Pt. 1: The New Garde [sic: somehow 'Avant' doesn't do it for this...but 'new' does...]
I had the privilege last night of attending Summer Shapiro's Kinds of Light at The Tank as a reviewer. This is part of The Tank's Flint & Tinder series. I love the fact that I can review stuff I think I will love for this blog and thank all makers of work who allow me to do so. This was one of those nights that I live for in the theater - when you go to see someone you don't know at all, just based on a hunch and get treated to a breath of truly fresh air.
At first I was skeptical, the overenthusiastic front of house speech, the strings above the set reminiscent of Richard Foreman (see 'Old Garde' review of Old Fashioned Prostitutes below), etc., etc. But then there was the simple movement that showed us that Shapiro had been on the stage all along (I am not going to describe this moment because I loved all her physical surprises and don't want to give them away - I want instead to intrigue you into going to see the show). She is basically a clown, but in a new way - she seamlessly embodies elegance and clumsiness, a desire to control everything with the comic-tragedy-joy-silliness-awkwardness of being human. I have seen old-school clowning and new-school clowning, but I've never seen anyone take these elements and create such a wholly human-scale performance.
Shapiro creates her tour-de-force in a small space using the elements of: paper, water, a chair and table with wheels, string, an old-school radio, a watering can, a bucket, an umbrella, a simple chandelier, her astonishing physical abilities that are used with skill and simplicity, a preternatural humility and the fact that she survived cancer at a very young age. I don't know for a fact how much her cancer fight was a motor behind the development of this piece, which she started beforehand, but it seems to inform it.
I say 'seems' because like all good clowns, she uses very few words. She conveys to us her self, frustrations, joys, confusions, sorrows, fears, anger and simple happiness through her movements and interactions with the set, designed beautifully by Mary Olin Geiger. She also integrates her work with the sound and music of Sean Brennam and lights of Simon Harding. I mention the designers because there is something of the visual arts in her performance as much as theater. She becomes in many ways a moving installation, while - crucially - always maintaining her human - all too human - connection to herself and the audience.
My only quibble with this piece is that it seemed in some ways a little too tentative in places and I think it can be longer. The ending seemed a bit abrupt and there were some astonishingly beautiful moments upon which I feel she could have expanded. For all of her boldness in her presence, there seems to be a little hesitancy in taking up her full space and owning her full power. I know some of this is on purpose, and the tentativeness of some of her movements and images are meant to convey this awkwardness we face attempting to communicate with one another and ourselves.
I do hope, however, Shapiro continues to develop this piece even further, because I believe it can grow from a beautiful sketch into something a little bit more assured, without losing the charm of her presence as "just one of us." While she is one of us, she is also extraordinarily talented and I look forward to watching her work develop over time.
Pt. 2: The Old Garde [sic - see above]
Richard Foreman's Old Fashioned Prostitutes (a true romance) is the return of the Old Master to His True Form at The Public Theater. I love Foreman's work. Foreman like The Who (for you young'uns out there - The Who was a band that kept saying they were doing their last tour Ever year after year but then kept returning - to wildly enthusiastic fans: see in re: Tommy etc.) keeps threatening to abandon us all for writing or film or whatever but then comes back to do another show - eventually. I am glad he does.
Foreman has created over the course of 45 years (count 'em kids: 45!) a language in and for the theater that has predated and lay the ground for so many of us since who have experimented with language, gesture, design in any way that is not linear narrative. I cannot talk about Foreman without referring to my own work, because his has been so influential. I cannot pretend to be an 'objective critic' (whatever that is and for the record I don't think one exists). Instead, I can only say that I truly appreciate his willingness to bare his soul without embellishment, for the benefit of the rest of us.
