Background

Relay of Voices: The Great River Run, a project of 501c3 nonprofit A House Unbuilt (AHU), is a work of social practice dance that utilizes running in conjunction with principles of durational performance, movement research, social choreography, endurance art, placemaking, and environmental activism. By staging a four-month long expedition from the Headwaters to the Mouth of the Mississippi River, A House Unbuilt will gather landscapes and voices through various forms of movement and listening, grounding the stories of Middle America. Cultural narratives and geographic data will be gathered for future use by scientists, artists and policy makers.

The Relay expedition is spearheaded by Louisiana native, Victoria Bradford Styrbicki, who is working to connect the voices of river communities by traveling the 2,400 miles of the river on foot and bike. The effort is supported by certified triathlon coach Nic King-Ruley, volunteer support runners and cyclists from the river region, and the AHU dance company, which includes Angela Gronroos, Lisa Leszczewicz, Carla Gruby, Zack Bailey and Ione Sanders. A primary reason for choosing the Mississippi River region was the dichotomy of rural and urban communities there, with many of them still making a living off the water and land. The river is home to a collection of small towns ranging between 200 and 60,000 in population anchored by 7 cities with populations over 100,000, serving as beacons of culture and urbanity along the water way.

A major component of Relay is that of one-one-one interactions with local residents. Victoria will immerse herself in extended exchanges with individuals in each town once arriving by documenting daily gestures, movements, actions, rhythms, rituals and behaviors through what is referred to as “whole body listening.” Through this empathetic listening process, she gathers the unique stories of the individual participants through both words and movement shared through the interaction experience. After the collection of stories are gathered in one place, the Relay will move to the next community to share the voices already gathered, connecting one community with the next. While only lasting a day in most cases, this practice can leave a significant impression as person to person encounters accumulate in the body as well as in the data, building into a connective landscape with others along the river.

Relay “interactions” involve:
— a three-hour time investment; spent at work, leisure, everyday life
— Victoria as “participant observer”
— Victoria will observe, participate when possible, and engage in conversation when not disruptive
— Victoria will ask a few, specific questions but mostly seek to hear unguarded thoughts about anything the interview subject chooses to share

Following each stop, Relay will run into the next town by noon the next day. Many communities have organized to run in or out of town with Relay while others will wait and offer a welcome in town. The following day, Relay carries the stories downriver, physically remembering all the past experiences through running, getting ready to listen and gather again in the next community in the hopes of building connection to what came before.

Relay has partnered with 29 Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs),19 Chambers of Commerce, 30 arts, culture and educational organizations, 45 city and county governments, as well as hundreds of individual volunteers local to each community to solidify programming and to assist with accommodation, transportation, event space and nourishment to support the team as they travel south. Through partnerships with organizations like The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC), the Mississippi River Network (MRN) and The Water Institute of the Gulf, A House Unbuilt is connecting with each of the 104 communities in a distinct way, accessing their cultural touchstones, and adapting its special technique of movement and storytelling to any venue or audience.