Decoy Among the Swans
Here is a post written aboard US Air flight 27 to Philadelphia on the sunny day after the premiere. The dancers acquitted themselves beautifully. There is something that has happened with ALL the dances on the program which is ineffable, not easy to describe. In dress rehearsal there is a full house and plenty of excitement but also a bank of photographers clicking in unison at all the photogenic moments, a video registration happening and the knowledge that the proceedings could be stopped for technical reasons. The next day there’s a shift when all that tangential business falls away and it is just the performers meeting the audience directly. All the performers seem to feel more, to experience whatever drama is in their roles more deeply and sharply, to dance with more certainty and fullness. I was so impressed with some of the stars of the ballet, how they really are actors and actresses, creating theater magic. They struck me as being as good as one could possibly be at that kind of performing. The closest I can come to articulating the difference in performance when they are really on is that the dance is completely REAL, the stage space is all there is, the emotional nuances of the experience of inhabiting the dance are as visible as weather passing over the mind and body of the dancer. My favorite all time quote is from James Waring: “The best dancers are translucent, you can see right through them.” I would take that a notch further, saying the best dancers are translucent and in being so make the stage a true alternate reality for themselves and the viewer.
I don’t know whether the Paris Opera Ballet dancers receive particular training in how to BE. I know they watch each other closely and coach each other and have the opportunity to work with great choreographers: William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, Saburo Teshigawara, Trisha Brown. There is a culture of excellence regarding the veracity of performing.
Perhaps these thoughts about quality of performance only arise as noteworthy when so much performing post-Judson was an attempt to have a person behaving as themselves, “naturally”. In fact, some of the most stunning recent work has gone way beyond this playful or earnest dancers-in-space stance into a much more emotionally colored place. Maybe I am just registering the significance of this full circle return to embracing the virtuosity of “theatrical” dancing.
The Glacial Decoy dancers were no exception in upping their performing ante. They were amplified, glorified, more everything – more subtle, more slicing, more beautiful. The critic in me who watched all the rehearsals also knows that the space was not perfect, that some details could be cleaner but in all the premiere performance was a great one.
On the program, “Pavane”, a ménage a trois set to Ravel and choreographed by Michel Kelemenis is followed by Decoy with its elegant black and white staging by Rauschenberg, then an older Prejlocaj work “Trait d’Union” which is a duet for two men with much violent coupling and tension. This is the most psychologically intense piece on the evening and the Parisian audience, though not a young one primarily, go for it great guns. After the intermission there is “Liebeslieder Waltzes”, a 55 minute Balanchine ballet which is a recreation of a ballroom with 4 couples in fancy dress executing their most graceful, genteel and sumptuous dancing to the delightful sound of 4 excellent singers in full voice with a great Brahms score. In its entirety the program was like having a very fine, varied meal.
At first the logic of the combination of things was over my head. Brigitte LeFevre, director of the ballet, told me she thought of it as just great dancing. I enjoy the parallels – the first trio set in the Foyer and the final dance full of fancy partnering as well but in traditional guise. An all women’s piece, an all men’s piece. A cooler less obvious psychology and a more exposed one. It does hang together.
Afterward a reception was held in the Foyer de la Danse. This is the opulently decorated studio directly behind the stage where dancers prepare just before going onstage and where in the last century gentlemen subscribers to the Opera would come to greet the ballerinas. Grand chandeliers and lyrically painted scenes are reflected in the gold edged mirrors. Tables at either side were laid with lovely assortments of delicate hors d’oeuvres and sweets and champagne. People from all levels of the production came to celebrate, from the people who move sets about to the star dancers and directors of the Opera to friends and supporters. In the fist dance of the set designer had created a (possibly photographic?) reproduction of the Foyer de la Danse so that from the Opera house you could see rendered what is actually behind the upstage scrim. It was a lovely set. And it was a lovely symmetry that we ended the evening IN that space. They opened up all the backstage scrims so that from the Foyer we could see directly out to the magnificent red and gold theatre. It was as sumptuous as one can imagine.
