Since 2008, Mona Störling-Enna and her team at Störling Dance Theater have been putting on a moving, historical-inspired production called Underground, which draws in part on accounts of real people who lived during the Civil War. As the company gears up for its eighth annual performance of Underground on March 6, we caught up with Störling-Enna to discuss the production, its historical and emotional significance, and what she loves about both her work and working in Kansas City.
Kansas City Spaces: What inspired you to create Underground?
Mona Störling-Enna: During the 2000 elections my husband Jeremiah and I were watching the news and noticed how much the subject of racism was still at the forefront. It seemed to us as if things were moving backwards instead of progressing. It was during this time that we came up with the idea of producing Underground. I spent two years studying the Underground Railroad and the Civil War era. It was fascinating and I was blown away by the amazing real-life adventures and the heroism of the people, both black and white, who were a part of this movement.
The artists themselves had a powerful experience. In a sense, our rehearsals were “segregated” because of the subject matter. It was only toward the end that everyone was brought together into the same room. Some scenes, like when a mother loses her son because he is sold to another plantation and her husband is whipped because he tries to stop it, moved the dancers themselves into tears at rehearsals.
MSE: Because it is history, but also because it’s about great heroism and it shows that you don’t have to be a person of importance and power to accomplish something great. The heroes of the Underground Railroad were black and white; they sprung up everywhere. They came from all economic backgrounds. They were willing to risk everything, even their lives. Our audiences have been coming back year after year because of the hope that this story portrays and because of the beauty hidden in a very ugly time.
MSE: I absolutely love my work. I have the chance to teach ballet technique to the company as well as choreograph. I have had the privilege to work with some amazing artists. The company has approximately 12 dancers in it on a regular basis, but for productions like Underground we have a cast of 50. The works range from contemporary ballet pieces to modern dance and to these large-scale dramatic works.
I really enjoy bringing stories to life! I love to see dancers embody their character, to transform into someone other than who originally walked into the room. I enjoy seeing how the piece develops through their creativity. It’s like it’s feeding on itself. We have a very warm atmosphere that is hard-working but not intimidating. I think it is quite unusual.
KCS: Having worked and lived internationally, what brought you to Kansas City—and kept you here?
MSE: I am originally from Finland. I met my husband Jeremiah, who is originally from Kansas City, in Israel and we danced together professionally in Sweden for 3 years. During this time I had a chance to tour almost all of Europe and Eastern Europe as well as Russia. At first we were thinking of Helsinki or London since that was where most of our contacts were, but then on a visit back to K.C. over Christmas we had some interesting encounters that made us realize that the arts scene was developing.
It might have been impossible for us to grow our organization to what it is now in a different city that is saturated. I enjoy living here. It is a wonderful city to raise a family and still has a healthy and rich arts scene. There may not be the arts and cultural scene that you find in New York and Chicago yet, but it is growing and there are some remarkable artists who live here.
Click here to purchase tickets to the March 6 performance at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts