The zenith

Lemon Sponge Cake and the art of Vertical Migration

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Robert Sher-Machherndl and Bailey Harper rehearse for Vertical Migration Experiment.
Susan France

The first sounds are reminiscent of metal on metal, steel against steel, like dragging a pipe across grating in short, regular intervals. An organ and cello join in and the sounds become musical though still amorphous, the makings of an industrial hymn.

Dressed simply in gray and black, Robert Sher-Machherndl clasps his hands together and makes his way across a studio at the Boulder Jewish Community Center, his clinched hands snaking back and forth and upward — a mechanized prayer to the industrial hymn.

Similarly clothed, Bailey Harper lies on the floor, face down, and slowly rises. She moves as though to wipe sweat from her brow.

This is Vertical Migration Experiment, Sher-Machherndl’s choreographed response to global migration and immigration and the bitter divisions it often creates.

A lifelong ballet dancer in companies throughout Europe and the States, Sher-Machherndl, with his wife Jenifer Sher, is the mastermind of Boulder-based contemporary ballet company Lemon Sponge Cake. The small pick-up company — named quite simply at the inadvertent suggestion of a dessert menu two decades ago — has tackled thorny socio-political topics before. Almost one year ago to the day, Lemon Sponge Cake performed White Fields at Boulder’s Holiday Park, taking an artful, somewhat abstract approach to discussing gun violence. In late 2015, Lemon Sponge Cake debuted White Mirror, an homage to the thousands of Jews, Romani, Ukrainians and other peoples murdered at the Babi Yar ravine during World War II.

Vertical Migration Experiment takes the same artful yet oblique approach to examine today’s global exodus. The concept is meant to stimulate, not assail. While some artists try to separate their work from their politics, Sher-Machherndl sees no point in shying away. Like the old adage goes, the personal is political.

While migration is a global crisis, Sher-Machherndl uses Vertical to tell what feels like a personal story, even if that story offers nameless, silent characters.

Susan France
Bailey Harper rehearses for Vertical Migration Experiment

Vertical is indirect in its message, but, one-on-one, Sher-Machherndl isn’t scared to point his finger at Donald Trump, at Trump’s inability to directly condemn the idea of white-supremacy after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The insanity of such an omission speaks to the very notion of seeing certain populations as “the other,” and it is this idea of otherness that is driving millions of people from their homes around the world. While Trump is fuel for an incessant, low-grade, collective existential crisis, Sher-Machherndl turns to the personal once again for an answer.

“I think right now we can only [effect change] on the individual basis,” he says. “When you have a leader like that, we have to just look away and we stick together and we do it ourselves. We don’t need you. That’s the only way.”

Sher-Machherndl is from Vienna, Austria, where the history of Nazi occupation is attached to every life. He slaps his back: “It’s always right there.”

Growing up he didn’t know much about his parents’ lives during World War II, but he came to learn that his maternal grandfather sold his children to a farm family before making his way to Texas. Sher-Machherndl’s mother, perhaps 9 years old at the time, became something like a serf throughout her adolescence.

Sher-Machherndl knows less about his father’s experience in the war but he does know, like other young men at the time, his father was eventually forced to don a uniform and serve the Nazi regime in Germany.

“He was a child himself. You cannot blame him. [They said,] ‘Here is a weapon; put the uniform on, do this.’ They were children.”

Sher-Machherndl was born in 1961, and even then Vienna was “very dark. Buildings were gray, full of bullets holes, houses were gone.”

Charlottesville touches on that history.

“These young people walk around like, ‘Heil Hitler,’ and it’s like, what the hell do you know?” Sher-Machherndl says, his always-expressive hands popping up in frustration. “You’re 20 years old; you know nothing. They have no idea of history at all. You don’t play around with that.”

Now we watch the entire world — not just the United States — “play” with the lives of millions of immigrants (which, incidentally, Sher-Machherndl and his wife both are). The game creates a clear division: This is “us” versus “them.” Vertical, by its primary definition, could represent a line dividing the two, but Merriam-Webster provides a bit of nuance beyond the planar definition:

“Situated at the highest point: directly overhead or in the zenith.”

The United Nations calculated there were 244 million international migrants in 2015, a 41 percent increase from 15 years prior. The number includes nearly 20 million refugees.

This is the zenith of migration, occurring in what could be viewed as an international experiment. The outcome is extreme nationalism in the name of freedom and safety.

Robert Sher-Machherndl and Bailey Harper

Vertical Migration also comments on the “compassion fatigue” that occurs from a constant barrage of news. Sometimes Sher-Machherndl and Harper move in unison, perhaps taking a journey together, perhaps one person understanding the journey of another and offering help. But many times the two move separately, taking their own journeys, Harper often distressed, Sher-Machherndl sometimes seeming tired, unsure of how to help.

As with all meaningful art, each viewer assigns meaning to the work based on their own experiences, biases and desires. Such is the case with Vertical, which is mostly designed to allow imaginations to wander around the concept of immigration. But the 55-minute work takes time to unquestionably evoke the memory of one moment — one human — that gave migration a face.

To a backdrop of sounds reminiscent of water and the hum of electricity, Sher-Machherndl dances with Harper, taking her under his arm to provide support as her body rebels against movement. She regains composure and they separate and dance again, but their movements suggest pain in their stomachs and backs. This cycle continues — moving, struggling, moving, struggling — as the sounds of water increase to a heavy downpour until Harper hits the ground for the last time, her eyes open. Sher-Machherndl stands over her, helpless, just as the world looked on as the picture of a Syrian child — Alan Kurdi — lying face down on a Turkish beach made its way into our homes and burned itself into our collective consciousness.

On the Bill: Vertical Migration Experiment. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, Boulder JCC, 6007 Oreg Ave., Boulder. boulderjcc.wufoo.com