Performing in the Moment
By Barbejoy Ponzio
MAY 10, 1999:
Maybe you were there that time when darkness came so quick. And I reached again inside it and found everything that was hidden there. And I found you that time. Remember? --Bill Jeffers
It was just another sunny afternoon in downtown Austin, but this particular afternoon was different for the arts community. It was also a day of remembering and giving respect. In a small open courtyard next to Capitol City Playhouse, a memorial service was being held for Michel Jaroschy. As the community was paying homage to the theatre's founder and managing artistic director, Diana Prechter gazed into the distance, and her eyes found Heloise Gold and Emily Vorspan among the mourners. At that moment in time, she realized it had been too long since she had seen them. She thought, "I will be damned if the next time I see them is at one of our memorial services." Weeks later, she, Gold, Vorspan, and their old friend and former colleague Deborah Hay met for lunch. For Prechter, it was as if someone had placed them in a bell jar, existing in a space of intuitive connection and a history of memory that hadn't vanished in the 12 years since they performed together in the Deborah Hay Dance Company. The lunch was in January of 1997, and the following year the foursome reunited again, this time onstage, to perform Genius of the Heart, an original piece they had first performed in 1980.
During the 1980s in Austin, Deborah Hay and her Company were considered pioneers in performance art. Hay was a Judsonite, a member of the radical and legendary Judson Dance Theatre Group that helped ignite the postmodern dance rebellion in New York City in the Sixties -- a rebellion against the artificiality of ballet and modern dance's use of stylized movements and its dependency on the rhythm of the accompanying music. They said no to virtuosity and psychological expression. To the Judsonites, movement was more important than the mover. They believed that dancing should be composed of tasks or activities taken from everyday life, detached from their usual context.
Gold was also a New York expatriate, having indulged in experimental theatre with Robert Wilson during the 1970s. One of Gold's avant-garde highlights was the 1972 piece The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, a 12-hour performance -- 8pm to 8am -- that concentrated on altering time and space and sense of reality. One act, which took place at three in the morning, included fifteen people dressed in nightgowns and fifteen beds onstage. Their task was to lie down in bed, get up, light a lantern, walk around the stage, put the lantern by their bed, and get back into bed. A task that would normally take five minutes had to be stretched out to 55 minutes.
Hay and Gold brought their New York experiences with them to Austin, which, of course, created a remarkable change in the dance community here. Hay's notoriety and her renowned large-group workshops of the early 1980s for trained and non-trained dancers created an influx of new blood to the Austin performance community.
Among them was Diana Prechter. Trained in classical ballet and modern technique, Prechter traveled from Louisiana State University to Austin to write her thesis on Hay. Prechter took Hay's workshop and immediately fell in love with its content. The workshop affirmed Prechter's long-term love affair with dance and its relationship with Taoism. After completing her thesis, "The Nature of Conscious Movement and the Choreography of Deborah Hay," Prechter continued to dance with Hay's company until it was disbanded in 1985.
"What the hell are these people doing?" Mike Arnold, whose only knowledge of dance included Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson, asked himself while intently watching the culminating performance to one of Hay's five-month workshops. He never saw anything like it and wasn't quite sure if he even did like it. But he too became hooked by the conceptual challenge of Hay's workshop. It was that challenge which prompted him to take the workshop for a second year in 1985, at which time Hay disbanded her company. After 1985, dancing became a large part of Arnold's life. Hay invited him to perform a duet with her in New York. At the same time, he would dance in Gold's annual productions and continued doing so until 1992. Since then, he has worked with Jump Start Performance Company in San Antonio and Sally Jacques in Austin. When Gold started talking about a new production titled Light/Day Dark/Night, it really appealed to him. "The intimacy of what we are doing is so nice after doing large shows. It's lighter than what I have done in a while and it has some in humor in it, which I love." The production reunites these dancers with such a long history together. I asked the dancers about working together again.
Heloise Gold: The concept is a journey through a full day. It starts very early morning and ends the next day. There is an early morning duet between Diana and Mike and a later morning duet between Diana and I. There is also midday piece, a resting dance, a happy hour, a dream dance, and a dusk dance. Bill Jeffers opens the performance by reading his poetry. Bill is a very important part of this. He will be reading his poems throughout the performance, which sectionalize the dances and bring them to life from another angle. His poems are literal descriptions of the quality of the light. The dances are more abstract in some ways.
