Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dumb Show Smarts: Lucy Gillespie's "Driving: a Lesson"

photos by Brian Hashimoto
“Fucking Paki driving instructor!” 
Lucy Gillespie, as the character Julie, spits out these words in the climactic and penultimate line of her 15 minute Driving: A Lesson. The play premiered on the program of Riant Theatre’s Strawberry One Act Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on August 15.
The minute long denouement that follows takes place in silence as Julie and Ranit (Fawad Siddiqui), the older man she has sworn at, exchange places in the learner vehicle they have occupied.  The only glances they have cast at each other during this uncomfortable interval have been sidelong, as they both regard the precipice of the chasm that has loomed up between them.
Siddiqui mimes the re-attachment of his shoulder harness and the re-engagement of the car’s ignition, while Gillespie’s Julie sits motionless.
“Seatbelt,” Ranit reminds her.
The driving instructor’s warning might have served for the audience as well.  Over the course of their interaction we have had ample opportunity to watch Julie’s sense of outrage build at the casual cultural sexist arrogance of this family man, who thinks nothing of speculating on the menstrual status and practice of this suburban London university student:
“I bet you use a tampon during the day, and a towel at night.”
She has retaliated by suggesting an appropriate intimate location in which he might bury the former. 
He has also revealed the humiliating frustration inherent in his servile role as driving tutor, despite his advanced degrees in Economics, English and European Literature, placing his own car at their service in the bargain. Julie’s major in History will not save either of them from that which they find themselves destined to repeat.
Siddiqui imbues Ranit with a convincing sense of moral myopia inside a physical presence that suggests a full communion with his character’s body.  When he lays his arm along the seat behind his charge’s back he creates a vague sense of casual creepiness only heightened by his character’s apparent lack of awareness of, or concern with, boundaries.
Gillespie’s Julie seems much less at ease.  She hunches forward at the wheel; her voice strains, rises and falls in pitch as much as her arms do in the mime sequences in which she turns an imaginary steering wheel.  I wonder how these two smell to one another.
Director Brian Hashimoto seems to have striven to heighten the intimacy of the situation by enclosing this pair behind 4 black theater set cubes stacked to create a kind of dashboard square.  Unfortunately, this cuts off the audience’s view of his player’s bodies below the ribs, forcing us to work with only half the physical information. 
The lack of a practical steering wheel created a distracting sense of struggle in the mime.  And although the sound cues for door openings and closings came off perfectly, the attention afforded their frequent repetition made them appear precious. The director, however, has a good eye for movement and the right ear for silence.
Gillespie’s Driving, in its first incarnation, stands as a lesson in theatrical shorthand with hints of full-fledged brilliance.  She has sketched the essence of characters whose spirit seems willing to emerge, but whose flesh will require work to shake us as profoundly as they do in that silent minute. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Technique courts Bliss in its dance: making love and art in lead/ follow

by guest writer Liz Miller: author and blogger of Dance Is Love

photo by Mike Howard

The genre of dance I love best involves leading and following. It is a partner dance called the lindy hop, which can be roughly described as an intense form of swing dancing. Despite the terms, leading and following do not denote dictation of the dance by one person and compliance by the other. A good leader generates power and direction. He may provide acceleration or deceleration while suggesting trajectory. A good follower stays true to these parameters, which may shift unpredictably.
Artists understand that diligent study of technique sublimates the tools necessary to create powerful expression. However, disproportionate focus on mechanics can obscure or cancel the overall effectiveness of a piece. Ideally, a command of technique simultaneously removes it from view and facilitates the experience of seamless and shining truth.
Mainstream culture tends to emphasize a dichotomy, particularly in dance, between practice and abandon. “You can’t think too much. You just have to let it flow,” runs the conventional wisdom, particularly in regard to following in partner dancing (usually the woman’s part). This idea covers half of the story at best. My study of and devotion to dancing has taught me that greater skill enables greater passion and fulfillment. Although I am a professional, I know many hobbyists who have experienced the joyful moments of expression and connection for which we all pine; for which we all live, as a direct result of studying dance technique. 
On the social floor, dancing may appear as a specific sequence of rehearsed moves. Most likely, the dancers have not practiced the sequence together but rather the mode of communication - leading or following or both - with other partners whom they encountered in the social dance scene. Leading and following may be compared to conversation. Most of us don’t rehearse dialogues or speeches before we go out to meet with friends. At the same time, we know that the more we practice language, the richer our conversations become. After lindy-hopping with an almost perfect stranger in a bar somewhere not my hometown, I usually hear someone ask, “How long have you two been dancing together? You just flow so well.”
The word flow is used consistently to describe even the most ordinary of social dances. Fancy tricks and footwork have no impact unless under girded by solid partnering. People talk excitedly about the flips or the kicks they saw, but they might not have enjoyed watching these moves without the snap, crackle and shape shifting energy of lead/follow.
The following excerpts from my memoir, Dance Is Love, illustrate different ways in which leading and following heighten the experience of life. The book is about my passion for and compulsion to dance. Partner dance can highlight sensuality and sexuality. Other joyful and even transcendent emotions - those that pave the way for personal growth, learning, and understanding - can be felt as well. Read additional excerpts at `````````````````````````````````````photo by Mike Howard
Lead/ follow in lindy hop can be...
...a crucial component of art:

