Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Brechtian Imperative

(a slightly shortened version of this appeared in the printed program of the Eugene Lang College production of Judith of ShimodaMay 3-6, 2012)

     Judith of Shimoda---an adaptation by an exiled German of a Finn’s translation of a Japanese play about an encounter with Americans, translated into English-is irreducibly hybrid. Zishan Ugurlu’s production stretches this hybridity further into the performance, giving an extra dimension to the play that at once complicates it and aerates some of its density. And dense the play is. Not only does Brecht, as always, deliberately prevent full emotional entry into the play by his distancing devices, but the story is unobtrusively sly. It is not simply a Japanese Judith, a Judith of Shimoda. The Hebrew Judith stands up for her people as a national heroine, kills her male opposite number rather than placating him, and there is no hint in the Biblical account of anything but acclaim for her.  Okichi’s offense is not only to placate the enemy but to dissolve cultural barriers between "us” and “them;” that when she is reviled, the crowd vilifies her as “the Yankee Okichi” is no accident. Okichi is as much like La Malinche, who betrayed the Aztecs to Cortés, as Judith. Brecht’s tale is a subversive sequel to the Judith story that tells us not only its dark underside but the reality of how heroes can be despised for precisely the same qualities that exalt them.
      By using two Okichis for the two different eras of Okichi’s life, Ugurlu has dramatized the change in Okichi’s confidence and in her treatment by society. As I sat in on the audition and several rehearsals, I watched as Ugurlu elucidates the various talents of the cast, stitched them into the play, and then, at strategic moments, temporarily undid this stitching to let more of the actors’ real-life attributes into the fabric of the play. We are taught in the arts to take the measure of ourselves and then plunge straight into the discourse no more looking back on our ‘real’ selves than, to allude to another Biblical character, was Lot's wife encouraged to look back to the cities on the lain. By urging her actors to periodically replenish their characters with themselves, Ugurlu was interrogating the opposition between affective and performative, ego and scene. One of her periodic aperçus during this process was “Brecht and Stanislavski”, which I first heard as an opposition (Stanislavski the advocate of identification, Brecht of distancing) but later understood as a linkage. Both thinkers, by different means, were rending the distinction between inner and outer.
   Theater people often caution against overacting, and this process was no exception to that. But even more striking was how the actors were never allowed to fall into the prosaic, to make an abstention from histrionics into a pallid ordinariness. The compelling moments of high drama in Judith of Shimoda stand out aghast a baseline that it already catalyzed and quickened. Even in the sinews of the rehearsal process, one saw the Brechtian imperative to assume nothing, to be perennially both self-conscious and daring. Eugene Lang College production

Monday, May 7, 2012

Feathered Friends

Company SoGoNo's dance piece “Bird Suite,” which I saw at Triskelion Arts in Williamsburg on Sunday, April 30, is not just interested in using birds as a metaphor. Bird Suite gets into the birdiness of birds, their feathery idiosyncrasies, their beauty and strangeness. The piece, choreographed by Tanya Calamoneri, presents, not an abstract but a highly concrete idea of what birds are.  Birds represent the heights of our lyric inspiration, but also an essential inhumanity. As someone who lives with both cats and birds, I can easily anthropomorphize my cats; birds are a distant, different matter. 