Bill is part of our history. Bill also worked with Deborah and the Company. He traveled with us. He read poetry and played some music, percussion, for pieces. He hasn't performed in a while, so he was happy to have a chance to write some poetry and perform again.
Diana Prechter: I think he kicks it off really well because he starts out with, "Close your eyes and imagine." I like that a lot. I think that is the participatory involvement that we hope to kindle with the audience.
Gold: It immediately invites the audience to actually do something. All of the pieces are truly collaborative. There is not only one choreographer; there are three choreographers, which is unusual. We each have a duet. The duets were created by the people dancing the duet. The third person sat out and played director. Each of us got a chance to tell the dancers what to do and what we liked. Mike and Diana improvised together. Then I would watch them and help form it into a piece. There are three trios. The trios were really fun to create, because we kept putting our voices in. We would work together and say what we liked. We are very nice to each other, so we always try what anyone says. There is a wonderful compatibility when we throw out stuff; it is always in agreement somehow. "Yeah let's do that" or "No, you are right, let's not do that." Or when one person talks really strongly -- "No I don't want to do that" -- the others say, "Fine." The process of this piece has been very rewarding and very rich because of our relationship to each other.
Mike Arnold: All of us are involved in this work. All of our humanity is here, but it is not focused on the difficulties of life. They may be shown, but they are not the focus. Just that alone makes it lighter work for me. The pieces I did with Jump Start were specifically focused upon AIDS and gays in our culture. At that time, six years ago, there was no hope. It was dark work. There are moments of light and hope in Sally's work, but it tends to focus more on the difficulties we have in our lives, culturally and politically.
Two of the pieces in this work are quite humorous pieces. One takes place during midday; it is about work and traffic. A friend of mine loaned me headhunter horns from New Guinea. The headhunters use the horns when they come back from their forays to announce their return. I thought, "What a great metaphor, headhunter horns and traffic." Another piece, Happy Hour, is really a straightforward dance piece. It is very accessible and funny. It is happy hour. It is so nice to be doing work like this again. To know that people are going to watch this, laugh, and feel good. I am tired of beating people up.
Arnold: It is interesting coming back. Diana and I never really worked together, just kind of overlapped in a couple of Deborah Hay's projects. But Heloise and I worked so much together. Taking that break and coming back is really interesting, I think. There is a great deal that is the same, but in being apart, we have also learned things from our different experiences. So we come back into it slightly different and also older. That age really enriches things -- all the problems of getting older, the creaks and crackles once we start moving around. Also, we carry in our bodies so much more experience. It has really been rich in that regard, especially with Heloise. I really have enjoyed it.
Gold: Lifts have changed. In the early days, we use to do wild dances with lifts. We use to do quirky stuff. I use to lift him. I was determined back then that we were not going to do it the same old way. So, I would put him on my back and carry him around, which created a lot of great stirs. We cross-dressed in one. I was the man and he was the woman, except he was lifting me as this big woman. Now the lifts are much more subtle. I don't lift him. Now, we call them "low lifts" or "or little lifts." It is really fun.
Arnold: I think most dancers have a certain style and vocabulary. We all work to try to expand that and get out of it to create new work. But we carry that style and vocabulary in our body. I think that is there, but I think this work is very different than what we have done in the past. Between Heloise and I, it is more dance space than the last few shows we did together. They were more dance theatre, [with] a lot of theatrical aspects. This has some but not as much. There is some of the old and a lot of the new.
Prechter: I think what is new is going deeper into a process for us. The process includes a lot of improvisational dancing together, then talking about it, improvising again, then sitting down to talk about that one. The dancing is very relational, focusing on the relationship between the two people who are in the improvisation together. The "meditation of the dance" is to try to hold on to who you are and be able to bring that out under the intense pressure of being onstage in front of an audience. We try not to have our veneer of how good this looks. I feel like we are more focused in this work in using each other uniquely. It is a supportive way to do it, because we can do it in relationship to each other.
Gold: The process itself was just that: It was the reliance on each other to create the work. It is very different than working with a choreographer's idea what one should or shouldn't do, how it should be and that is it. Even with Deborah, when the work as a dancer is so rich, so expansive, and so interesting and full, it is still her vision, not ours.
Prechter: We never developed Deborah's work improvisationally. We were told what to do in Deborah's work. This work is developed improvisationally in relationship to each other.
Prechter: We really have a language.
Gold: There is so much understanding. When we stand in a place together with our bodies doing nothing, there is an incredible dialogue going on between us.
