Big Dance Theatre Goes to the Movies; Maria Hassabi Cuts a Rug

Big Dance Theater’s productions sometimes mingle several unlikely texts, with bewitching results. Plan-B(2004) mixed Nixon’s Oval office tapes, the diary of 19th-century “wild child” Kaspar Hauser, reinterpretations of Korean movie music, and archival tapes of Kabuki. The Other Here (2007) combined two Okinawan short stories with text from a life insurance salesmen’s conference. Comme Toujours Here I Stand, the new work by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar that’s playing at the Kitchen, takes its name from the title song of Agnès Varda’s 1962 New Wave film, Cléo from 5 to 7, and its only source is the movie’s script. But “only” doesn’t mean that the two haven’t thoroughly dissected it, interpolating their ideas about what went on during the shooting process and possible allusions to their own rehearsals.

Joanne Howard’s scenery-on-wheels—including three large screens and a metal staircase on a platform—and Parson and Lazar’s impeccable sense of timing offer simulacra of cinematic cuts and dissolves. The “stage manager” (Aaron Rosenblum), an assistant (Chris Wendelken), Jeff Larson (who creates some of the stunning video material on the spot), and Ryutaro Mishima (who mans lights and mics, in addition to playing an important role) hustle smoothly around, spinning the screens to form rooms or surfaces for video projections, decorating them with marvelous fabrics that mimic period wallpaper, handling props. But they’re wearing dark suits, shirts, and ties and often slip into the action—even dancing backup in a deliciously tacky number that features Cléo (Molly Hickok) and the other terrific principal actor-dancers (who also take turns moving the ingenious set, in addition to playing several roles each).

Big Dance Theater's 'Comme Toujours Here I Stand'
Courtesy the Kitchen
Big Dance Theater's 'Comme Toujours Here I Stand'
Maria Hassabi's "Solo"
Courtesy P.S. 122
Maria Hassabi's "Solo"

Details

Big Dance Theater
The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street
212-255-5793
October 1 through 4, 7 through 10

Maria Hassabi
Performance Space 122
September 29 through October 4

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The scenario details the actions of Cléo, a self-preoccupied pop singer, in time-slots that add up to two hours. She has had a biopsy for possible breast cancer and is waiting for the results. A fortune-teller’s oblique prediction causes her to fear the worst. Like studio costume and makeup crews, all five men in the cast rush in to help her into her first fantastic outfit (dazzling costumes by Claudia Stephen). Her housekeeper (Tymberly Canale) attempts to calm her; she argues with her songwriter (Chris Giarmo); is rebuffed by her lover, “José” (Kourtney Rutherford); acts the diva in rehearsal; buys a ridiculous hat; meets her friend (Rutherford), who’s modeling nude in an art studio; and walks the streets of Paris (this last mostly conveyed by the postcards of the city that Larson holds up to his camera while the audience is entering the theater, by Hickok’s pacing, and by the sounds of high heels striking pavement).

The scenes flow, pause, get interrupted by someone calling “break” or chimes signaling “cut” or “ready on the set,” re-wind, and flow on—sometimes at high speed. The choreography isn’t limited to the big dance sequence; it informs the whole production. Giarmo tries to find a coat that suits the star, and when he holds one up or lays it out on the floor, she swims or charges into it in a single move. He appears with a red boa around his neck, and by the time he and Hickok have finished whirling, it’s around her neck. Motifs are repeated and transformed. Rutherford (as “herself”) keeps making and receiving phone calls on the set—sweet-talking her jealous boyfriend, telling him the news, fighting with him, and eventually making up; once when the phone rings, Cléo is sure it’s José, but it’s clear after a few seconds Rutherford’s guy is the one on the line.

There are no end of strange and wonderful images and moments. Hickok and Giarmo harmonize in a sweet song, but Hickok is reclining, using Canale, who’s lying on the floor, as the arm of a couch. She sings with one arm curved over her head, and Canale gently strokes her hand. Then Hickok breaks the spell by saying brusquely, “It’s not worth the trouble.” After which, she turns and kisses Canale on the mouth. Canale looks very surprised. The absurd white fur hat that Cléo buys on an impulse and eventually casts aside is delivered in a white fur box that doubles as a drum, and its top later becomes a fan that creates wind to blow Rutherford and Hickok’s hair as they stroll along.

The one thing that’s difficult for Lazar, Parson, and Hickok to show in little over an hour is Cléo’s gradual realization that she isn’t the center of the universe, that there are others to look at and think about, that gazing at autumn trees can be nurturing and calming. We see Hickok being vain, temperamental, and dependant on love and admiration. We see her worry about the biopsy results and fear possible death, and we sympathize (this is the early 1960s, after all). But even when she begins to sob, she grabs a mic, so everyone will know how much she suffers.

The ending of Comme Toujours Here I Stand, then, has to convey in just a few minutes what the long film sequence of Colette Marchand walking the Paris streets developed—Cléo’s subtly shifting perspective on herself. Fortunately, that last scene is beautiful. All the scenery and props have disappeared, and Joe Levasseur pulls his lighting down so that Hickok, wearing a long, full black dress, sits on the floor and leans against the black back wall, framed in the arching top half of a moon of light. Mishima enters and sits not far from her; he’s wearing an unbuttoned army uniform jacket. Quietly and unaffectedly, the two performers speak the lines from the movie’s script. The man is about to fight in the war in Algiers. He too faces death, but he sits at ease, his gaze taking in everything around him. He calls her attention to the sound of water, to the maple trees. Her own fear slips away.

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