 Photo Credit: Nicholas Birns    I am amazed by how little I noticed birds before I had birds myself, and how much I notice them now, how alert I am for all manifestations of the avian. We cannot look down on birds. We cannot look down on them both because they are above us physically and because they can do the one thing we cannot naturally do: fly. (We can swim much more than fly, we can keep up with the fish in their motion a lot more than with the birds). No wonder poets such as Keats and Hardy used birds as symbols of attaining notes of concord we cannot reach yet embodying a fundamentally different consciousness.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Heller “Bird Suite” starts out with ”Hatch”, in which four performers, Erin Cairns Cella and Christine Coleman, Dages Juvelier Keates and Mariko Endo Reynolds, d wear blue, feathery costumers, including fluffy blue headdresses, and are hunched over as if about to hatch out of an egg. Raucou bird calls emanate from above as the birds stretch out of their feathered pods of origin.  So compact and controlled were their bodies I had difficultly believing these were people at first, or at least anything but small children, but the dancers’ ability to conceal and unfold was convincing of the action of birds and their ability to foreground or camouflage themselves, to crouch or unfurl, to be self-sufficient or self-advertising, depending on the circumstances and on their whims. First cocooned, then gloriously spread out the blue birds established a tone at once fun, weird, and captivating. Lithe and portable, animated yet supine, the dancers in “Hatch” evoked ideas of motion existing amid stillness. The four dancers squat, extend, contort, gyrate, bespeaking both the necessity, the contingency, and, finally, the insufficiency of motion. As T. S. Eliot put it in “Burnt Norton”: After the kingfisher's wing/ Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still.”
          All the performers are female, raising the question: Why are girls likened to birds? Perhaps it is their voices? I cannot see any other reasons why birds are more female than male. If anything, my male parakeet sings more concertedly than his female counterpart. It is probably, indeed, a comment on the way the identities of women, more than those of birds, are culturally constructed. Indeed, ‘Bird Suite”, if it wanted to, could have gone into issues of gender as well as language, and Calamoneri’s previous work such as “The Art of Memory” has been cogent in its intellectuality, but Calamoneri and the SoGoNo performers preferred to concentrate on the spectacle, the phenomenology, of birds themselves, leaving, of course, these sorts of inferences to be drawn from them. 
Photo Credit: Julie Lemberger, Adam Amengaul
     Different parts of the suite had different emphases. “Catbird Sonata” performed by Heather Harpham, emphasized the lyricism of birds, the way they are torch singer’s vocalists: sound over shape.
Photo Credit: Julie Lemberger
“Aviary,” a solo performance by Cassie Tunick, solicited images of freedom and captivity associated with birds; at one point, Tunick holds a cage up to the audience, reminding us how we imprison birds ostensibly as a way of nurturing them even as we celebrate birds as a major trope for untrammeled liberty. The surface red eroticism of “Flamingo”, performed by Cella and Keates, with its overt references to Las Vegas showgirls, contrasted with the subtler yet dapper white eroticism of “Ain't No Swan Lake,” performed with both dazzle and understatement by Coleman. Keates, Reynolds, Cella, and Soraya Odishoo, who also did the sound design for the piece. Just as the White Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass ends up being more alluring then the red, near-narcissistic perfection became more exciting than gaudiness. But the red might perhaps have the advantage of greater discursivity, bringing issues out into the open.
           Even before the overt references to “Swan Lake” and “The Firebird” I had thought of classical ballet, how different a form it was from what we were seeing here, with its modern, postmodern, and Asian influences, yet also how the two forms were, at a distance, comparable, measurable across the same spectrum. Why the birds/ballet connection? Why do at least two major ballets center around birds? For one thing, birds are natural performers. They are decorative, elaborate, flamboyant, strutting their stuff. In both voice and appearance, birds cry out for attention. They also, as far s land-base creatures are concerned, have unusual forms, do strange things with their bodies: birds as residual, Lilliputian dinosaurs, cold-blooded others, which our bodies at their most trained and prehensile can only faintly approximate. The dancers were so good, so exhilarating, they at times defied gravity, but we will always be more bound to the earth than our feathered friends.
   Photo Credit: Adam Amengual (for both)   The lighting ofAndy Dickerson, the music that included original compositions by Odishoo and Danny Tunick as well as recorded songs, and the costumes by Mioko Mochizuki all added to the delightful and pertinacious quirkiness of “Bird Suite.” The costumes were especially good at addressing the difficult question of how faithful, how 'mimetic' humans in bird costumes should be? Should they try to 'be’ birds as much as possible, or, to refer to T S. Eliot again, should they be like the cats in “Cats,” who, whatever their virtues are in no danger of being mistaken for a cat even by the most dimwitted dog or rat. The costumes here, on the other hand, avoided silly approximation or caricature in going at least halfway in making the performers look like birds, certainly suggesting the extravagance, the vulnerability, the otherness that we see when we see birds.
       There is joy, fun, glamour irreverence here; but also a serious effort to understand the mystery of birds, to use human bodies in performance to reflect in what it must be like to be a bird. The Triskelion space added to the enjoyment by its placing the audience in proximity to the dancers and with ideal sight lines. But it is still good that "Bird Suite” should be seen again at a larger space in Manhattan this fall! I highly recommend it; this is the kind of dance piece I would see angina and again to appreciate Company SoGoNo’s winning comprehension of the incomprehensibility of birds.