Photo courtesy of Beau Saunders
Photo courtesy of Beau Saunders

Sharks die if they stop moving. For Cid Pearlman, you’re lucky you’re not one of them.

The Santa Cruz choreographer’s latest project, called “Your Body is Not a Shark,” is a collaborative performance built around the ideas of “broken wholeness” and a “lack of physical capacity.”

The production, composed of dance, poetry, live music and sound collage, opened in San Francisco’s ODC Theater Jan. 11–13 and returned to Santa Cruz this past weekend for a few homecoming shows at Motion at the Mill.

Whether it be through age, disability or external restrictions, every human being faces limitation at some point in his or her life. The stumble is simply a part of the process.

“We are all broken in some way and we are all working with our issues,” Pearlman said.

The project began in 2010 with a vision from Maya Barsacq, director of Cadenza orchestra. Formerly the Santa Cruz Chamber Orchestra, Cadenza features recognized professional musicians engaged in bringing artful music and education to the community.

“I was interested in how we go beyond our limitations,” Barsacq said. “What happens when we fall to our knees in life?”

She then approached Pearlman and cellist-composer Joan Jeanrenaud for a potential orchestral collaboration, not realizing that the two were already old friends. The piece began to take shape as something surrounding aging, visibility and silence when Pearlman invited poet Denise Leto along for the ride.

From there, the four artists, known collectively as Team Shark, delved deeper into a body’s inevitable deterioration and the creative productivity that emerges from limitation, physical or otherwise.

“The lived experiences of physical difference or disability are a world away from the artistic expression of it,” Leto said. “What we tried to do with ‘Shark’ was take those experiences and render what might be near to them, to touch them, but not presume to capture them in a concretized or ‘finished’ exclamatory piece.”

Photo courtesy of Beau Saunders

These themes resonate deeply with each of the women involved in its creation.

Jeanrenaud, a former cellist with the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, faced a major shift in her career when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As the condition began to affect her body more and more, Jeanrenaud sought different opportunities as a solo artist and composer with a wide array of works in various media.

“I learned to use this disability,” she said. “I developed over 40 years in an effective way as an artist, a cellist and now a composer.”

Leto, too, was confronted with a physical challenge when laryngeal dystonia — a neurological disorder that affects the vocal chords —changed the way she presents her poetry. After learning to cope with “the stutter and the stumble” of her voice, Leto enlisted the help of a co-reader to accompany her to events and continue the reading in case her voice gives out.

To reflect these restrictions, the opus was formed around six of Leto’s original poems, crafted in strict formal structures such as sestina, pantoum and oulipo.

Leto also offered explanatory texts in addition to the poems for her collaborators to use as maps. These served to elaborate on Leto’s poetry and how it fits into the framework of the project as a whole. Jeanrenaud set to work composing an original score and Pearlman choreographed movement for her diverse cast of six dancers, from the ages of 18–64.

Even though “Shark” saw a successful run in San Francisco its opening weekend, Pearlman was grateful for the opportunity to showcase the production in Santa Cruz.

“Performing at Motion is like performing in our house,” Pearlman said. “It’s where the piece was built.”

Pearlman describes the work of an artist as “theorizing a world you want to live in.”

If “Shark” is any indication, it’s a world that thrives on the challenge of adversity.