Earlier in the day when I recognized that it would be the last time we were assembled in a studio as a group I pointed it out and Trisha offered some thoughts about the meaning of seeing Decoy now – that people had told her after the dress rehearsal that although it is a 20 year old piece it looks completely contemporary. And she mused on how politics have changed in the time since the piece was made. That Decoy grew out of another time when movement had political implications. Still, she urged the dancers to take their time, to make the audience wonder.
I had no final words for the dancers except thank you. We all knew that it had been a labor of body, mind and HEART, what more was there to say?
I wrote earlier about having a celebratory tea at Laduree after finishing learning the material of the quartet. Finally, we didn’t return as a group to Laduree, so I decided to buy an assortment of “macarrons” to offer to the dancers after the premiere. It was the fitting symbol of our good effort together to enjoy these sweets – light meringue with crushed almonds and a variety of luscious fillings – caramel, praline, rose, pistachio. Wouldn’t you know they had bought me a box of them as well, to take on the plane! And on the day when I had said “Do Less Feel More” and was so pleased with the slogan that I said we ought to have T-shirts printed up to remind us, they had had their ears open. They presented me with just such a shirt with the slogan on their front and all their names autographed on the back. I told them I would wear it until it’s so full of holes it’s not even a t-shirt anymore.
Coming Next: The Finish
It’s early Sunday morning, the square outside the hotel has gradually filled this week with tents and small cabins, all housing a festive Christmas fair. Now empty, the sparrows make some of the only noise, that and the-ever-at-work street cleaners. Today’s sky is surprisingly blue with fast moving clouds. An inviting day.
Now as I begin to think of wrapping up this project, I realize that the recent writing has all been an attempt to just get the process documented with little room for detour. The last 2 weeks have had such intensity and in a way uncertainty (will it work finally?) about them, there has been little room to reflect on personalities, quirks and sidelights.
One compelling part of having Trisha present is that she contributes stories about what was in her mind as she made the piece and
tells her images for the movement: Bee sting, Throwing a wet towel, Fixing your waist band, Japanese fisherman, Polar bear. Our ³monkey arms² have gone
from easily hanging to overly floppy and Trisha looks for an image that will tame them. So she talks about taking class at the Cunningham studio in the
¹60s with Carolyn Brown who she describes as a profound teacher. Judson dancers at the time were investigating what was and wasn¹t ³natural² with a
vengeance. Carolyn admonished the overly-relaxed dancers to ³hold your arms naturally, like this² while demonstrating a held, curved arm position, hands
pointing downward. Trisha says that she and her Judson colleagues wanted to use a different kind of ³natural² way of moving, which led them to use
untrained performers. And that now she wants to see a natural way of using the arms - that is, when they don¹t have a specific task or gesture, they are
to be by the side, held gently and unobtrusively, 'neutral.'
Throwing a wet towel
Fixing your waist band
Trisha asks me in front of the others, "How was the duet made?" So I tell how we had our original phrase which is all of the quartet material,
which we spliced in different ways, creating moments of contact and spatial play. Also, Trisha would do what she called “throwing” movement - improvising a series of movements once, perhaps ten seconds worth at a time - and Nina and I would individually memorize whatever we had caught from her and then set it in relation to each other. You see moments which are nearly identical, many that bear a resemblance, and some moves that appear on just one dancer. These sections of movement from Trisha¹s improvisation were inserted into the main phrase and were called ³deals²(sic), the Swedish word for 'insert' Trisha says she has used that method of inserting material into a main phrase since then.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Now writing on the day of the “Generale” which is dress rehearsal. As audience pays for seats and it can be quite full, it really is the first performance. The press wait until the Premiere to come.
Trisha and her European manager Therese have been working out the details for Trisha’s planned creation of a trio for 3 “etoiles” next year. Glacial Decoy is ready to roll.
