Broken Theater and The Vanishing Point
A week after tearing my calf muscle attempting a cabriole in full cramp, I hauled myself, on crutches, to Bobbi Jene Smith’s Broken Theater at La Mama. It was 7:06, the actors already present in space, and suddenly Zack Winokur’s hands were on my shoulders. “Eve,” he said gently. “I’m sorry you’re hurt. What happened?” I mentioned the jump. “What a waste.” Zack smiled wryly. “Do you mind if I move your crutches? I’ll bring them to you right after the show.”
I first met Zack, cofounder of American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), in 2011, when we were both dance students at Juilliard. At the time, I was self-conscious, spongelike. Being a few years older, Zack seemed like a full-fledged artist. I was cast in Zack’s piece for a concert called Choreo-Comp, where student composers and choreographers created new work. His process was like nothing I’d encountered in my prior training. In Zack’s creative playground, we dancers conspired together on something singular, possessed of its own vocabulary. I didn’t always understand Zack’s methods or feel coordinated in the movement, but there was an intrigue about the process, both serious and whimsical, that drew me in completely. As a cast, we studied Kate Bush’s music video for her 1977 hit “Wuthering Heights.” In it, she wears a bright red dress, performing emotive developpés and lunges in a field. “Heathcliff–” she sings, her gaze wild, “it’s me, I’m Kathy, I’ve come home now, so co-o-o-old.” At first laughing, we learned her dance. Then we practiced it in earnest. Then earnestly in slow motion. In that iteration, Zack took interest in a few gestures. Deconstructed, they became part of his dance. Watching Chariot–dramatic, atonal, asymmetrical– you’d never know the source material. But from the inside, that layer of context mattered.
Over the course of Chariot’s creation, I gained a fair bit of reverence for Zack and his work. He was confident and unabashed in his attention to detail. Costuming everyone in a different look, he put me in a vintage swimsuit, saying he needed to show off my legs. “I found your doppelganger,” he added, handing me book clippings of a turn-of-the-century prima ballerina. “But you have much better feet” (the wry smile again). He asked me to emulate her look for our show. “A high bun, like hers, and the winged eyeliner.” He’d thought of everything.
On the day of the performance, Zack handed out tiny capsules of perfume backstage, a different scent selected for each dancer. He told us to try to get a whiff of each member of the cast during the piece. Over a decade later, I still have that little bottle. Though I’ve since forgotten most of the steps, Chariot left its mark on me. From the experience, I learned that a process is a piece, an artwork, in and of itself.
Zack co-founded AMOC with composer Matthew Aucoin in 2017. The company brings interdisciplinary to a new level, blurring the line between who is a dancer, who is a choreographer, a musician, a director, a technician. In the company’s new show, Broken Theater, director Bobbi Jene Smith inverts the formula that crystallized for me while dancing in Chariot. In Chariot, the show-making process was, itself, a work of art. In Broken Theater, the work of art at hand was one large rendering of the show-making process—complete with both the characters that emerge from it, and the lives shaped inside (and outside) its walls.
Shortly into the show, we are hit with the scene of an audition. Seemingly, the audition is for the piece we are watching, and the woman exposed by a stark spotlight is Bobbi Jene, the one we all came to see. She’s auditioning for the role of Mother. Jonathan Fredrickson, in the role of the rehearsal director, feeds her prompts dryly. Jonathan asks her to hold her baby. Shake with her baby. Now shake differently. Try a different rhythm. Now fall with your baby. Now fall again. Each time, Bobbi responds, responds, responds. She holds her baby, which now exists in the negative space between breast and forearm, with ferocious care. No time passes between prompt and response. If you’ve been in an audition, you know the adrenaline rush, the hotness of lights, the speed of reaction that makes sense under pressure.
Ethan (Kogan, who attended the performance with me): She’s auditioning for her own play. We’re always auditioning for our own play…
Eve: Am I good enough–
Ethan: –to do this? To do what comes out of my head!
Eve: Imposter syndrome. She’s like… ‘can I be in Broken Theater?’
Ethan: ‘Is my art above me?’ Will she be evaluated as worthy of her own play… by these men who are disinterested and kinda making her turn around in a sexualized way?
Eve: I think dancers especially can relate to being in the studio and someone’s like—I don’t know, choose a verb. Someone’s like, ‘can you shake? Can you shake faster and slower at the same time?’
Ethan: Shake the top half but your bottom half—
Eve: –should wobble, and the top half should just, uh, flutter.
Ethan: More like a tremolo!
Eve: And we wanna see you dance, but don’t do it like a dancer.
