decided to continue their performing projects together under the name Duets for a Lifetime. They designed “Lighten Up” as a way to bring some creative distraction to people, especially those who had been ill or experienced hardships. The dancers had gloves from a previous work that could light up five different ways. This time, however, they wanted to perform outside in the dark, so they added illuminated glasses, umbrellas rimmed with lights, and special luminescent wire along their arms and legs.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” Levin says, adding they experimented with a lot of light sources and grappled with ways to affix the wire lights to their black coveralls. “We thought we’d try to delineate the limbs, but the wire slipped and slid and came off, so we pinned them, and the sloppy lines were fun and the floppy limbs were actually better,” Levin says.
“It looks a little cartoonish,” Modell adds, “and I was so tickled when I saw in a video clip that we looked headless, which I love!” When they turn on the glasses and umbrellas ― another challenge is finding all those on/off buttons in the dark — they appear to be wearing giant sombreros.
In addition to manageable weather, Modell says the performance only needs an outdoor space that is evenly surfaced and dark. Set up takes three to four minutes, and depending on how much driving is involved, they average two or three performances a night.
The duo’s most confined performance thus far was in a 10-by-12-foot area in the driveway of a Newton neighbor with Parkinson’s disease and confined to a wheelchair. He watched the dance with his wife through the kitchen doorway. “It was a very small space,” Levin says. “I felt like a little mouse. But the look on their faces was amazing. He couldn’t talk, but he was really smiling. We gave them only a few minutes’ respite from their woes, but it felt so worth it.”
Their largest “stage” was a basketball court near Brookline’s Heath School. It was also the darkest. “We had to use our phones to place our props,” Modell says. But because it was so dark, their body outlines completely disappeared, making the lights seem disembodied, an effect Brookline resident Jenny Barber called not just delightful but haunting.
Since Dec. 17, Modell and Levin have performed “Lighten Up” 18 times, totally for free. They’ve talked about trying to reach nursing homes and facilities where residents could watch from their windows. But so far, they’ve only performed for neighbors and people they’ve already met. “I would also like to do it for people we don’t know and could see going into spring and summer,” says Modell. “I really like that people are so appreciative that we brought something to them, especially now when people are nervous about leaving their homes. If we can give people three minutes of distraction from worry, that’s a nice feeling.”
Levin and Modell can be reached through their Duets for a Lifetime Facebook page.
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.