Yesterday Luc van Loon who is a head technical director and had worked closely and memorably with the TBDC in Brussels on the creation of the opera Orfeo, took us on a long promised tour of the bowels of the Opera as well as the roof. There really is a “lake”, a wide holding tank of water, under the building although it is mostly hidden from view. There’s one spot where if someone gives you a leg up you can pull yourself up to crane over a high wall and see below and illuminated area of maybe 3 foot deep water with really huge fish swimming lazily. Apparently the fish were slipped in when small by the firemen who have an office at the Opera and have been a presence 24/7 since the house opened in 1875 (the last Opera burned to the ground). Luc said they catch one to eat every so often.
Below the stage are 4 floors or so of mechanical rigging, giant flywheels of wood to make the raising and lowering of huge painted drops go smoothly. There are areas on the stage floor that can be easily opened for scenery or elevators to glide upwards, this apparently was remarkable foresight in a theater built in this era.
The closest looking thing to the lair of the Phantom of the Opera was the series of tunnels and Escher-like stairs around the area where they used to stable the horses of Opera subscribers. Erie.
At the top of the building we exited a door that we had been passing for weeks on the way to rehearsal to go out on the roof on, as it turns out, a perfect morning – clear and wonderfully sunny. With the exception of a few modern buildings, Paris is usually no more than 6 stories high so we had a commanding view in every direction. It is euphoric to be up there with the golden lyres gleaming and winged sculptures being their enobled selves and the round lyre encircled cupola rising still further behind us. The fact that our work is really finished made it all the more delicious. We traipsed down narrow stairways and back up, following roof lines to end out at wonderful promontories. Took some classic tourist photos, Eiffel Tower conveniently in the background.
Is the work really done? I think it had to stop is more like it. The steps were learned. The meeting places in space were fixed. They can move fully through all of it. But they get winded too soon – they are muscling much more of the action than they need to. The one who tends to grimace still does that a bit, the one who lapses in attention still does, the ones who tighten up and speed through still do. How fundamentally can you change someone’s ways of dancing, especially when they’ve been at it for decades?
I think we saw a softening and responsiveness through spine and torso without which Decoy would just not look like Decoy. I think we also saw some development in the ability to fall. I also think they understand that it is not an aesthetic of “going out” to the audience with any extra oomph but rather staying more simple, contrary as it may be to training.
Today my feelings are mixed. We worked extremely hard, hard enough to be physically sore and mentally drained. Even sick. And they look beautiful. But do they look beautiful in the way this work asks? A beauty of simplicity, of stripping away, of pure forces. I’m not so sure.
I will confess to considerable fear around the point of Diane’s return to the U.S. a week ago. She had brought such encyclopedic knowledge of the piece and such facility with transmitting it, I wondered how I could possible take back the mantle of responsibility. I also had a long list of things to correct from our final debriefing. In all my anxiety was sufficient that I found myself tossing and turning, running the dance in my sleep.
The first day at it (Day 19 of the process) I had already been sick with the pervasive Paris flu for a few days. I was foggy on putting the end of the piece together. It took too long to corner the details, the dancers got a bit grumpy. I looked at the video again and again for the needed cues. For a while there I felt truly stupid, unable to put it together. But we got a workable version and then worked it subsequently with Trisha increasing refinements later on. It’s one of those things where everyone has a different, interrelated part which combines to make a dynamic stage picture. Later the psychological tide turned and we did a big cleanup of the equidistant spacing which was a leap forward. Our rehearsal assistant Lionel, when encouraged to leap in and participate by Trisha, came through. And Trisha herself was quite vocal and opinionated (contrary to my expectation). So we functioned well as a team.
The second day we had a similar dynamic and did effective work “combing” sections of the piece. We got the outer duet in place which is the dance in and out of the wings minus the center dancers. It is tricky in and of itself with a vast sea of stage between two people dancing in unison. And I was able to give the center duet dancers spatial appointments that would keep their dancing from veering off stage left as it had been doing. The dance opens out and gets close more than we had been doing so that was clarified. All this in preparation for our first day on stage the following day.
