In Charlotte Bydwell’s Woman of Leisure and Panic, a one-woman dance theater show performed as part of the Fringe Festival in NYC the last two weeks, timing was everything. From start to finish, this trifle of a production was able to cast a shadow larger than its cute sketch comedy setup. Bydwell’s production values, themes, and zany style continually reminded me of the movie Frances Ha, which also featured a struggling dancer caught between the conflicting demands of achieving her dream and getting by in post Great Recession America. On the early edge of being a millennial, I enjoyed both of these depictions of delayed adulthood without ever finding true catharsis. In a sense, I laughed at them more than I laughed with them; I had sympathy for their unemployment more than I was able to commiserate with their arrested development.
The driving force behind Bydwell’s Leisure and Panic was the strict adherence to the kind of panicked schedules that Xanax is meant to cure. Her prop iphone—cleverly dressed down and made of paper like her laptop, lending it just the right note of hilarity—is constantly buzzing with jarring alarms reminding her to workout, calls from family to work to auditions, and late night texts from a potential love interest. Doing her best to move from a nobody to a somebody by dramatically dissecting her life into categories like CREATE, WORK, and EXERCISE on a white board, keeping a questionable food diary that was the source for some of the most interesting movement phrases in the whole dance theatre piece, and waking up early after a sleepless night to attempt meditation only to fall asleep again and wake up late for an audition, Bydwell successfully showed the audience only fools attempt to organize such chaos.
Similarly, in Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s film, the lead character Frances tries to navigate the unsettling circumstances of being a poor, not yet emerging artist in a rich city; moving to a subletted couch as her finances dwindle, her relationship ends, and her roommate with a salaried “grown up” job opts for nicer digs. Her frazzled tale, shot in black and white, created a nostalgic visual effect seemingly meant to counterbalance the modern world that seems to be moving in double time, beyond the pace of development for most young adults. The deliberate lack of dance in both offerings seemed to indicate the troubling issues at hand are way beyond the confines of the studio.
But why is it so hard for these young woman to keep up? Both Frances Ha and Leisure and Panic contain pivotal scenes with artistic directors explaining the arena of unpaid labor available to these aspiring and not-so-young-anymore dancers. However, in Frances Ha, the director acknowledges that it is time for Frances to move on, explore the administrative side of the art. In Leisure and Panic, the unpaid work offered to Bydwell is presented as the best and possibly only option for her. This pains me and seems to be blight on the industry; while I did have to do my time as a low paid apprentice in a second company, it was brief and a clear stepping stone to unionized work. Needless to say, I was able to enter the work force before 2008. In a society of endless internships, the current existence of so much unpaid semi-professional dance work is confusing for everyone. While it allows more people to explore the career of dance, it can also obscure the vision for a viable professional path. It is hard to stay focused on the goal of a professional dance career when it is always one more unpaid job away.
Even worse, so much life is lost in the frantic shuffle.
When Bydwell makes the leap to go on a date with a cute guy she met on the train, it is a disaster from the outset. Her excessive inner dialogue makes it impossible to decide on what to eat or drink due to her dance class in the morning. No sooner has she made the decision to have the wine and protein then her cardio alarm goes off and she must fit in a few pull-ups hanging from the top of the bathroom stall. Sweating and out of breath, she returns to the table briefly before leaving again to field a call about an audition for an unpaid job the next day. She abandons her date only to get stuck on a re-routed train delaying her ability to get home for a good night of sleep. In one of the most clever and hilarious moments, she heel-toe-heel-toed her way in a semi-circle slowly around her set, complete with awkward pauses to mimic her lack of control over her own locomotion.
Likewise, Frances takes an impulsive trip to Paris, but only has time to stay for two days. She loses most of it in a jet-lagged slumber, sleeping hours past her alarm and leaving her just one evening before returning home. The unpaid dance job that caused her to cut her trip short, fires her upon her return. More than empathizing with her character, I felt frustrated she was so ill equipped to prioritize between the two—an experience of the world or another hour at a dead end rehearsal? Both characters seem to spend the majority of their time locked in the commute than at the destination…but are their respective journeys worth all the sacrifice along the way?
Martha Graham is famous for saying that if an individual needed to ask her whether or not to be a dancer the answer was no, simply for asking the question. I have always agreed with this harsh philosophy and decided to retire prematurely from Milwaukee Ballet Company around the time my own doubts surfaced. Both Leisure and Panic and Frances Ha have made me wonder about the validity of this clarifying maxim. Do our current social trends and economic realities make such conviction quaint and anachronistic?
In the end, Frances and Bydwell diverge. Frances makes the choice to take the more stable job offered her, as an arts administrator, and tries her hand at choreography on the side. The movie ends on a reluctantly triumphant note where her art finally begins to be equal to her romantic notion of it. Bydwell the character finished as she began, choosing to join her parents on a paid beach vacation only to have it interrupted by a call from the jilted love interest she accidentally stood up. She has not made it to adulthood yet, but merely found a brief respite inside the supportive familial cocoon. However, Bydwell the writer, choreographer, and director, has found a way to push forward in such limiting circumstances and present her own vision of the world. Like the hit series Girls, whose creator Lena Dunham explores many of these same coming-of-age-terribly-late snafus while being incredibly industrious herself, I look forward to Bydwell’s next episode as much as I anticipate a new film from Baumbach. She has the madcap talent to make us see anew an infantilizing and manic trend in our culture that had begun to feel passé.