Choreographer Leah Wilks says Secrets I Never Told My Mother, her remarkable multimedia dance work, started with what she calls a "radio blip," a five-minute project for an audio documentary class at Duke.
"I mentioned it to a couple of women in the class," Wilks says, "and they said, 'Oh, you've got to do that one.'"
But as Wilks began collecting the stories of people who had never told a parent or significant other something important about themselves, something happened. She noticed she was gathering a lot more material than she needed for a one-off class assignment. "I kept doing it. I found so many people for whom the story wasn't over for them."
The experience got Wilks thinking about an experience a lot closer to home.
"There was one secret that I couldn't tell my mother. I'd told everyone else in my life—and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't tell her."
The search for an answer to that question ultimately led Wilks through a two-year process of audio interviews and collaborations with video artist John Haas and a community of 20 regional dancers, composers and musicians. An intriguing August workshop at The Carrack Modern Art led viewers through designer Nicole Bauguss' labyrinth of remarkably articulated psychological environments. Among them were a living room filled with eggshells, a gauntlet of water and glass, and an intimate wilderness of tree limbs, rope and suspended panes of chalkboard slate.
The final result debuts this weekend when Wilks' company presents the completed version of Secrets I Never Told My Mother in the Trotter Building in downtown Durham.
Wilks still recalls the moment she denied the secret her mother had actually guessed when she was 16. Her response provoked a volatile mix of thoughts and emotions. But finally, the biggest one was curiosity.
"I couldn't figure out how to bring it back up until almost 10 years later. Why was it I could talk with my dad, even, about something that I couldn't talk with my mother?" Wilks says. "I needed to look to other people's experiences to put my own into context."
For Haas, her collaborator, the project is a chance to explore his own relationships with secrets. "I was raised in a very normal family, but there wasn't really an open place for communication. A lot of stuff was left unsaid; a lot of my life is wrapped up in secrets."
"There's a lot of value from secrets, in intimacy," he says. "There's a value in who you choose to share them with."
"But secrets are always alive," Haas continues. "They're still shaping your identity and your future choices. And even if it's something you never want touched again, it's still there."
Wilks quickly adds, "And it will get touched, whether you want it to or not."
According to Haas, the finished work is "not a story per se, but a story of questions."
Wilks agrees, saying, "The whole piece is question on top of question. It's probably why I decided it made more sense to make a dance piece of it, because I feel I can't talk about it in a linear fashion that comes to a conclusion.
"Dance for me is a way of looking at something circularly, from a lot of different perspectives," Wilks says. "And, really, I'm not as interested in answering so much as opening up a space for people to talk."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Talk to her."