Wrestling with the formula for “Dance Theater” via Big Dance Theater’s 17c

Photograph by Rebecca Greenfield.

Stylistically, Big Dance Theater’s 17c (part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival through November 18th, tickets from $24) invites comparison to (among other works) the film director Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – deadpan actors in silly wigs, contemporary performance styles colliding with the words and decor of a period setting. But while 17c might initially present itself as Coppola’s film did, stylishly dynamic on the surface but too cool (both in the “hip” usage and in temperature) to take its subject seriously enough in order to fully engage, it’s advisable to stick with it – what lies beneath the glossy exterior of 17c takes time to emerge.

The subject initially appears to be Samuel Pepys, who was born in 1633 and kept a daily diary (which according to scholar Stuart Sherman is the first known English-language diary to record each day in subsequent order). His writing is undeniably charming and easily relatable (he is often recording issues with bodily functions). Annie-B Parson, the choreographer and co-director along with Paul Lazar, presents us first with Sam’s world, Sam’s point of view, and then slowly erodes this world by – as she puts it in a recent Brooklyn Rail article – “unerasing” the alternate world of Sam’s wife, Bess. History is only able to tell us about her through Sam’s words, and so Parson slowly and deftly reverses the lens, edging away from the endlessly verbal Sam and leaving us with only Bess, who has stayed mostly silent throughout but emerges fully embodied through the choreography. This is intellectually satisfying in hindsight, yet – perhaps due to the extensive textual presence of Sam and the production’s occasional ambition, justifiably, to belittle him – the reversal proves challenging to fully comprehend from an audience standpoint, at least in the immediate moment of watching. Returning to it now, a day later, its complexity continues to evolve.

Indeed, each return to the work of Big Dance Theater sparks a vivid reminder of their influence on the ongoing reinvention of dance-theater for the 21st century. 17c is perhaps the most formally accessible of their catalogue that I’ve encountered, and given its tendency to constantly point inward at itself – there are seven video screens hanging throughout the performance space which broadly declaim the intent of the staging device (“this is a play within a play,” for example, when they all-too-briefly present a few truncated scenes from Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure) – there is a certain temptation to note where it points at itself in order to unpack both the techniques in play and to better understand the result.

A starting point might be to reassert that this duality of dance and spoken text (further complicated in Big Dance Theater’s landscapes by twitchy restless video and ever-present sound design) is in no way easy to create or to consume, despite BDT’s innate ability to present the interdisciplinary as effortlessly fashionable. Any one of us mortals who have experimented in putting these two forms (dance + theater) together may quickly discover that they’re akin to oil and water.

If I am allowed to define the viewer’s experience of ‘dance,’ let’s call it a non-narrative watching that absorbs repetitions, patterns, and form to create tension and engagement. Likewise, let’s define one’s understanding of ‘theater’ as a more-narrative watching that embodies characters who are capable of speech patterns that, over time, ‘tell a story’ that one has to make sense of in order to create tension and engagement.

Why is it so hard to hold these two forms in one frame? Why, once one becomes immersed in the experience of watching dance, does the utterance of narrative text often trigger dissonance? Similarly, if one has settled into watching a play in which one is asked to imagine these people as who they say they are (and not who they really are), why does a sudden shift into dance vocabulary totally disrupt that suspension of disbelief? Obviously, shifting from one form to the other can be the intended effect – to disrupt, to destroy, to replace one mode of watching with another – and can be used successfully in that way. But how to do both, fluidly, maintaining both modes of watching (and benefiting subsequently by triggering both the pleasure of being told a story and the pleasure of watching abstract and complex movement)?

In almost all Big Dance Theater environments, amplification is a vital tool. 17c serves as a sort of master-class in the various ways one might harness the technology. First, there are gilded microphones – basically, wireless mics that have a gold-lace mesh on the part you speak into. This makes it, in some way, both a microphone and prop. The mic is not only a mic. The piece opens with a performer (Cynthia Hopkins) speaking into a handheld mic as she reads aloud and opines about the contents of Sam’s diary. The amplification serves two purposes here – one, we can hear Hopkins speak normally in a large theater, thus removing certain constraints of more actorly acting in this situation, allowing her to simply speak, not “perform”. Two, it creates a clear delineation of worlds. When holding a microphone, there is a good chance a performer will speak. It seems simple, but there’s nothing more jarring than suddenly hearing a voice in a dance piece and not knowing where it is coming from or who is speaking or what they are saying. The microphone creates an anticipation for speech, and points at who is speaking.

Additionally, the performers are also fitted with lavalier microphones, the kind that are used by newscasters in the field or for musical theater. This allows them to speak away from a hand-held microphone but still be audible. During a long stand-alone dance midway through 17c, Elizabeth DeMent, as Bess, executes a coiling twisting dance on the floor while she speaks words, and those words are turned into something that resembles a score. It’s more orchestration than communication, but it still functions. (Admittedly I wasn’t sure, without a script handy, what it was she was saying and how it related contextually to the larger whole, but I was aware that her speech was significant. It’s not clear to me whether I had fully assigned her the role of ‘Bess’ in that moment, which probably would have clarified it for me.)

Finally, both systems of amplification may be altered (by sound designer Tei Blow), which creates a textural opportunity to minimize language, to make it strange, to obscure, heighten, trouble, and erase its natural tendency to be ‘understood.’ This is excellently displayed in a semi-chaotic moment in which Sam attends the theater, as DeMent attempts to narrate the moment and is repeatedly cut off or garbled by the technology – her physical vocabulary, like a jack-in-the-box, allows us to stay with her a moment longer than the simple spoken text would allow, creating a temporary bridge into both the world of words and the world of movements.