Ethan: Maybe the tension is not that the people who give casting directions are insane or that it doesn’t work, maybe it’s that text and language simply don’t cohere with enacted—
Ethan gets cut off here, either by me or by the waiter at the sushi spot near La Mama. A broken thought. For Bobbi Jene, ideas begin, but while we’re hanging on the words, the moment vanishes. Smith uses the fourth wall like a prop, like furniture dragged on stage or off. “Let’s take five,” she says to the cast, followed swiftly by a shift in focus. “This seems like a good time to introduce our show.” She turns her gaze to us for the first time, and it’s shocking. I’m here? “I’m Bobbi.” She begins to talk us through what we’re watching, saying the piece is still in process, changing everyday. Just as we start to grasp it, Jonathan cuts her off, keeping time with the rehearsal schedule. A broken attempt. In the audience, we connect just briefly. We’re here! And the chord is cut. Now it feels more like they were talking to an audience than to us. Rehearsing for a future set of onlookers that may or may not ever manifest. But the distance only drew me in further. Who is really here right now, and where are we?
Eve: In regard to the baby, and the quote-on-quote Mother and Father role… this feels cheesy but I’m just gonna say it so I can mull it over later. I think, in some ways… the piece, the art, is the baby.
Ethan: The art?
Eve: The art, the thing they’re creating. The director is the mother.
Ethan: That’s not cheesy.
Eve: The rehearsal assistant is the father. They have a… marriage of sorts. The brothers and sisters are the collaborators. You don’t have the piece without them.
Ethan: The family, yeah.
Eve: And Bobbi Jene at the center, auditioning to be the mother.
Ethan: She already is the mother.
Eve: She’s showing that baby to the city.
Broken Theater, though fragmented temporally, offers a multidimensional wholeness. At any given point, there is both action and sub-action, the foreground and the background. Smith leaves the stage, but reappears on the second floor, behind (and above) what previously felt like the back of the space. She paces beneath a sprawling bulletin board. Dimension added. An image of a director at work, while her company rehearses below. Julia Eichten, portraying the overworked production manager Judy, watches the scene from her desk on stage left. A door opens upstage center, revealing a fluorescent dressing room. We see a mirror and light pouring out. Mouna Soualem sits facing the mirror with her back to us and lights a cigarette. Extending our understanding of this character, the open door offers a glimpse of her life off-stage.
Ethan: Now look at this painting. Las Meninas. [Bobbi] mighta actually been thinking about this. Here, look—I forget most of it but—he was painting the royal princess, I think. Now look at him. So that’s Velázquez. He’s painting himself, painting an easel portrait of her, okay. But guess what? He’s not where you think he is… that’s a mirror!
Eve: Oh, shit.
Ethan: Because how could she be the subject of his portrait, she’s not even looking at him. How could he see her like that, how could he be painting her, without looking at her? She’s not even turned to him.
Eve: What’s going on in this mirror? And who’s in the doorway?
Ethan: This is the question. Who’s in the doorway, and who’s in here. Now, if you look in here, this is the King and Queen. They’re in the mirror, looking at Velázquez, painting their daughter. Or, um—
Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting) is known for its mind-bending dimensionality. The painter places himself on the canvas, standing just to the right of his easel. He’s looking not at his work, but seemingly at you, the viewer. A crew of characters appears to his left, namely, the Princess Margaret Theresa of Spain and her royal maidens. In the back of the space, the King and Queen are seen in what is believed to be a mirror, and their gaze is outward, at you. This puts you, potentially, in the shoes of the subject of Velázquez’s work. It remains unknown whether he is painting the royal couple, as seen reflected in the mirror behind him, or if he is painting the work at hand, Las Meninas itself. This painting, like the dance work on which I am writing, drops us in the midst of the art-making process. The onlookers, the subjects, and the artist at his easel, perhaps looking at the canvas we now see framed. In both renderings, though, we never get to see the finished product. What’s on the other side of the easel?
Next to Velázquez’s mirror, a man is poised in an open doorway, holding back a curtain. Like Mouna’s dressing room, light spills onto the canvas from here (and extends beyond it). Vanishing point: a phenomenon in two-dimensional art where converging parallel lines draw our gaze toward something ongoing, such that the image seems to extend forever. Whether coming or going, the man in the doorway stands at this point in Velázquez’s work. Broken Theater is three-dimensional, but the vanishing points are present. Here, though, they lie in the depth of the characters. They extend beyond the space, and, with time cracked open, seem to go on forever. Watching the AMOC ensemble, I felt my own multiplicity pulse. At once time-traveling to the days of Chariot and sitting transfixed at Broken Theater, I was both myself at 19 and myself at 31. Both trying to get a whiff of my friends on stage, Voleur De Roses mixing with my sweat, and sitting next to Ethan, in present day, my crutches leaning against a wall somewhere.