By Tom Sellar
By Emily Warner
By R.C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By R. C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Tom Sellar
Gertrude Stein was a woman of few words. She wrote few words that became many words words that twisted back on themselves, picking up words that came before them, and knitting new fabrics of words. If shed known about DNA early in the 20th century, when she was writing The Making of Americans, she might have thought genetically about words in terms of families, and how a handful of words variously combined could generate new offsprings of meaning.
Juliette Mapp takes Steins title for the fine, wise, and sensitive piece she premiered at Dance Theater Workshop. Steins evocation of the three generations of her immigrant family is read. Mapp speaks of her own Albanian grandparents who settled in Gary, Indiana, where her unmarried, childless aunts and uncles live in the same apartment building. Because another family, the one that spawned the Jackson Five, burst out of Gary, the first music heard during the performance of The Making of Americanschannels the eighth of 10 Jackson offspring: Michael and his Beat It.
Mapp has divided her marvelous cast into The Americans (herself, Levi Gonzalez, and Kayvon Pourazar); The Immigrants (Anna Sperber and Vicky Shick); and The Babysitters (Vanessa Anspaugh, Aretha Aoki, and Molly Lieberdancers who happen to be babysitters for Mapps son). Despite the classifications, the performers play no such narrowly defined roles in the piece. Instead, Mapps choreography, with the assistance of Dan Kaufmans score and John Jesuruns projected videos, creates the kind of rhythms that animate Steins spare words. You hear the performers reading portions of the text in unison and watch them perform together the same, slow, considered gestures. You note how individual voice timbres and idiosyncratic performance of movements resonate with the ways in which Stein gives different shades of meaning to the same repeated words.
If you let your gaze travel around the stage as dancers crawl on all fours in various directions, pausing to shiver their entire bodies, you can see that they dont do anything identically. And when the three Americans escalate the shuddering, until theyre yelling and thrashing on the floor, you can watch that quivering movement yield individual fits (Jackson-induced, rock-music frenzy meets childbirth?).
It is hard living with the tempers we are born with, says Stein. The temperament of Mapps The Making of Americans is as gentle, warm, and precise as Shicks intermittent reading of Steins words (and Steins own recorded voiceheard at the endis light and calm). Immigrants adjust to new customs, enlarge their circle to include others (as Mapp has had to make babysitters a part of her family). There are striking phrases about relating to others: . . . someone being a whole one to me. . . and everyone is sometimes a whole one.
Mapp has aligned her choreography with Steins simplicity. Often, performers stand in groups, slowly and carefully moving their arms or bending their bodies, assuming everyday stances like hands-on-hips. They look as if theyre semaphoring remembered gestures or concentrating on new ones. Theres something strangely lovely about these group litanies, sometimes delivered in counterpoint to those of other groups. Two songs recorded by the Carter family have the same plainness and attachment to repetition as the movements. But the performers can be mildly playful with their bodies too, wriggling and twisting like kids, especially after the women return in flowered dresses akin to the one Mapp says her grandmother started to wear, after she emerged from mourning for her husband.
About halfway through The Making of Americans, Jesuruns video projects a rehearsal of the piece on one half of the backclothfocusing primarily on the dancers faces, as they swim in and out of the frames. Theres no soundtrack, and passages are separated by whiteouts. Near the end of the piece, the people in the film appear on stage in the same rehearsal attire, creating another image of repetition; now we see clearly gestures that were formerly newborn and tentative.
Later, photos of Gary fill the whole space. Until 1953, Mapp tells us, the Indiana town was one of the worlds biggest steel producers. In its gradual downslide over the next decades, its population declined and the number of people living below the poverty line increased, along with the number of homicides. The performers dance in front of images of empty streets, a once-important derelict building, and architectural patterns divided into Rorschach-blot symmetry, with black shades rising or descending to swallow them. Trains that look like toys pass back and forth on elevated tracks. For one whole passage, the dancers move with bent backs, never straightening up.
The words Mapp chooses from Stein also tell of strengthespecially the strength of those women coming from the old country, who bore so many children and lost so many (Despair can never fill them. . .or must not if they are to soldier on). And if death is present as a subject, so is the burgeoning of a family in a new land.
It is difficult to convey how delicately, yet without sentimentality, Mapp has woven these several strands together: Steins intensely thoughtful wordplay about families and lives; the story of Mapps own family, which now includes a generation beyond herself; the history of a town where her grandparents settled; and dancing that refers to all of themin ways that only dancing canmingle to form a beautiful, resonant work.