Performance Style
17c enlists distinct characters. There is, of course, Samuel Pepys, diarist, prolific philanderer. There is his long-suffering wife, Bess. There is a Dance Master (played by Aaron Mattocks), of whom Pepys becomes suspicious and dismisses. There are two recurring characters who pop up stage right in front of a video camera to blog about the various Pepys diary entries, allowing the show at large to maintain a 21st century presence (and, presumably, to amplify the echo between the self-satisfied first person diary entries and today’s “Me” generation on social media). In order for the work to maintain its duality, no single character is consistently embodied by the same actor save for Bess, who is always played by Elizabeth DeMent, and indicated as such by her corset and voicelessness (Pepys burned her diaries). But even DeMent is not only Bess, but also doubles as one of the bloggers as well as in other guises throughout. This fluidity and blurring of character also allows for Paul Lazar, in the viewer’s mind, to play Pepys for an extended duration in the middle of show (delivering a lengthy monologue regarding his illicit and disturbing courtship of his wife’s maid) and then to play “Paul Lazar” in the moments afterward, as he tries to exit upstage to take care of something or another, but one of the bloggers is having an argument with him – neither are amplified, and one can’t quite make out what’s going on, yet it remains interesting because we are watching the show itself stretch to encompass two Pauls at once; the one who is trying to go back to being Paul, and the one who was just Samuel, simultaneously present.

This doubling – in that a performer can legibly shift between their own persona and that of the character they are embodying – creates space for them to also become a body, a dancer, a collection of movements that exist outside of the character realm, without shattering the character themselves.

(Multi) Media
In addition to containing characters who range from having been alive (and real) in the 17th century to being alive (and real) in the 21st century (Cynthia Hopkins mostly just plays the role of “Cynthia Hopkins”), 17c also contains music and extensive video.

The video (design by Jeff Larson) might be viewed as a bridge between ways of seeing. Seeing a theatricalized embodiment of character opens up a gap between the world that the character exists in and the other more abstracted world of “the performance,” which means to move between worlds requires a solution. It may not seem super sexy, but it’s these types of problems and the effectiveness of the subsequent solutions that ultimately determine whether a multidisciplinary work is successful. We’re perhaps only a few years away from seeing a designer credited as “transition master.”

The video work here is sometimes very literal – a repeated sequence instructs the audience to “close your eyes,” while the performers move set pieces about, which is then intriguingly updated near the end of the show to “close her eyes,” a neat little juxtaposition in which the video begins to comment on the characters as opposed to directing the audience’s attention.  Other times, it’s more ambient, atmospheric, strange. One might struggle to recall the purpose of a video sequence projected in widescreen across the tufted back wall (the wall more a flat sofa unfolded as theatrical barrier, mirroring perhaps the smaller sofa that Pepys lounges on while he unburdens himself of his indiscretions), but it opens up a new series of connective interpretations. In the sequence referred to here, there is a park, contemporary, looks like New York, with people walking about. Elizabeth DeMent, projected life-sized, is recognizable in the video, far left. Is she hiding behind a tree? Then she comes out from behind the tree (on video), and is seen. And then a live actor enters and obscures our view of her, and then the transition is over. Is this a bridge between the ‘then’ and ‘now’? It it just there because it’s cool? The video is open for interpretation, which subsequently allows the performance to move to a new place while maintaining engagement. When you can accumulate tension within a transition, it’s safe to say you’re on the right track.

There is also music, sparsely present throughout the evening. Midway through the lengthy Pepys monologue, the rest of the cast emerges with instruments and underscores, for example. A world that contains text, dance, video, and cinematic sound can also contain live singing, what’s one more thing after all the rest? Having the extraordinary Cynthia Hopkins on hand to vocally blow the roof off the place feels like having an unfair advantage (imagine a seven-foot tall seventh grader playing basketball against a bunch of tiny opponents, that kind of unfair advantage). 17c deploys her talents carefully, tactically. She does blow the roof off, at approximately the right time, and suddenly a world that had seemed too distant to wrestle with on an emotional level explodes, for just a moment, within the heart as well as the mind.

All of this thusly considered, the question still remains as to why 17c remained (for me, at least) at an emotional arm’s length, coy yet a little unknowable. I’d argue that there’s a redoubling at work in the work, or maybe an un-doubling. The tools and techniques above are deployed to create a cohesive whole that allows these many fluid elements to coexist, but in order to reach that second level (the one where we feel its impact), we also need to be able understand the textual element and the choreographic elements as conflicting points of view. Specifically, it would seem that the theatrical world, built around text, belongs to Sam (and to Parson’s investigation of Sam). But what emerges theatrically is not a clearer picture of Pepys, rather a growing critique (starting out warm and trending rapidly towards cool) of the voice itself. The choreographic physical world, then, functions as a newly created space offered here to Bess, within which she may reclaim her position and unearth herself from the confines of historical silence. But if that’s an accurate reading, the viewer must be capable of both merging and unmerging these worlds at nearly the same moment, and I’m not sure that moment, the re-double-down moment if you will, is clearly defined. On that front at least, 17c’s audience is left largely to their own devices: eyes open or closed, it’s never obvious – for better or for worse – what we’re looking (or not looking) for.

Maybe the most simple, elegant solution is just to see it twice.

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