Paul Swan is Dead & Gone

Photo by Maria Baranova

Paul Swan is Dead & Gone plays at Torn Page, presented by The Civilians. Written by Claire Kiechel, directed by Steve Cosson and choreographed by Dan Safer. Acted in by Torn Torn, Robert M. Johanson, Helen Cespedes, Alexis Scott.

Spoiler alert: Paul Swan’s not dead yet. Second spoiler: the pianist(s) is (are) deeply in love with him.

I LEARNED ABOUT FRANCOIS Delsarte in college. A proto-Stanislavski who never wrote anything down. Who made a system of expression, an attempt at science. A series of essentialist, and overwrought poses, eventually published by his American acolyte, Genevieve Stebbins. “A Gamut of Expression in Pantomime.” Spread throughout the States, watered down by degrees. Some amount of time after that, used as physical education for Victorian girls, labeled “aesthetic gymnastics,” and some time after that, written as such into a play I acted in before I graduated. 

I don’t know if Paul Swan knew of Delsarte. He appears to have been self-taught, mostly. But the intricate postures of Safer’s choreography as Torn (with Cespedes and Scott as chorus behind him) made oddly pronounced recitations made me think of this chronicler of emotion again and again. Dead & Gone’s portrayal of Swan has an air, too, of a fad that never quite caught on, perhaps because it was always a bit misunderstood. 

I READ ABOUT DELSARTE in grad school. Studying dance and the fin de siècle. From scholar Carrie Preston: “Delsartism posed myth in ambivalent relation to modernity, as a still or pause that could function both as skeptical critique and nostalgic diversion” (Modernism’s Mythic Pose, emphasis mine). Posing fixed new subjectivities to “timeworn norms,” it threatened modernity and provided escapism all at once; sweet sentimentality blended with bitter critique. Delsarte’s forgotten influence suggested the burial of an embarrassing secret that defines us all the more for it. 

Torn’s Swan is also a statement in itself. An older larger man wears clothing that reveals his sagging breasts, his stretch marks, his folds and wrinkles. He is bedecked in glitter and gold lamé. He poses proudly. He is the center of attention. We see what playwright Kiechel means when she says she has been both repulsed and amazed by Swan, her own great grand-uncle. That “daring to be ridiculous” might be the only worthwhile thing to do nowadays.

I SAW ABOUT DELSARTE in April. Two performers pose and recite, one chats up the audience. The one and only Paul Swan does both. He refuses shame a role in his performance. You can read about all that in more conventional reviews. 

As I watch Tony Torn’s Paul Swan, I think: maybe Delsartism was America’s attempt to create a movement language. And somehow it just wound up embarrassing. So America never tried again, or I should say, white America never did, and the Western tradition of denying the body was perpetuated. Shame continued to dominate our decrepit System of Expression. 

I SAW LITTLE OF Delsarte in Bellamy (Johanson), the piano player. Not much stylized posing, anyway. He’s too busy talking to us, or getting killed offstage by his doppelgänger Bollony. This latter version of the pianist is less glamourous, less charismatic. He poses even less than Bellamy. 

But he also brings the declining Swan back from his moment of panic episode. He is the one to bring our protagonist, our sundowner Swan, back to a state of calm. Even better, he does so by a pose of their own, one in which the two men touch foreheads—in that way football players touch helmets which I’ve always found quite homoerotic—with one arm around each other’s torso in a partial embrace and the other holding his partner’s hand down at their side. A composite of quite ordinary gestures that combine to make something novel, much in the way the entire play uses old poses in service of a show much more than an aesthetic or expressionistic dance. This one odd pose feels beautiful, moving, authentic, despite being quite obviously rehearsed. I’d like to think it is familiar not only to the performers but also to the characters in their romantic relationship. This is their odd pose, this is their beautiful daring ridiculousness. 

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