This may seem like an odd way to describe his work to those new to it who, like me when I first saw one of his pieces, may have the thoughtful response: What the fuck is That? But, when you surrender your expectations for a coherent narrative and allow yourself to follow the logic of each movement and moment responding, resonating off of one another, you will hear the music that is specific to a Foreman piece. It's easier these days. The world has caught up to him. Our way of seeing and experiencing the world, thanks to the internet, 'smart' phones, Twitter, etc. is so fragmented that in many ways, a Foreman play seems downright peaceful and coherent by contrast.
Old Fashioned Prostitutes (the name itself is wistful and kind of knowing about his place in the 'garde') feels like a Bach concerto more than - say - Ornette Coleman. It's less fragmented than his earlier work, more elegiac and - as I have argued before about all his work - quite emotional. The knock on Foreman is that it's all intellectual, and I think that's wrong. He's a smart dude, there's tons of philosophy knocking around, but there is also usually a love story in the mix - however oddly framed and philosophically loaded - sometimes between a man and a woman, sometimes between two men and in this case between two men and two women with the intervention of a lovely clown-like Michelin-man seeming figure. Because the main characters are named Samuel and Suzie I could not help but think of Samuel Beckett and his wife (Suzanne). Also there are references to the philosopher Berkeley, whose name is pronounced like Barclay, which is Beckett's middle name...but I could be wrong...the beauty of Foreman's work is you can do all the guessing you want and you know in the end that is all you are doing: guessing.
And, it's funny. It's OK if you laugh, people! The anxiety that audiences seem to have when watching Foreman's work keeps them from enjoying the obvious vaudevillian humor from moment to moment. Like Summer Shapiro, Foreman is deeply aware of the tragicomedy of being human. He is older so there is a sense of mortality, some regret, some longing, the dread of desire and fear/hope of death in his work. Perhaps because Shapiro had her own brush with mortality, I see the connection - that and the string... Foreman's work is fully matured, he is a master, in the best sense of the word. My advice to any young theater folk out there: go see both now. See where it starts, see where it goes. Admire a vision that has been honed and one that is in the process of being born. We live in NYC. We are lucky. Take advantage of it!
Pt. 3: The Ancient Garde
Before all of this was Cambodian classical dance or Robam Borann. I was able to catch some examples of this at BAM, The Legend of Apsara Mera choreographed by Princess Devi, the daughter of King Sihanouk (the dude that was deposed by the Khmer Rouge - see in re: The Killing Fields for history on that). This form of dance is based on Hindu mythology and bears some resemblance to South Indian classical dance, but has its own specific feel.
Watching the slowness and precision of these mythological tales being embodied by the dancers made me think of when Artaud first saw Balinese dancers and how impactful that was on his vision of what theater could be - something outside of small naturalism, living rooms and suchlike. There is a much larger horizon here, a vision of more cosmic rather than human life cycles. There is also an implicit argument embedded in these forms for monarchs and human forms of godlike power, so you can see how any good revolutionary might have a problem with it.
However, all politics aside, the dancing was beautiful and there were moments of sheer transcendence. It made me think that in our postmodern haste to throw out all the grand narratives, etc., we may have lost something. That while I have no interest in having a Monarch or bringing back The Great Man of History, etc., we somehow need to allow for awe, for movements that remind us of our connection to the universe and larger spiritual principles.
Richard Foreman's work has done that for me in the past - throwing off material concerns for the more interesting ways in which one's mind can piece together the world outside of obvious causal constraints. Shapiro's work - in moments - begins to hit this mark - one moment swirling in her chair and table and another with a sheet and an umbrella (you need to go see her to know what I mean by this).
So here is where we are: the oldest form/s of dance-theater - with a shrine on the stage - an homage to pre-existing gods, Vishnu being courted overly. The secular-sacred shrines of Richard Foreman - his sets, with Kabbala-inspired signs and imagery - talking to an invisible Witness that he believes exists. The body of Summer Shapiro as witness to where we are now - tentative, anxious, lonely, alive, joyous, afraid - wanting to live.
Not bad for 8 days of theater-dance in NYC. Not bad at all.
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani