How a Book Club Reading Steinbeck Begat a Dance

Winifred Haun has been making dances in Chicago for twenty years. She started while a member of the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater, and has had her own company, Winifred Haun & Dancers, since 1991. Several Chicago companies have presented her choreography over the years, including the Chicago Ballet. From 1994 to 2001, she was the force behind Chicago NEXT Dance Festival, recognized as a top producer of new and emerging choreographers in the Chicago area. She is currently a modern dance teacher with the Hubbard Street dance studio.

In 2005, in collaboration with Dawn Marie Galtieri and Christopher E. Ellis of the arts organization, Voice of the City, she co-founded Circle in the Square: New Works in Dance Theatre. Circle in the Square became the laboratory for building her first full-length work, Promise, which premieres this weekend at the Ruth Page Theater in Chicago. We talked with Haun about how John Steinbeck’s East of Eden influenced the making of this dance — and why you won’t see any direct references in the final piece.

Flavorpill: You’ve been working on Promise for a few years now, right?

Winifred Haun: I first got the idea when I read East of Eden in 2003 as part of a mother’s book club. The book just filled me. I can’t think of another way to describe it. And that summer, when I read it, I thought, this could be a really great dance. Later that fall, I found out I was pregnant with my third daughter. I felt like it needed to be a big work and I didn’t feel like I could tackle a big work all in one season while, you know, being pregnant, giving birth and having an infant. I decided I would start work and do it in bits and take my time with it. Early 2006 is when Dawn Marie and I founded Circle in the Square and so the first section I did was as part of Circle in the Square.

FP: You say you’re more inspired by it than adapting the story. Can you talk about how you’ve extracted the themes?

WH: The book is very masculine. It’s all about the men and the activities of the men and the violence of the men and how all the different men interact with this one woman, Cathy, who is evil. And the way Steinbeck portrays her is kind of one-dimensional. She’s just evil and we don’t know why she’s evil, but she’s always been evil. So it’s this whole history of her evil and then about a third or fourth of the way into the book, she interacts with Adam.

The other woman who is in the book a lot is his grandmother. And in what is I think is very typical of men of that generation, he’s very dismissive of his grandma. As a mom, I know that anyone who could raise nine children could not be easily dismissed. I don’t care who she is, there’s got to be more there.

So after creating the first two parts of the dance, I was really looking at it and decided that what my dance would offer to East of Eden would be to draw out those two women. They’re very different in the book, but I wanted to illustrate their complexity and how all this stuff that kind of swirls around them, they’re taking care of it and forced to deal with it. And it’s very different from the way the men do.

Then a year ago is when I started really developing the two women and I created a duet for the two of them. I came up with movements and background details that I kind of made up about them and then developed movement around that. Like, one of the things that we came up with is that one woman is very much an inhale and the other is much more exhale. So we worked with that.

FP: Some of your other work uses text. Are you using text in this? Or is it even narrative?

WH: It’s not really narrative. I mean, there’s so much in the story that I decided not to recreate the narrative, because that’s already been done. The movie is fabulous, and so it just didn’t seem that would be an appropriate way for me to make a dance about it. And I should mention I would love to use the text from the book in this but the Steinbeck literary agent, who is actually a lawyer, has been in touch with me about this and it would be very expensive for me to use some of the language in the book. We’re still kind of in negotiation about it and perhaps one day I will. My dad was a photographer, so I know a bit of what it’s like to be part of an estate that represent the body of an artist’s work. So I just begged off. We’ll just wait and the lawyer was cool about it.

FP: So the Steinbeck estate is okay with the “inspired by” aspect but you can’t use any text.

WH: Right. And/or list any of the characters. At various times throughout the dance, in my mind anyway, there are things happening between characters in the book, but they are not so identified in the program. But if you knew the book you would figure it out.

FP: What are more concretely some of the themes and how is this speaking to the current culture or situation of the world?

WH: The book and, I hope, the dance have a lot of intertwined themes that you could pull out of it, but if I had to pick one — and this is related to Steinbeck’s theme for the book, too — you know Adam begat Cain and Abel and then Cain kills Abel, which means we are all children of Cain. So we are angst ridden murderers. Yet, even though we’ve inherited that, we still have a choices. There’s a lot of running around in circles and we call them the “swirls.” So the overarching theme is that we are all handed a pile of stuff that we’d rather not deal with and in our everyday life everything is constantly swirling around and yet we still have a responsibility.

We also have the ability to step outside that and make a difference in the world. It’s not enough to say, oh I’m just too busy for X, Y, and Z. No, you actually have a choice there. That’s a point that he makes in the book that I just love. Yes, Cal did this horrible thing to Aaron and that made Aaron run off and join the army for World War I and then Aaron gets killed in the army. So did Cal kill Aaron? Really, no, because Aron had some choices in that. What Cal did was not very kind and he knew how his brother would react, and yet Aron still had some choices that he could have made along the way and he didn’t.

FP: And talk a bit about the title, if that doesn’t give too much away.

WH: East of Eden is a term from the Bible and so I wanted to subtly make another biblical reference. East of Eden could be the promised land. I also like that “promise” is both a noun and a verb. There is a lot of betrayal in the book and I think we all betray each other a lot in our life, and we make promises and break promises. So that’s just some of the reasons why I called it that. It was really just a working title at first, but it just stuck. I thought about calling it Children of Cain for a while, but that seemed a little too contrived or trying to point people in a certain direction. It was too much of a biblical reference where as “promise” just kind of hints at that. At least in my mind.

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All photos by Cheryl Mann.