I often write about performances I see, but, having gone on hiatus from performing for close to a plural number of years, the notion of writing about a work I danced in simply never came up. That is, until this past weekend, when I resumed the stage in the work Keller, created by choreographer Courtney Giannone and presented by Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, CA. Today is Monday. I am stuck at home with bruises leftover from rehearsals, a stuffy nose from the dust that filtered the dank yet intimate black box theater, and a mild-bad case of the post-show blues. So, I thought I might bide my newly freed time by writing a review of Keller, this time from the inside out.
The work was based on the life of Helen Keller, who, in case you’ve forgotten as I had, was an extraordinary genius. At 19 months old she emerged from a severe illness without the ability to see or hear, yet she went on to be able to speak and understand others by using her hand to read both larynx and lips. She became a suffragist, Socialist, novelist, lecturer, and teacher–more articulate and eloquent than most. But this dance was not mere diorama. Rather, Keller served as a point of entry into the world of communication without words: gesture, emotion, and physicality as language.
Evolving the piece from a solo into a work for 5 women, Giannone used 6 heavy, white, 18” x 18” plywood boxes as the set and landscape for the piece. They began edge-to-edge in a diagonal on stage left. I placed them like so an hour before the house opened, and as audience members entered the space, the boxes confronted them. They formed a barrier, or a path with jagged edges. In our three weeks of rehearsal the boxes had become darkened in spots, dirtied by our feet and our efforts. From backstage we could hear voices, laughter, and a playlist we knew our choreographer had been up late concocting to provide ambiance before and after the performance. Welcome to the single-artist show, where choreographer must also play DJ, rehearsal director, marketing and PR, development, propmaster, company manager, company class-giver, etc. It should be noted, too, that all resources of the community are harnessed; once one of the dancers let on knowing how to sew (the multi-talented Saori Kawashima), she was commissioned for floor-length skirts in burgundy and gray. Fortunately, lighting designer Megan Rinn was able to join our team in the project’s final week.
photo by Courtney Giannone
Cut to the pre-show speech–visit our website, turn off your cell phones. I was doing jumping jacks in the wing as quietly as I could in the darkness. Crouching low, I entered the warming stage on hands and knees, the upper middle of my back arching cautiously. During rehearsals, we had pondered a question posed by dancer Katy MacLellan: If deprived of key (forward-facing) senses, how would our relationship to our back body change? This prompted me to enter back-first. My solo introduced some of the work’s gestural vocabulary, derived from American Sign Language’s signs for “explain,” “foreign,” and “senseless.” One by one I grasped each wooden cube, hoisted it onto my shoulder, and navigated the space newly masked, feeling my way with tentacle-y legs and twisting spine before emerging from another formation of scattered cubes. These I began to use as hopscotch, stepping stones over a creek, a private game, jumping on two feet then one; later, nonsensically unpermitted to look down or to see, I restricted my movement to a more robotic walk across the obstacles, which, as fear mounted, became an inchworm’s crawl, heels and toes shifting minutely to transport me across my staggered, unstable white stage. This section was axiom-less, as Giannone had coached it; as soon as my character became used to one understanding of the space and her limitations, they changed, just as I imagined it might have gone for Keller at the outset of her challenging life.
Though my role was initially childlike, the work was not chronological. Instead, we five women united to represent Keller’s determination and strength. In the second section—known among the dancers as “Minimal”—jarring sounds disrupted our movements, neither guiding nor opposing them. The choreographer had imagined the experience of deafness as loud and dissonant, and it was recorded that Keller herself was extremely sensitive to the vibrations produced by movement in lieu of sound. Often moving in cannon, perhaps we took on the appearance of a sound wave; whipping from left to right and right to left, turning and shifting into a panoply of shapes. At the center, a single dancer, MacLellan, alternately complemented and opposed our movements, occasionally joining our thread. Again, for Keller, no axiom would exist without exception.
The work progressed to include solos by each of the dancers, with a duet, a trio, full company, and quartet sections in turn. Ashley Dragon’s acrobatics turned the boxes into navigable territory, where she inhabited the upside-down as readily as the right-side-up. Krystia Biebel performed without boxes, embracing her full potential and femininity. From where I watched in the wing, her silhouette against the vast white wall mesmerized as it took on extreme dimensions and proportions. Had Helen Keller ever dropped acid? Kawashima’s solo followed a quartet section, which from where I stood within the work continued the trend toward trippy (although Giannone described it as confrontational). I felt as if I were a single macula in Keller’s singular inner ear, as if each movement I made were crucial to some larger spectrum of balance. All but Kawashima disappeared into the wing. Her dancing was delicate, but also dripping and dense. She was in possession of a quiet ferociousness on stage that made me want to either pee or burst into laughter whenever I interacted with her. Fortunately, I managed to remain in character. In a final group section set to circus-worthy Philip Glass, we epically leapt from box to box, pushed them within inches of collision, and then practically tossed them to each other in double time (a math puzzle for me). Then, the piece closed with a solo performed by MacLellan. As the intact theme upon which much preceding material varied, this section was technically impressive and compositionally clear. MacLellan infused it with so much emotional drama that Martha Graham, who had known Keller and welcomed her into her own rehearsals, might have nodded approvingly in her grave.
It had been so long since I had performed that by the second performance, the realization it was happening again was like the shocking teen realization that having sex is not a one-time thing! Of course, no two performances are alike. This time, we used the music better; but, instead of arriving at certain phrases’ ends too early, we were often late. There were casualties of choreography from which the first night had not suffered. It didn’t help matters that two hours before the show I had slammed my finger in a car door. And, as the hour of the show sped away, I began to understand how much it sucked that it would never be repeated. I wanted another chance to get the musicality just right, to escape into the depth of my character once more. As audience members we celebrate an art form that is fleeting in its makeup. As performers, we mourn it.