“I choose dancers who can absorb quickly and have a comfortability performing and being uninhibited,” says Shana Simmons, choreographer of “Living Landscapes.” Left to right: Brady Sanders, Lexi Jordan, Adrienne Elion, Alx Golembiewski and Auset Fullard. Photo by Kitoko Chargois.

Leave the lawn chair at home, slip into your comfortable walking shoes and break out the bug repellent. On Sept. 30, Shana Simmons Dance premieres “Living Landscapes,” an early evening, multifaceted live dance and film event. 

Take the hike and you’ll encounter dance installations and pop-up performances along dusky nature trails at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. As the sun sinks, grab a seat in the barn to catch the screening of the “docu-dance” film targeting local ecological issues.

“I want people to get outside and appreciate nature and also bring awareness to environmental concerns,” says Artistic Director Shana Simmons, an award-winning choreographer with international credits and the founder of Constructed Sight, an international dance film festival. 

Her aim is to motivate audiences to get involved and take action, “even in small ways. Humans should understand that they are part of nature, not an outsider looking in.”

Last month, Simmons explored five miles of trails at Beechwood Farms, headquarters of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, to scope out ideal installation sites. Existing structures caught her eye — a pavilion near a manmade pond, an enormous fallen tree and “a weird area covered by shrubs,” as well as spots for dancer/audience interactions along the trail.

“I took videos and photos of the approaches to these sites to see what the audience will experience,” she says, adding that maps indicating installation locations will be available.

“Humans should understand that they are part of nature, not an outsider looking in,” says Shana Simmons, choreographer of “Living Landscapes.” Cast members from left to right: Lexi Jordan, Adrienne Elion, Auset Fullard, Brady Sanders and Alx Golembiewski (foreground). Not pictured: Artistic Director Shana Simmons. Photo by Kitoko Chargois.

Flexibility within the 5:30 to 7 p.m. time frame allows “the audience to choose its own experience,” and the 20-minute film screens twice, says Simmons. 

Moving from the drawing board toward the premiere “presented a lot of challenges” for the Forest Hills resident, who initially forayed into ecological-themed works in 2014. At the outset of “Landscapes” in 2020, “I intended to create an earth environment on the proscenium stage, working with lighting and costumes,” she says.

Then the pandemic hit. Live performances halted.

Simmons, like other frustrated creative artists, was “flung into film and to making videos of doing Pilates in the garage. It was what we all were forced to do. I had been exposed to dance films while studying in London, but I always came back to live dance,” says Simmons, who counts live site-specific works among her earliest dance commissions.

The choreographer, who founded her company in 2009, is known for creating research-based dance-theater works that address socially pertinent topics. 

“Living Landscapes” is driven by “the amount of excess production we humans consume and discard,” which Simmons states is “seriously affecting our lives.”

A person dances through giant tires
“The amount of excess production we humans consume and discard is seriously affecting our lives,” states choreographer Shana Simmons. Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.

She met with leaders of nonprofit environmental organizations — Allegheny CleanWays, Grounded Strategies and Friends of the Riverfront — to gather information, quotations, ideas, thoughts on environmental concerns and projections for the future. The material she acquired propels the documentary, which focuses on air and water quality.

While amid the six-day film shoot at McConnells Mill State Park in Lawrence County, the dangling roots of a tree perched on rocks 20 to 30 feet above ground captured Simmons’ imagination. 

“I knew I wanted something in this space,” she says. She asked cast members Brady Sanders and Auset Fullard to improvise — “I had the dancers intertwining like tree roots.” The beautiful and sensual duet of bonding and rippling that resulted surprised Simmons and the dancers. And, raised the questions: “Do we put this in? And why?” she says.

The need for additional footage emerged during the editing process. 

“We needed to get ugly, harsher movement to build tension,” says award-winning violist, composer and orchestrator Andrew Griffin, who created the film score. 

The decision led to shots in a tire dump, an automobile graveyard and a hauling and recycling facility.

“It’s been fun to build, rip and rebuild,” as the editing process evolved (under the guidance of Julie Rooney, an Emmy Award-nominated video editor). “What’s been most challenging is getting it all to make sense for the audience,” says Griffin, a McCandless native who currently resides in New York City.

Griffin — who is also one of the musicians performing on the soundtrack — is scoring strings, percussion, piano and synthesized keyboard for the three-section film. However, the hums, chirps, buzzes and rustling of an ambient soundscape accompany dancers Chandler Bingham, Nicole Jones, Malena Maust, Madisyn Montgomery and Brittany Nettles — who perform continuously during the live outdoor event — even when no one is watching.

Each vignette may run for 90 minutes without repeats, allowing audiences to revisit an installation to observe the dance’s progression, explains Simmons, who developed release technique-based phrases, gestures and themes in collaboration with the artists, which allows leeway for improvisation.

“We can’t be married to specific choreography — we have to go with the environment and might have to adapt to circumstances,” Simmons says, as the 134-acre Beechwood Farms sanctuary is home to skunks, raccoons, deer, red fox, mallards, screech owls and Canada geese.

Choreographer Shana Simmons dances atop a mountain
Choreographer Shana Simmons dances atop a mountain of demolition debris in a scene from the “docu-dance” film “Living Landscapes.” Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.

“Living Landscapes” is her first project to offer both live and film presentations. 

“This is the most intentional and lengthy dance film I’ve attempted,” she says. While Simmons has no immediate plans to employ this format again, she would consider it “if inspiration for a similar project should materialize.”

“Will the film alter the perception of the live dance? Will each complement the other? To be experienced and decided for oneself,” Simmons says, adding the impact “on the audience will deem its success.”

“Living Landscapes” takes place on Saturday, Sept. 30 at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve (614 Dorseyville Road in Fox Chapel). Live performances runs from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Film screenings are at 6 and 7p.m.

Nature trails are free and open to the public. Suggested full experience $30. Film only $10. Reserve tickets or buy onsite. More information at Shana Simmons Dance.

Karen Dacko is a dance writer and critic whose work has been featured in Dance Magazine.