When Natalie Marrone began research for her dance, “Thresh,” a meditation on wheat and the old ways of harvesting it, she did not have to go far afield.
“My dad grew up threshing wheat,” Marrone said in an interview at Duke Studios where dancers Lucas Melfi and Rachel Mehaffey had just finished a run-through of the 10-minute work selected from 18 entries to share an ADF program with Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co.
Marrone’s father had grown up on a farm in a small mountain town in the province of Salerno, Italy. The farm had been in his family for two generations. Children were expected to help, including gathering the wheat so it could be threshed to separate the grain from the husk by beating it with a free-swinging stick tied to the end of a long handle.
To facilitate gathering the wheat, people would attach river reeds to their fingers, Marrone added.
The Chapel Hill-based choreographer had also studied old photographs of Italian farm workers harvesting wheat. In one photo, people carried, on their heads, huge bundles of wheat that resembled trees, she said.
During World War II, Italian farmers faced demands of wheat from the Fascists and so would hide the wheat, Marrone said.
“While working in the wheat fields, women were often taken advantage of by Fascist soldiers,” she added.
In “Thresh,” the husband and wife characters are both trying to keep going despite these difficult circumstances that they couldn’t talk about after the wife was taken advantage of, Marrone said of the back story that contributes to “Thresh.”
In better times, the old ways of farming were hard but also healthier for farmers because of the physical work and the fact that they weren’t using pesticides, Marrone said.
“At 85, my grandfather once drove 20 hours from Florida to his home in New Jersey and when he arrived he started working in his garden,” she recalled.
After all, he had been conditioned by working for many years on his mountain farm in Salerno.
Marrone was born in Hoboken, New Jersey but grew up in the suburbs in the state’s Bergen County where she had not felt like she belonged. “I did not quite know the English word for things sometimes so I turned to dance often. I was not trained to dance at an early age. We simply danced in the house while we cleaned,” she said.
“Although I was born on American soil, southern Italy has always felt like home. I spent a decade researching in Italy mostly to heal the divides I felt in being never quite an Italian and never quite an American,” she said.
That identification with her Italian heritage informs the dances she creates and will continue to do so. Her company’s first ADF appearance in 2013 featured a performance of Marrone’s “REVOLT” about the tradition of Italian women healers.
“Ancestral stories are so moving to me. I feel like I must deliver those stories,” Marrone said.
GO & DO
WHAT: The American Dance Festival presents Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. and Natalie Marrone & The Dance Cure.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, June 23 and 7 p.m. Saturday, June 24.
WHERE: Reynolds Industries Theater, Bryan Center, Duke University.
TICKETS: 919-684-4444 or www.americandancefestival.org
INFO: As part of the American Dance Festival’s spotlight on NC artists this season, this shared program features Durham native Bill Young’s revival of his 1986 “Interleaving” and Chapel Hill-based Natalie Marrone & The Dance Cure in “Thresh.”