Academic journal article TheatreForum

Crossfading Dramaturgy: Big Dance Theater's Alan Smithee Directed This Play

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Crossfading Dramaturgy: Big Dance Theater's Alan Smithee Directed This Play

Article excerpt

There's a moment in Big Dance Theater's Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature which cracks every audience wide open. After nearly an hour of bizarre, postdramatic vaudeville, after a strange lateral romp through three films, the cast suddenly "breaks" and starts chatting-nattering about their day. A cocktail-party hum fills the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the dancer-actors, til now so ruthlessly precise, converge messily on a table.

Tymberly Canale - who has been most closely identified in the piece with Lara from Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago-takes a seat at the most downstage chair, turned almost fully away from us. The buzz rises around her, and then we hear her murmur, her voice magnified by a microphone hidden in her hair. "I don't know what they're talking about. I don't know what they're talking about, I honestly don't. I try to step at the same time with the same foot, but sometimes it's hard..."

This murmured monologue sounds like the confession of the performer herself; more, it sounds like a confession we're making ourselves, lost in the welter of sources and influences. It's also a startling use of the amplified voice, a way of bringing us "close" to the actor. It's as though we are hearing her through headphones. There's an almost vertiginous rush as our empathy races toward her. She keeps muttering, looking concerned. "Somebody's talking. I don't know who's talking. You're all gonna think I'm...I'm not paying any attention." The moment is uncanny: the dance-play, so manipulative, knows just when the audience's focus was itself wandering, lulled by the sense/nonsense blurring so common in avant-garde work. The difference between a Big Dance Theater event and work by someone like, say, Richard Foreman is that Big Dance will send you into a trance state-and then shake its finger at you and wink. [Photo 1]

Big Dance consists of a fluid gang of performers and designers clustered around the married codirectors, choreographer-director Annie-B Parson and actor-director Paul Lazar. The company is-as it says on the bottle - a hybrid group, ignoring customary divides between dance and theatre. It is not, though, "dance theatre" as we know it from Pina Bausch - image-driven movement that uses text as texture. Rather here the emphasis lands squarely on the "theatre" in a touchingly conservative way: the company has staged two Euripides plays, Alkestis (in an Anne Carson version called Supernatural Wife) and Orestes, not to mention premieres by Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, and Sibyl Kempson. The show before Smithee was an adaptation of Chekhov's short story "The Man in a Case." Indeed, one of the reasons Parson is excited about the more poetically, less narratively structured Alan Smithee is because, she says in an interview, "This feels like the piece I've been waiting to make for centuries. It makes me feel everything else I've done is like...[she hunts for a sufficiently olden-timey genre]...story ballet."

Alan Smithee is the latest in the Big Dance Theater oeuvre, a refinement on the liquid storytelling the company has been doing for decades. It is also a charming example of their Heraclitan strategy-namely, they "go down to go up," or work 'light' to say heavy things. It's also a remarkably clear formal statement, an extension and complication of existing ideas about the cinema on stage. Present, physical bodies take on the qualities of projected images. For instance, the show begins and ends with a "wipe," in which the entire company walks across the stage in a line, passing over the space just like 70's editing scroll, [Photo 2] and a huge projection screen made of vertical blinds allows video designer Jeff Larson to create "close-ups" of actors standing only feet away from us. This latter strategy is, of course, used all the time these days, capitalizing on an audience's helplessness around video- our eyes are drawn helplessly to it. Yet here set designer Joanne Howard has given Big Dance a way to (literally) crack the blinds, and-once the panels are turned-we see living bodies crossfading through the slices of a massively projected face. …

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