Want to see your life turned into an interpretive dance? Call Cabin Fever.
Growing up, my older brother’s room was a mystery to me. It always seemed to be billowing incense. He had a CD player in there. And he was allowed to have girls over (as long as he kept the door open).
His bedroom held so much meaning and memory, that this summer when I went back and visited my childhood home in the Bay Area for the first time in 15 years, I hesitated before entering. It seemed insane?—?you don’t just open the door to your older brother’s room. What are you, crazy?
The door to my brother’s room takes me back. Suddenly I’m 12. I’ve got Sun-In in my hair. I’m wearing my brand new DC shoes that I can’t wait to show him. I can hear Beastie Boys’ “Ill Communication” blasting on the other side of the door.
Physical spaces can provoke memories. A door, a hallway, a kitchen table?—?they can all take us back to our childhood, to times we thought we forgot. That was Elana Jacobs’s thought process when she founded Cabin Fever, a contemporary dance company that does site-specific performance art, including in people’s homes. As Jacobs tells dose, “Cabin Fever is inspired by people’s stories and memories.”
Here’s how it works: Performances take place inside a home or a historical space where the group has been commissioned. Jacobs starts by conducting interviews and doing independent research to create a theme for the show. “We get a tour of their space and they show us each room and express what has happened in there,” she says. “And then we create original music and dance inspired by their story.”
The dancers and musicians?—?who live all over the country?—?fly in, and the work begins. During a weeklong intensive process Cabin Fever creates original choreography, music, lighting and costuming based on the space and the themes they pull. It’s an exhausting, completely immersive week, Jacobs says. It culminates in three shows over the course of a weekend.
Why not just perform shows in a theater like any other dance company? Because “space can hold a landmark for memory,” Jacobs says, adding that the mission of Cabin Fever is to turn homes and everyday physical spaces “into another expression besides memory.”
Imagine your most cherished memory brought to life by majestic dancers and original music. Stories you thought were insignificant?—?like the time your sister hid your retainer under your bed because she was mad at you?—?are now part of a graceful dance in front of dance lovers and art critics. (The shows are open to the public.) These memories and these spaces deserve to be celebrated, lifted up out of the daily slog of life and placed on a pedestal for the world to see.
Though the shows are rooted in family histories, you don’t need much context to enjoy a performance. Jacobs allows the audience to interpret the dance as they please. “I don’t worry about trying to provide answers in the piece … We’re just triggering conversation and bringing people together.”
Last year, my wife and I went to a Cabin Fever performance at the Florsheim Mansion in Chicago. The Florsheim Mansion is the old home of Lillian Florsheim, a shoe heiress and sculptor who gave residencies to artists. Prior to the show, I was completely unfamiliar with Florsheim’s work.
The show began with Jacobs giving a brief history of Lillian Florsheim to the audience of 40–50 people. She told us the show would take place in several areas simultaneously and we were free to walk around at our own pace.
I started off sitting on the floor in front of a staircase, watching a cellist and a dancer completely in tune with one another. The music was subtle yet compelling. The dancer moved seamlessly up and down the staircase. Her movements varied between short bursts and slower, sweeping gestures.
The other two installations followed suit, two dancers moving in unison in the center of the living room, one clearly the leader dictating each movement. The other piece took place in a bedroom, with a dancer moving like a child, hopping from one bed to the next. There was a musician in the bathroom, singing lyrics taken from a Lillian Florsheim interview where she talks about how she loves using plastic in her art but dislikes the way it’s used elsewhere. “Why do you suppose anybody would use such lovely material to put such ugly little things into?”
With each piece that I saw, I found myself growing more emotional without understanding why. Jacobs believes that while the movement in the performance plays a role in making audiences feel, the space itself sets the stage for an emotional response. “Even just performing in a space, an abstract piece, it’s because the actual rooms are so loaded with emotion, whether people like to admit it or not, the piece ends up being meaningful.”
Cabin Fever is a one-of-a-kind experience. I think my wife put it best when she said, “You really can’t understand the magnitude of it until you experience it.”
Jacobs is currently preparing for Cabin Fever’s April 29th show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which you should definitely check out. Tickets are free with admission to the MCA. You can find out more information about Cabin Fever here and more about the event here.