Prechter: We have a director that comes in and works on one of the pieces with us. The director keeps saying, "What do you feel about this? What is going on in the inner place of what you feel?" I think what we try to do is cover some ground between those two. We like the physicality; we like the "what do you feel." But we like to blur the distinctions between them a little bit. We think the physicality of minimalism ought to count as much as the biggest kicks and leaps you can do. We try to take the "what do you feel" from acting and put it into "let me feel something and be allowed to change what I feel." "Let me reflect to the audience how I feel at this moment." It might be different than yesterday. We have to be reflective about how we feel about it.
Gold: Or otherwise it is just empty.
Arnold: It is much easier to walk out and say, "Okay, I know who I am. I know who I am going to be for this hour, and that is what I am giving the audience." Whereas, if I go out with what am I feeling now -- "What is this energy back here that I am sensing?" -- my veneer breaks down. That thing that I walked out with to give the audience is shattered. I am real and vulnerable -- very vulnerable and very alive. It is so alive and so exciting that it is worth the fear. It is worth the vulnerability.
Gold: Where are we not being vulnerable and where are we not being all those things that Mike was saying? -- which is really the goal.
Prechter: You know, that is really how we work all the time. We are only interested in revealing who we are to the audience and having original creative movement that comes out of improvisation which authentically reflects the relationship. For us, it is really an exciting process right now. We are saying: "Where are our faces available to the audience? Where are they not? What are we going to do about that? Where has our movement become habitual and not open to our feeling at the moment? Where has the improvisation stopped living in reflecting the relationship between us and become just choreography?"
Dancers are really products of their age. Hay performed during the Sixties, a tumultuous decade of revolt and redefinition in the dance world. This was a time when Eastern philosophies such as Taoism, Tai Chi, and Zen Buddhism became the imperative of the choreographic process: The process is more important than the product. Creating the dance is the dance. Gold, Prechter, and Arnold inherited Hay's traditions, but they also dug deep into their own minds and bodies to create their own artistic process. Part of that process entails making the dance more accessible, which has now become a buzz word in the arts world. With funds and audiences both shrinking, performers want and need the viewer to understand, to be included, and to enjoy what they see. And what better way than to include choreography that enhances everyday activities with the transformational power of humor? Gold, Prechter, and Arnold develop their work improvisationally, but they go beyond even that. They also work hard at creating movement in relationship to each other and, at the same time, try to remain true to how they are feeling at that moment. All this is done while the audience is gazing at them, which only enhances their vulnerability and helps them to reflect more of themselves. Don't they have enough on their minds already? Sounds like a mighty full plate to me. How are they going to pull this off?
Well, I had such a blast watching Light/Day Dark/Night, that I never once stopped to ponder my earlier queries. Gold, Prechter, and Arnold's performance constantly reflected the aliveness in their relationship. It was truly a collaborative experience full of humor, cleverness, and accessibility. Jeffers eloquently read his poetry, which wittily tells light's story: "Once I wished myself to be the light. And I was." Light journeys throughone long day, resting every so often to let us sneak a peek at the everyday activities that go on during that time: waking, driving, working, partying, sleeping, and dreaming.
Prechter and Arnold awakened to Gold's portrayal of an early bird announcing the approaching daylight. It was so authentic that I asked my seat mate if that was a recording or her. Driving in traffic turned into a hysterical bumper car ride with the threesome somehow maneuvering their mini-scooters while in a supine position and frantically blowing head-hunter horns. The Happy Hour dance was definitely "very accessible and very funny." The trio's relational improvisation was infectious; I wanted to gulp a martini, put on my pink party dress, and join them. The dance may have been choreographed, but the frolicking movements definitely spoke to "moving in the moment." These performers were having so much fun together. And the Dream dance was absolutely a bona fide expression of cleverness authenticating real-life dreams: Gold's obsession with a tiger; Arnold's bicycling tour; Prechter's self-indulgent fixation about her friend Cynthia. These short flicks grew distorted, discombobulated, and the pictures collided with one another. It was so quick and spontaneous. As each frame changed, the action got more bizarre and outrageous, a true reflection of their reliance on each other to create the piece. Each dream tried to dominate the other. In the end, poor Cynthia won over the tiger and the bicycle tour, but in doing so, she got deconstructed to Freesia? Hilarious and very clever! Gold, Prechter, and Arnold's dancing is based in a wonderful reliance on each other. Alive and exciting, the improvisation never stopped living among this talented threesome.
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