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You raise me up

Heather Stevenson, cofounder of PUSH Physical Theater, shares her story

Heather Stevenson knows the importance of collaboration. At forty-four, she is the codirector of PUSH Physical Theater, which she and husband Darren Stevenson founded in 2000. She is presently the lone female on the team of five touring performers whose breathtaking combination of dance, mime, and acrobatics has captured the attention of local audiences and beyond.

PUSH was recently one of ten teams to appear on the new truTV show, Fake Off, which aired from October through December 2014. As competitors, they were challenged to create ninety-second performances based on a theme. “We had no idea if we would make it past one or two episodes, but we kept going and found ourselves on the stage at the end of it,” says Stevenson. “Things started to change from [saying] ‘We’re just lucky to be here’ to ‘Let’s go for it.’”

This was the first time PUSH had been featured at length on a TV show, aside from brief local news coverage or documentary spots. The show America’s Got Talent has approached the team before, but PUSH wasn’t drawn to the show’s format, which limits the performance value to a short first impression. Although the time limitation on Fake Off was challenging, Stevenson says performers were encouraged to tell a story within each song. Teams were filmed over the course of seven weeks in Atlanta as artists built friendships along the way. “There were a lot of people of substance and a lot of collaborating going on behind the scenes that TV doesn’t show,” says Stevenson. “There was a lot of camaraderie between the teams . . . It was hard to tell anybody goodbye.” PUSH finished the show in second place.

Stevenson and her husband met while studying dance and performing arts in St. Louis, Missouri, and married shortly after. They continued their studies while touring and raising their two young children, Darren Jr. (now twenty) and Daniel (nineteen). PUSH’s comic piece, Parenthood, was based on this often exhausting period for the young couple. In it, two sleep-deprived parents wearing pajamas tiptoe their way through an apartment trying not to wake their infant as a toddler sleeps in the same room.

In 1997, the Stevensons moved to Atlanta to direct a community arts center, teaching classes in modern dance and mime for students of all ages. They crossed paths with other artists from Rochester at a teaching convention in Ohio, and those artists inspired them to visit. It wasn’t long before the couple decided to lay down roots in Rochester. All the while, PUSH continued to tour across the United States and parts of Europe. While the children were growing up, traveling with the company became the family norm. “They’ve been it from the beginning, literally on the road,” says Heather. “PUSH was really built by the Stevensons of Four. Who they are to me in my life far exceeds anything else that I accomplish. Being a mother is what I’m most proud of.” This dedication has been the force behind a summer dance camp for kids and teens, PUSH Pins, that ran for ten years until lack of funding put the operation on hold.

For now, PUSH is looking forward to another year of performances on the road. Stevenson says working alongside all males (many who are half her age) sometimes brings out her maternal instincts. “We’re at a different energy level and a different perspective, but we all get along fabulously,” she says. “I have a habit of texting their moms.” Stevenson’s favorite performance piece is one called Grace, which is often performed at the end of an already physically demanding set. She plays a character who looks to be running, bounding, and jumping off the ground while being lifted up by others who are holding each of her limbs. It’s a reminder of a past illness that almost put an end to her work. “To be able to continue to do what I’m doing with PUSH really does take other people. You have to be willing to let other people hold you up at certain times,” she says. “Nobody can do it on their own.”

PUSH performed the piece on an outdoor stage last summer, surrounded by mountains at Jackson Hole in Wyoming. As she was lifted, Heather was struck by the astounding view—a picture that only she could see. “To think how much time, pain, and effort you put into something and [then you] experience something that no one else is experiencing—I think that’s what keeps me going,” she says. “Knowing it’s worth the investment.”

Bethany Bushen is a Rochester-based freelance writer. 

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