My fever and nasty cough had been constant and debilitating enough that by Wednesday morning it was time to see a doctor. I ended up with one coming to the hotel which is a service run by the city hospital of Paris for a mere 35 Euros (a bit more than $40). Superb. Except the diagnosis was not: acute bronchitis/beginning pneumonia. I got antibiotics (which are no guaranteed cure as much pneumonia is viral). Once told, later that day at the theater Trisha ordered me to bed. Her dressing room is one of the plush ones reserved for the true stars and has a day bed and lovely heater and heavy velvet draperies. Suddenly banished from rehearsal after 4 weeks of almost nothing but, I was cut adrift but grateful and sank into a long intermittent afternoon of napping and coughing until 5 when the dancers went onstage for the first time.
I participated in the rehearsal, microphone in hand as we watched especially the effect of the very deep wings and less camouflaged entrances and exits than the company is used to. We took the decision on the spot to “cant” the three wings on both sides, creating a slight forced perspective which would allow more of the viewers at the side of the hall a better view. This meant that all the space went out of whack again as there was now more width at the front of the stage than the back! Trisha and Lionel worked with the dancers following that run.
We had also been dealing with a question regarding the length of time that the Rauschenberg images stay in place before shifting over stage left. In recent performance videos the duration is 7 seconds. On the DVD sent over from the US the duration is 9 seconds. Multiply that difference by hundreds of images and you have quite a difference in time length for the whole series. It was deemed too difficult to remake the entire DVD by lifting the images one by one off a hard disk. So we now unfortunately have fewer of Rauschenberg’s photographs and a somewhat statelier progression of images. But we are used to it; the timing works perfectly at the end for his “RR” railroad sign signature photo to come up during the bows.
The next day I came in just in time for the stage run which would be in costume this time. Somehow there was a lot of tension. One real workhorse dancer really messed up her cues, making the very easy mistake of doing cues from the quartet in the duet and vice versa. Others were punching out their movement so subtlety went out the window. It seemed we were in rough water.
I went upstairs to rehearsal for a while afterward (we’d said one hour might be OK) and worked for a bit helping make corrections. There was grumpiness at how rehearsal was being structured; it seemed they didn’t feel it was so very useful. It’s not clear exactly what the issue was. One dancer was very upset about some personal life issue and was told she could leave by Lionel. Then I overdid it a bit which aggravated Trisha who sent me home (obviously for my own good). All in all not a good picture.
Coming in today, minus fever and with the sense that if I was mostly soft voice and not much physical demonstration that I could be useful, I was quite clear about something: the newfound idea of the dancers as being the ones who were pregnant with the dance, that we were midwiving them and had to back off completely in our desire for perfection in small things. We had to let them do it and have a sense of empowerment in the doing.
I told them that I knew they were fed up with being given more information each time someone new came into the process. Trisha had worked with them on movement which was no doubt important but likely felt to them like “OH here’s a third take on all this”. I said that the image of the dance as a big mountain to climb that they’d had when we first watched the tape was good to remember now because they are on top of the mountain. They’ve made the climb. We people on the sides may have been asking these small changes in search of a more perfect perfection but they are where they need to be. I said that the two things that read above all are the equidistant space of the quartet which includes the accuracy of the entrances and exits so there is no way to get around needing to be completely precise with those. But that the other thing seen above all is the individual dancer’s sense of ease with the movement and pleasure in the doing which is what makes all the fine detail readable – the dancer is present, inhabiting and appreciating the unfolding of the dance and its interactions which is what allows viewers to really take it in. I said we need to balance the wish for having all the details just so with a need to feel that the whole really is DANCEABLE, and danceable in an enjoyable way. We went into our next runs with those thoughts in mind. And they outdid themselves.
We saw an onstage run from the first duet that would have made quite an OK performance. And the run of the second cast was quite respectable too; infinitely better than the day before. Everyone was relieved. And pleased. And it felt like we’d finally made it.
