The number 21 carries a lot of weight of in Starr Muranko’s intimate, personal dance-theatre piece. It figures in such perfect alignment across aspects of her life, it seems like narrative contrivance. This numerical pattern in Chapter 21, produced by Raven Spirit Dance and presented by Native Earth, is pulled straight from Muranko’s life.
21 days to form a habit. 21 days between chemotherapy treatments. The extra copies of chromosome 21 that created her son Sami’s Down Syndrome. These are facts of her life—held close, examined and given artistic form.
When we first see Muranko, she is writhing on the floor and bathed in red light. The soundscape is discordant and jarring. The pain of this episode is urgent and explicit, seems to exist across experiential boundaries—physical, emotional, spiritual. There will be more of these moments as Muranko draws us into the unmooring stress of both a cancer diagnosis and a complicated pregnancy. Even more impressive, though, is how vividly she conveys the peace and heightened sense of self that comes with facing such trauma.
I found the language she uses to describe her son and the space he fills in her life particularly affecting. Explaining how Trisomy 21 occurs, the duplication of the 21st chromosome, she frames it as a sort of cosmic magic leading to Sami. In her affectionate words and gestures, she conjures the joy of experiencing the world anew, enriched by his life-affirming presence.
She shares the stage with a dressmaker’s mannequin. A character in her own right, she’s a frame for some key props—a purse, a wig, an assortment of headscarves—though her being there goes deeper than mere utility. She’s familiar, a vaguely human form made to feel distinctly alien. This dissociative manifestation is eerie, of course, yet also weirdly comforting—a tangible reminder of the space her shape takes up in the world.
This device is one of many insightful and resonant flourishes director Yvette Nolan employs to bring the essential interiority of Muranko’s work more fully out into a theatrical landscape. Some business with strewn lottery tickets is another dynamic visual, establishing the relatable spectacle of life’s cumulative mess. Edgardo Moreno’s haunting musical compositions and Johathan Kim’s evocative lighting also add interpretive dimension to her choreography.
The vibe of the movement ebbs and flows with emotional beats. She’ll claw at her body with frantic and grotesque intensity, plucking out some invasive object we imagine is the offending cancer itself. And then there are gentle moments where she pats the air around her in calming, convalescent gestures. As she extends and contorts, a through-line reveals itself: a consistent connection to the floor, the earth—grounding her.
Verbatim audio figures prominently, recordings of her relating key anecdotal details. Though she also speaks directly to us, these pre-recorded segments add further texture to the piece. They help us traverse her headspace, negotiate that shift from first-hand experience to its memory and, ultimately, to this final, expressive reinvention of it.
With Chapter 21, Muranko takes us on a deeply emotive journey, one that feels more expansive than its 45 minutes should allow.