Storyboard Dances

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Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.

Night Falls by Julie Hébert. Co-Directed by Deborah Slater and Julie Hébert. Choreographed by Deborah Slater

ODC Theatre, October 30, 2011

When Lee Strasberg, long associated with “psychological” acting in its most extreme expression, traveled to the U.S.S.R in 1933, he became fascinated by the work of the Russian icon of physical Theatre, Vsevolod Meyerhold. According to some accounts, Meyerhold admitted to Strasberg that his actors had no understanding of the psychological dimension of their work, that they moved as they were directed to, based on Meyerhold’s system of Biomechanics. Nonetheless, Strasberg was gripped by the powerful physical theatricality he saw in Meyerhold’s work, more so than he had been by what he saw at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, in fact.  The two director/teachers agreed that if their methods could be integrated by a single group of actors, something completely new could be achieved.

I thought of this story after seeing the marvelous Night Falls,  a collaboration between playwright Julie Hébert, choreographer Deborah Slater and an ensemble that included two master actor/movers, Joan Schirle and Bob Ernst as well as the luminous  and subtle actor, Patty Silver, two gifted, younger physically accomplished actors, Stephen Buescher and Jessica Ferris and the compelling singer-dancer Patricia Jiron.Bob Ernst, foreground; Jessica Ferris and Joan Schirle, background, in "Night Falls"

Hébert’s eloquent and understated script follows one woman, Peregrine – a  respected filmmaker who is neither rich nor famous, about to turn 60 – through a sleepless night as she agonizes over the unwritten speech she must give the next day at an awards ceremony honoring her work. Peregrine is embodied prismatically by Schirle as what might be called the ego, persona, or that part of Peregrine who lives in the material world; Silver as the “old” woman inside her;  and Ferris as the puella – that part of her psyche which is a perennially adolescent girl.  Ernst appears as Peregrine’s ex-brother-in-law, summoned by a cell-phone call to the wrong number.

The narrative is wonderfully specific, filled with surprising and quirky details that ground what could, in less skillful hands, become heady and abstract. Hébert, Slater and company clearly understand that it’s the concrete particulars that allow a story to become universal.  This rigor exists in both the narrative, with its knowing allusions to filmmaking, both avant-garde and commercial and to the dilemma of the aging artist, as well as  the movement vocabulary shared by the ensemble, pulsing dynamically through the piece.

The masterful integration of the narrative and psychological realms with the physical, gestural life of the piece makes Night Falls a rare and wonderful event.  That’s what brought Meyerhold and Strasberg to mind.  I experienced this sense of super-dense reality most powerfully in the interplay between Schirle and Ernst.  Late in the piece, for example, these two wounded and well-defended survivors of failed loves, meeting by “mistake,” begin to see each other – and themselves – differently. What could be rendered as either a conventional “scene” or as a “poetic” movement duet becomes a stunning, layered, complex exploration of the necessity for and the impossibility of authentic connection. I’d need to see the piece a few times in order to begin to adequately describe what these two brilliant actors do, how they manage to play together in so many different modes at the same time. Their voices and words do one thing, their faces another, their gestures a third. Rather than illustrating what’s being said, the physical interaction arises from a different, parallel dimension so that we experience not only what is but what isn’t, what might be, what is longed for and what is feared. I’ve only experienced such expressive abundance a handful of times in all my years of seeing theatre.

It’s essential to point out that what was being expressed – the pain, frustration, fear, disappointment, wonder and acceptance of mortality; the courageous insistence on knowing self and other – was, to this audience member, vitally important.  That the questions raised were equally urgent to all concerned – actors, writer, director, design team  – was never in doubt. All the collaborators were burning with a shared passion and the result was incandescent.

My only regret is that I saw the piece at the end of its brief run and won’t be able to return several more times and bring everyone I love and care about.  Night Falls proves, once again, that live performance is life-changing. I know this intuitively, subjectively, in my cells.  My entire adult life has been dedicated to making theatre with similar aspirations, so I don’t feel that my praise is in any way exaggerated. The fact the piece had a run of only a few performances, that no venue seems to exist locally that could give work like this a real home for six or eight weeks exposes the shameful state of support for the arts in this city, this state and this entire nation. The fact that such work is being made anyway, is a testament to the very spirit the work so movingly expresses.