We made a decision as a group to limit our further work to runs of the piece and critique/notes directly from the run. I gave extensive notes from after the excellent onstage run but all was in good humor and we finished early so all got to go home for the weekend knowing their hardest work is done, they are essentially ready for the performances which begin in earnest on Tuesday, as “dress rehearsal” is often a sold out affair.
This watershed is really the moment of feeling the efforts of the last 5 weeks almost complete. There is no more big question mark hanging over my head – will I really be able to do the job, to communicate this work effectively? Will they be able to dance it beautifully? In both cases the answer seems to be yes. So this weekend I am resting up to kick this illness with a much lighter heart and a sense of excitement rather than stress at the upcoming premiere.
Diane returns to the US tomorrow so we have a debriefing today, outlining what further is to be done. It's clear that Trisha doesn't keep in mind all the details of each of her works (how could she?). That means more of the responsibility for having it just right is on me than I anticipated. That was scary when the realization dawned. But the piece was looking not so very far from where we want it in yesterday's rehearsal. It is AMAZING how far we have come in 4 weeks!!!!
Trisha was present at one day of rehearsal and came away pleased at how the duet in particular has been brought to life. It’s a funny thing about teaching off a role that someone made through their own improvisation. You could imagine that each time it’s taught to the next person something is lost. Unless the role is allowed to change, to be reshaped by whoever does it, it would be hard to maintain a feeling of “rightness” and liveliness for the performer. So now I am the horse’s mouth and taught the role I made knowing my own physical impetuses and rhythms pretty clearly. I think that freshens the picture.
Next a.m. I wrote Di a letter which was to clear the air after some lingering discomfort ifrom the last 2 weeks. Here’s the deal - I perceive her as a REAL (and gifted) rehearsal director, very practiced in getting a piece taught and tweaked just so. I’m happy to do the role but really am learning as I go and am kind of uncomfortable not to be "there" already. Despite having made a great deal of work over time and teaching my own material, I find that my global awareness of all roles and the ability to manipulate the stage picture in Glacial Decoy is something that really needs developing. Di was gracious and supportive to me but I sort of wish I could have just accepted where I was (much less expert than her) without embarrassment. It would have been simpler.
We talked about that same kind of thing in the dancers. That making a big deal about having a hard time with something just slows everything down. Some of them are really efficient - no extra psychological mumbo jumbo. And I see how simple that makes it just to work. Steep learning curve once again.
I have just reread the first five blog entries and think they sound ridiculously starry eyed. Habit doesn’t die so easily. Although in many ways the dancers are looking great, as they run the whole piece or grow tired they revert to punching out shapes rather than falling into them. Some of them get sloppy in a way that makes them look jazzy or classical, anything but straightforward and simple. Corrections already given many times are forgotten. You start to wonder how much influence you can really have...I think my vision keeps flipping back and forth between a very optimistic view and its oppposite.
I also didn’t really communicate how exhausting it all was at the beginning. I didn’t want to climb any stairs for days my legs were so tired and sore. I spent lots of time in the bathtub and I know others did too. Now either I’ve gotten stronger or I’m pacing myself better. Or just have less dancing to do as I am not running everything with them anymore.
An interesting point came up – that physically the notion of not giving anything extra to the movement is a little scary for these dancers. They may feel that without any extra emphasis the movement won’t look like anything, when actually the elegance is in the stripping away. The bare bones glory of a unison falling moment. The corollary for that in terms of presence is that if we don’t go out to the audience with our facial expression, we might be just blank, nobody. And Diane and I agreed that there’s a great transparency that we’re looking for which is not at all postured. It's a generous exposure. This might also be scary. But it makes the work be inhabited in just the right way, as a glorious complex task executed by thinking, feeling dancers, a long ride from beginning to end.
We’re on the verge of being able to run the entire piece. Next I’ll teach the very end, another small bit and the bows which are wonderfully choreographed. We get on the stage for the first time after 2 more rehearsal days!