Kendall and I have worked considerably on the entrance into tandem Charleston - that favorite lindy hop move in which the leader dances behind the follower, both of them doing the Charleston. At the snap and direction he provides, I back into him. His hands connect to mine and our arms become springs through which his body can incite the next variation.
When we do this entrance correctly, he can lead turns or jumps at the same instant that his hands catch mine. All the while I must actively integrate the connections within my own body, and between my feet and the floor, so as not to lose a drop of that precious, exciting, thrilling momentum. Ideally we are like a machine in which no energy is lost to entropy. He is the dreamer and I am the dream; he is the driver and I the perfectly tuned sports car on the mountain road.
We need each other to make the ephemeral, spontaneous art that has claimed our lives. Even during previously determined, arduously rehearsed choreography, I must still follow his lead. Otherwise power is lost, little mistakes become deadly, and worst of all, the feeling is all wrong.
...a transcendent experience:

Jake led me in the most melting, slow, perfectly timed dance of my whole life. Literally and figuratively, he cradled me, supported me through every single little ball-change, pirouette, or twist I felt like doing, added his own brilliant lock steps and drops, dragged me around, dipped me, bumped me into the air and braked my landing. My dewy eyes tracked over a green line painted on the floor as I focused on following, and I felt something I never had before. I felt truly full. Hungry, overtired, but absolutely full.
The ever-present internal void was gone. This is the void I face when attempting to surmount even small obstacles in the artistic process. It threatens to engulf me in emptiness, in feelings of worthlessness and despair; it drives me to fill my life with distractions. I am so used to it being always there that its absence gave way to a completely foreign joy I will never forget. In a few minutes this experience was over: the fate of all dances.
Kendall started with an in connection, coaxing my chest onto his chest. The first time he had taught me that way to connect, we were preparing to teach a blues class that had been requested by some of my students.
“First we show them how to breathe together,” he’d explained. This had taken place in my studio at home; Peter had been at basketball practice.
“Okay,” I’d said.
“You come in. I put you here. We shouldn’t have to use our arms.” He let go of my back as I leaned into his chest. “Now you try following my breathing.”
“Meaning I inhale and exhale at the same time as you?”
You’re kidding, I’d thought. The top of my head met the lower side of his jaw and I could feel and hear his gum-chewing. The breathing did help me to follow, though. Even our students didn’t mind tuning in to each other this way, the next evening in class. I chalked up their gameness to the ice-breaking activities I had planned and executed beforehand: playground interactions like pushing on each other’s hands, then one partner moving side to side, trying to prevent the other partner from passing.
So, last night, at the Monday night dance, Kendall began with an in connection, walking forward. He moved my legs with his. I love you, I thought blissfully. Oh, the thrill of blues: elongated, melting, yet tolerable: space for strength and surrender, anchored and floating at once, time for crisp direction changes and slowly-unfolding trajectories, for extra spins and for be here on this foot now.
Kendall led ochos - in which I swish each leg in turn to cross in front of the other, a difficult move from Argentine tango that all the lindy hoppers try but few accomplish.
“Those felt really good,” he remarked, although to me they were just as good as always when he leads them, and I kept going; he lifted me so that my legs swung in a slow 180-degree arc before placing me on my left foot. We’d worked on that one.
...a study in finding happiness:
When good following is this important, we girls have quite a conundrum. Trying is not quite the right thing to do. We have to be: ourselves, the moment, the music, the boy’s dream - all in order to fulfill our own. We must detach from the thing we so dearly desire: in this case, the most sublime dance possible. Be now, I ordered myself, willfully shutting out past and future. It became a mantra.

