Big Dance Theater Moves the Words Off the Page
“We like them because they don’t fit into one box or category,” said Amy Kolling Russell, Carolina Performing Arts’ director of programming, of Big Dance Theater. She didn’t mention, in this mild understatement, that there may not be a box of any kind big enough to hold these protean artists, whose latest work, 17c, is a CPA co-commission. It will have its world premiere in Memorial Hall on November 9th and 10th, before appearing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is another of its co-commissioners.
17c, astonishingly, grows out of the famous 17th century diary of Englishman Samuel Pepys, who from 1660-1669 recorded both the minutiae and the major events of his life and times. We can read about where he went with whom, what he saw (including theater and dance), what he ate; his work, his health, his wealth, his wife and his extra-curricular adventures, taking in by the way the workings of the British Navy, major religious and political conflicts, war, plague and the Great Fire of London. What we can’t read about in this fascinating verbal selfie are the women around him. We glimpse them, certainly, through Pepys’ eyes, but we do not hear their voices, or indeed, perceive them as humans independent of Pepys’ associations with them.
In 17c, Big Dance has a few questions for Mr. Pepys about his behavior with women, some of which would be abhorred today—or admired by those still not admitting the radical proposition that women are people.
Big Dance Theater was founded in 1991 by Annie-B Parson, her husband Paul Lazar, and Molly Hickok, which makes it a mature company in an always-experimental artistic field. Parson (with experience from ballet to Butoh) choreographs; Lazar (whose experimental theater credits include much work with The Wooster Group) directs and acts; Hickok (multiple Bessie Award winner for her Big Dance work, and a screen actor) performs, in the works that evolve collaboratively into a rich brew of dance, theater, music, text and scenic design. But, as Parson asserts to every interviewer, “dance is the sacred object.” Or, as Hickok has put it, “we usually start with everything that’s not the words.” This makes Big Dance quite different from many contemporary dance theater companies, for whom the verbal component often dominates, reducing dance to an illustrative role and diminishing its poetics.
The company has been distinguished from the beginning by its dedication to the high craft of artmaking, and by its interest in literary source materials. But how do they get from first-rate literature (Flaubert, for instance, or Chekov) to dance theater? It is not a matter of mere transliteration. Through their artistic alchemy, they transmute the literary form into a theatrical one, although without destroying the original substance—instead of making lead into gold, they make gold into more gold. They use parts of the texts in performance, but Big Dance goes deep, moving under the surface of the words, into the soft substance shelled around by the words—and into the matters left unmentioned by the words, even while thoroughly interrogating the text.
In addition to turning a gimlet eye on the many passages of casual power and thoughtless sexism in Pepys’ diary, Big Dance looks at the ensuing centuries of commentary on his every word, and draws on a contemporaneous work, The Convent of Pleasure, by one of the few female intellectuals of the era, Margaret Cavendish. Putting these verbal sources on collision courses with each other guarantees the insight-generating crashes that are such a notable feature of Big Dance work.
The friction of ideas, (Big Dance are very thoughtful artmakers), rubbing together in close quarters results in a fueling heat, but the light for insight comes from the bodies and their relationships with other bodies. It is a wonderful paradox. The dance is prime, but the dance is only one component of a complex stage work—yet without the dancing we, the audience, would not experience what Parson calls “kinesthetic empathy,” that completely non-verbal phenomenon that leads us to real human sympathy with others, whether or not we agree with their ideas or approve of their behaviors.
17c also fascinates because Pepys diary-keeping seems startlingly similar to the sort of unfiltered self-reporting that many of us engage in regularly, on Facebook or other social media platforms. Our major life events, our random observations, our domestic trials and our tribulations at work, our travels, our broken hearts and broken legs, our social philosophies and politics, and most particularly, our meals, are all shared, often with alarming indiscretion, supplying information to our friends and ammunition to our enemies, while we make our lives more “real” to ourselves by recording them. We are very like Pepys in this incessant recording, and like him in our own failures to question our baseline assumptions about our places in the world. During his lifetime, Pepys kept the volumes of his diary on the “only me” privacy setting, but he made sure they would be publicly available (as he understood public, meaning educated men) in perpetuity, along with his library, in a “Biblioteca Pepysiana.”
This Biblioteca Pepysiana has been housed for nearly 400 years at Magdalene College, Cambridge, (which Pepys had attended), which brings us back around to the role of the university in preserving and generating intellectual culture. One aspect of the social role of the university is very like the role of an artistic entity such as Big Dance Theater. The university must preserve, disseminate and increase the hoard of human knowledge, but it must also explore different ways of understanding that knowledge, and grapple with its meaning in the present. In commissioning probing performance works such as 17c, Carolina Performing Arts demonstrates that it takes part in the core intellectual work of the university: to question received information, refine understanding and advance to a fresh synthesis, in the contra-dance between past and present. Big Dance Theater is an ideal partner in this everlasting human effort to see our world a little more clearly.
Kate Dobbs Ariail is a Durham writer, specializing in dance, theater, and the visual arts.