Rauschenberg’s set and Trisha’s eye
I am starting to feel like Hemingway who said he couldn’t write about Paris while in Paris. He wrote “A Moveable Feast”, a journal of his Paris life, back in the U.S. We are so in the midst of the process that gaining the distance to write accurately needs time. So here is a diversion:
Contents of My Little Orange Notebook (in order):
Notes on the Opera building: “lyres of Orpheus, Eagles of State, Janus Heads wreathed in curls and scowls”, etc.
Festival d’Automne performances list. Missed Saburo Teshigawara, reputed to be spectacular performer and later watched a tape of his work for POB, called “AIR”, limpid, lovely, striking visual surround which he creates too.
Didn’t know William Yang was performing in Festival d’Automne, had dovetailed with him in the Fringe Festival performances and met up with him in the hotel. Because of his interest in language across cultures I mailed him the Billy Collins poem “Idiomatic”. (below)
Opera performances list – saw Ariadne auf Naxos, question marks for Balanchine/Robbins program, Ivan the Terrible which has been rehearsing in studios near us with 50 dancers and a with big Prokofiev score is a must see.
List of people to send cards to, restaurants, places to go, phone numbers
What I saw from the train en route to Amsterdam last weekend - piled up sugar beets, evenly spaced bare trees on a perfectly flat horizon, sheep in a field surrounded by water filled ditches, the sturdy squat architecture of Dutch farm buildings, small everyday things you don’t think about unless they are special to you, having not seen them in some time
Notes on toys in Printemps for nieces
Corrections for the dancers, notes on rehearsal planning
English slang to teach Frank in POB office, one phrase a day “I’m bushed! Go jump in a lake, oh my gosh”
More addresses, phone numbers including some for good body workers in Paris from Martha Moore, more corrections for the dancers
The warm up sequence we have repeated virtually without change for the last week, a stripped down version of 9 of Masunaga Sensei’s Meridians stretches plus 3 elemental getting upright actions from developmental movement and T’ai Chi
Random notes on the dancing: “quality of one long sweep, continuum, through line…mind attends to body’s experience…respect richness of everyday actions…corrections – how do we hold them, many awarenesses….awareness of when things feel “off”- ungrounded, tight, wound up, punchy…finding right effort …most basic elements of our approach to physicality: weight, breath, alignment, articulation of parts whether separate or together.”
“Moments when one things takes you into another into another…Changing TEXTURE of your body so you’re liquid, solid, gas (Diane's revelatory contribution)…Don’t kill the movement by thinking too hard…the only things that needs to be big is the rides, down up and out, big is easy. Ride=promenade (a velo, a cheval, a le corps?), traverser ( to ride across),
DO LESS FEEL MORE, slowness, stillness= space for attention, like passing a rock, don’t usually pay attention to it…finally turn it over, find lots of life going on
Idiomatic by Billy Collins
It is a big question to pose so early in the morning
or “in the light woven by birds”
as the Estonians say,
but still I must ask what is my place in life?
my “seat on the invisible train”,
as they say in Hungary.
I mean I am just sitting here
in a lawn chair listening to a thrush,
“the little entertainer of the woods”,
as the Swiss call him,
while out there in the world
mobs of people are rushing over bridges
in and out of cities?
Vegetables grow heavy in their fields,
clouds fly across the “face of the earth”
as we call it in English,
and sometimes rockets lift off in the distance –
and I mean that quite literally,
“from the top of the table” as the Portuguese have it,
real rockets rising from the horizon,
or “the big line if you’re an Australian,
leaving behind rich gowns of exhaust smoke,
long, smooth trajectories,
and always the ocean below,
“the water machine” as the South Sea islanders put it –
everything takes place right on schedule,
“by the clock of the devil”,
as our grandparents were fond of saying.
And still here I sit with my shirt off,
the dog at my side, daydreaming –
“juggling balls of cotton”, as they like to say in France.