photo by Jaclyn Gavino
“Pardon me,” the singer crooned, “but I’ve gotta run/ The fact’s uncomfortably clear/ Gotta find that old number one/ And why my angel eyes ain’t here.”
One of my best relationships was undone by this song, when, from the back of the Student Center in the fall of 1993, I heard my favorite musician sound check that melodic line on his tenor saxophone.
Now, at Blues Cafe, I let Jake do what he wanted. I tried not to try to hard. His low slung West-Coast boogaloo entertained and inspired me, asked much but demanded little. I floated and released into dips. I corralled my center into pirouettes aided by his well-timed hand. After a sweeping dip, I let momentum carry my left leg around his hip and back under me. Then he swung me out and slapped his knees and then the floor as I jumped and snapped my fingers in the air. We laughed. From the corner near stage right, girls watched.
...a bad experience
I began chatting with Jonathan about Indigo Swing and how I loved Willie’s piano playing. Jonathan seemed to get what I was saying but didn’t hear the two-against-three polyrhythm I pointed out late in the second solo. I became even more animated when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an awkward smiling tense suburban guy hopping up and down with one hand stretched toward me. I was hoping he’d notice me absorbed in conversation and give up, but he stepped closer and asked me to dance with him. Well, at least he used his words.
“I love leading basics and just watching you do your thing!” he cried. His “basics” consisted of rounded shoulders, tense arms and long uncontrolled steps. I tried to lose myself in the song, singing “I’m just a baby in this business of love,” thinking how true that was, but the yanking and pulling made me wince more than once.
...absolutely essential
I stopped short of advancing completely into the double-handed connection during our class at the Dance Complex last Saturday, because I was demonstrating to the class what not to do. Kendall began to sputter, and even as I explained the purpose of deliberately stopping the momentum, he removed his Red Sox cap and threw it on the light-colored hardwood floor. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror as I laughed.
“He was about to yell at me,” I explained to the students. “‘Follow, dammit!’ Welcome to practice with Lynn and Kendall.”
Then we demo’d again and of course I came all the way in. I know the importance of that by now. If I don’t give everything I get, nothing works.
...a fulfillment of childhood fantasy:
Michael showed up to the last event I ran in Boston. I forgot his name three times in conversation before promising to remember it during our first blues dance, at about midnight.
I felt grateful for my training as a follower, for he was good. Tricky, in a lovely way. He stretched me, gave me turns down the slot and catapulted me in another direction when I least expected it. He gave me pop turns from his left side, not only his right; and as I whirled away from him with the acceleration he’d initiated, he connected his forearm to my tricep and gave me another turn; some boys call that a crank turn.
Despite the refined timing these sequences required, there was no sense of hurry. We were dancing slowly, merely emphasizing intense sections of the music. He also led turns and drags in closed position, and a bump that sent my feet into the air. There were elaborate dips, too: expertly led outside turns that somehow slid slyly into a connection between the back of his hand and the back of my neck. The way he was positioned underneath me left no doubt as to how much of my weight I could give him. I could feel it; to look and assess would have broken the flow. Dancing with Michael made me feel like a princess.

photo by Mike Howard

I teach people to dance so that they will also experience these blissful states, moments of self expression and synchrony.
Here in Madrid, I regularly coach a dance team. I train the girls to track true, to maintain and return momentum; I help the guys lead with their bodies, allowing their arms to act as springs. Although these concepts seem simple, for most of us they require considerable repetition to be absorbed into the body, to become tools used to serve the greater purpose of creating ephemeral art with another person.
“Why do we study leading and following?” I quizzed them, the other day. We were rehearsing, as usual, in the park. In Madrid it hardly ever rains in summer. The rain, in Spain stays …
“For communication?” said one member.
“Yes,” I answered, “and because good leading and following feels fantastic. The more we study, the better we feel.” The better we feel, the more alive we become.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Girl Gown Wild: Kelly Samara's "Being Patient" at Manhattan Repertory Theatre's Summer Fest '09, August 5 - 7

"I'd rather be in the presence of that painting The Sleeping Gypsy, … and see what that does to me," Kelly Samara’s patient intimates from within her flimsy hospital johnny. Dreaming and dream life, and deep wooded magic mountains indeed represent recurrent preoccupations among several in the inner monologue of this character. And she objects to her one-piece wardrobe, especially as described by the staff:

“’Gown’ is what I fantasize about wearing to the Oscars. ‘Gown’ has the word Versace in front of it,” she declares, later imagining herself more glamorously decked out on the red carpet.

