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The Tactile Feel of the Mail

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “How the Post Office Created America” by Winifred Gallagher.

As I was working on reviewing Winifred Gallagher’s book, I was also shooting photos and video for a dance concert. One of the pieces was nostalgic about physical, paper mail. Specifically, about getting paper rather than texts or email.

Physical paper mail allows some connections to be more personal, more tactile than cell phone messages. The mail might even bring locks of someone’s hair, in a time when people literally held on to physical reminders of a loved one.

A tiny bit like relics of saints. Though the numbers of those relics compared to the limited size of the sources does not bare a close look.

The new technology to create texts and email is an electronic extension of physical mail. Physical mail in the 1800’s was social media for then, as well as commercial communication. Both paper and electronic delivery depend on the same type of underlying addressing structure. The address is a location. The deliverable item is a tactile connection.

The September concert I was shooting, New Dance Partners, is a program from Johnson County Community College which brings four choreographers together with four dance companies to create, from scratch, in a month or so, new choreographies which are then performed in concert.

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Photo, copyright by Mike Strong with full usage permissions for KCB, JCCC, HPPR
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I’ve been shooting the program since 2014, both stills and video. The program went virtual in 2020 because of COVID where it was filmed inhouse by the JCCC crews and was back with a live (if reduced and spaced) audience in 2021.

There are four companies, Störling Dance Theater, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary, Owen/Cox Dance Group and Kansas City Ballet.

This year I also spent more time shooting off-site rehearsals, catching the beginnings for each work for a behind the scenes documentation. The work at Kansas City Ballet (KCB) didn’t yet have a name and the rehearsal props were not obvious mail pieces.

By the second rehearsal with KCB, for what would be named “Life Within a Letter,” I knew that choreographer Stephanie Martinez, from Chicago, was celebrating “the mail” as a physical object you could touch.

“Life Within a Letter” is a whimsical piece with dancers turning, leaping, throwing and catching other dancers in simulated ecstasies of delight and wonder as they hold high, large red envelopes. As a dance photographer this was fun.

As a dancer, this is hard work. KCB had more dancers rehearsing than the eight performing. That allows the company to change casting as needed, such as for another show, and for injuries. There were some cast changes.

Stephanie Martinez’ note for the performance program reads:

“My new work for Kansas City Ballet will explore the almost lost art of writing and receiving letters. In a time of instant communication, I think back to how written correspondence shaped our lives and relationships. The anticipation of receipt and the intimacy of holding someone's words has a vastly different effect on a person than the alert of a text or email. Moments of humor, heartbreak and the mundane - my work will make you wonder "What was in that letter?" “

Stephanie Martinez

Stephanie had large red prop envelopes for the dancers to hold out as they moved. The sense of touch, of holding the paper someone had sent, was in the movement. The pleasure of touch.

In breaks, the dancers would drop those big red prop envelopes. The dancers would pick up their phones. Faces intently peered at texts, messages, and emails. Posts to like, messages to respond to and children to check on.

Sometimes, as I showed my pictures after a rehearsal, especially the high carry with a drop by Taryn into a basket catch, I would be asked to please “put that on Instagram” so everyone can see. No one asked me to send them a letter with those pictures.

Communication, as Alexis de Tocqueville concluded in his book “Democracy in America” (1835) is the developer of civilization.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club

REFERENCES

Behind the Scenes (30:00 min) documentation: https://vimeo.com/754045332

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Fall Read 2022: Rural Life Revisited 2022 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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