And why not? When we meet this patient, she lets us know that she been haunting the 11th floor, where “the cart squeals as it wheels slowly down the empty, odorless hallway,” for “2 months, 3 weeks and 5 days.” Over the course of 45 minutes, she will gossip, ruminate, yearn, opine, muse, define, philosophize, sing, receive an unseen visitor, and toy with a string in an abbreviated explication of cat’s cradle -- all in a series of episodes that suggest the warp of the time that hangs ever heavy on her hands.

“It’s getting to be 6 months,” she declares, about a third of the way through.

Her monologues, all but one of which address the audience directly, alternate with flashes of fierce, hip hop inflected modern jazz and, at one point, balletic dancing to music ranging from dance/trip-hop to "Teardrop" by Massive Attack. Bracketing the piece, and occasionally replacing the dance interludes, poetic incantations underscored by music pit the patient’s recorded voice against that of a disembodied male-modulated speaker with a robotic quality similar to that of the ALS afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking.

Often director AJ Heekin has the patient literally dancing in the dark, dimming Vadim Ledvin’s lighting to cross-fade with reflections from a disco ball for both the dancing and voiceover sequences. (The latter have been designed by sound architect Dave Abel.) This dark matter reinforces the evocation of both the passage of time and the concomitant chafing and discomfiture of the young woman’s spirit.

Under Heekin’s able direction, Being Patient unfolds as a mini gesamtkunstwerk, showcasing Samara’s considerable talents as a theatrical wordsmith, lyrical and physical poet, actor, dancer, and singer. On stage she reminds me intensely of a young Meryl Streep, in facial resemblance, charm, grace, physical and vocal mannerism, playfulness and dexterity.

Talent, stagecraft and direction can, however, only take us so far into the inner life of this patient. In this incarnation, the piece doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. The choreography seems to stand at times arms length from the lyrical language. Samara dances well, but her dance designs don’t warm to, kiss off of, revel or play with the sound or sense of her word images as engagingly as she does. As perhaps the most potentially exciting and distinctive element in a distinguishing work, the dancing bristles with a broader ambition than illustration or embellishment.

“I don’t like the way this world works. I never have. It makes me sick. I think it’s what made me sick,” she says in one of the voice-overs. But Samara never presents us with the ultimate nature of her malady, whether physical, mental or psychological. In her opening monologue, she appears drunk or drugged; intermittently so later, but less so. The locus of pain seems to shift, from hip to abdomen, maybe to chest.

Perhaps its real seat can only be suggested existentially as heart or soul sickness. Could it ultimately lie outside the patient; for example in “all of the emotionally obstructed men in the world” that the author/performer somewhat sarcastically thanks in her program bio? The one monologue not addressed to the audience references an unseen visitor she calls Gabe who has just acquired a dapper dachshund puppy he has named Scooter, along with a new, perhaps problematic, perhaps romantic roommate. Perhaps both?

“Does he scoot?” the patient needles.

Later in the voice-over cited above, the patient, Hamlet like, conjures the release that death seems to offer. But ultimately someone else passes on. She has dreamed of keys, woods, vessels and houses. The yearning and sense of loss remains more hinted at than palpable. “We are porcelain,” the Stephen Hawking voice decides. But hope and longing remain, somewhere inside her doll/patient’s gown “soft, yet unyielding within my desire.” She remains unglued, “unable to mend us in this sweltering air.”

“I have a visitor?” the patient asks/declares at the end, brightening.

Being Patient reveals a theater artist and a team of collaborators replete with fresh talent, enormous energy and interesting ideas at the beginning of what look to be promising careers. If they revisit this patient, perhaps on another floor, they show every possibility of making her whole.