Ralph Lemon often seeks not to understand. He went to see Ingmar Bergman’s Hamlet at BAM, and instead of using translation headphones to follow the text, he listened to the cadences of the Swedish. And loved it. Keep this in mind at Lemon’s new Geography II: Tree, which opens October 24 at BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
Tree is the second installment of Lemon’s Geography Trilogy, a project he’s been working on since 1996 and plans to conclude in 2002. Each part has a theme and a continent. Part I, which toured the U.S. in 1997, tackled “race” and Africa; II, which premiered in New Haven, presented by Yale’s Repertory Theatre at the University Theater, meditates on “belief systems” and Asia; III, slated for a 2002 opening, will return “home” to North America.
Much of the project happens offstage. Eight months of workshops and rehearsals went into Tree, but Lemon spent two years traveling through Asia before that, “writing and taking pictures and reading and sleeping in the desert and getting sick and all this stuff the audience is never going to see in a dance work.”
Instead of “just finding dancers and bringing them back,” as he did for Part I, Lemon “really set this one up so I could have two years to spend in a culture, go to villages and meet people, and eat with them and talk, and not think art.” These experiences “altered me in a very deep way and have as much to do with how I’m thinking about moving now as working on an improvisation or a phrase.”
This month, Tree goes onstage at BAM’s Harvey Theater, and online at http://www.bam.org/asp/bam_frameset.asp. At the Margaret Bodell Gallery, 13 East 7th Street from October 24 to November 5, you can see Lemon’s travel sketches, photographs, and videos, and Geography I reappears between covers as Geography: art/race/exile, a selection of Lemon’s photographs, drawings, journal entries, and notes, due in November from Wesleyan University Press. “The dots are connected there,” he muses. “It’ll be a lovely critical-mass moment, a number of different components of this larger project.”
Lemon, 48, won’t divorce the stage as long as funders want performances, but he started challenging the traditional role of a choreographer in 1995, when he dissolved his postmodern dance company. “I’d gotten pretty good at seducing myself into believing I was trying something new. I needed to put myself in a situation where it would be a lot more difficult to pretend.”
He got some funding and packed his bags. He assembles a corps of dancers as he travels, and unlike the Ralph Lemon Company, whose members “always agreed with me,” the Geography ensemble “attacks me at every step. More than half the people I work with have no interest in moving like I move. They’re all masters at what they do, and they have fun imitating a gesture or an idea, but they make it so different, so foreign to my way of moving, that it becomes useful.” His work is very much collaborative. “A lot of my decision making came from watching the dancers in their environment doing what they do.” The earthquake and floods some of his performers experienced last summer inspired Lemon to explore Tree‘s theme, belief, in terms of what he prefers to call “natural occurrences.”
Back in the States, workshops could be frustrating. Lemon says that Guru Manoranjan Pradhan, a master Odissi dancer, “comes to this work with a form that is really sacred, that has thousands of years of history. Every gesture has a meaning—it’s not casual.” Lemon had to ask permission for every change: sharing the space with Pradhan’s dance; turning it upstage. “He’d say, ‘Well, OK, I have to think about it.’ He was a kind of wall that I had to talk to daily, and in the year we’ve known each other, via the respect we both have for what the other does, he’s really opened up his form to me in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a year ago.” On the other end of the scale, Wang Liliang and Li Wen Yi, two farmers (“they’re real farmers!”) from the rural Yunnan province of China, are up for anything. “The freedom and sense of space that they bring is worlds apart from the Odissi dancing.”
Tree attempts to have the same sort of challenging dialogue with its audience that Lemon and his dancers have with each other. At one point, three entirely different duets share the stage. “I was trying to pull attention and let an audience decide what they wanted to look at—not necessarily what’s more relevant.” The dancers argue with each other and tell stories in a variety of languages, sometimes translated into English. Lemon cites the influence of Balinese dance in shaping Tree, yet there is nary a Balinese dancer in sight. Rather, there’s a sequence taken from a video of Lemon and Beijing-based Wen Hui dancing what they remembered of a Balinese dance. “I didn’t dance African; I’m not dancing Odissi; I’m not dancing Balinese. I am, if anything, playing with an idea of memory.” Lemon, who originally trained as a painter in Minneapolis, also set up memory projects for his sketches, “to explore the idea of what we see, what we remember, what we choose to remember, what we make up, what we wish we had seen.
“Geography is a personal journey for me. I’m not making any big, political art statements,” he warns. Of the ancient traditions and modern elements that rub elbows in Tree, he says, “I represent the Western encroachment, and at least in this situation, we can talk about it and have fun.” Nevertheless, Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, a Côte d’Ivoirian returning from Geography I, hopes that Lemon’s personal journey will send a political message. “What’s interesting here is the great diversity that results in one thing,” he says in his native French. “People who are very different politically and culturally have succeeded in overcoming their boundaries, coming together, and creating something beautiful—a new language and a new culture. I hope this project inspires other people to come together.”
Bebe Miller, a longtime friend and collaborator, calls Lemon a “beacon” for “what happens beyond a company. He’s always asking, ‘What’s the risk here?’ ” Katherine Profeta, one of Geography‘s dramaturges, cites Lemon’s typical answer to an either/or question: “Both.”
But Miller points out the financial support—in large part from Yale—that makes dramaturgy possible. “What a difference it makes to have that kind of backing, all that collaborative support!” The question now is what difference it will make not to have all that support: Stan Wojewodski Jr., dean of the School of Drama and responsible for Yale’s commissioning and coproducing of Geography I and II, finishes his last term next year.
Lemon is not one to balk at obstacles. He reflects on his quest for ever greater artistic challenges with pleasure. “I feel like I’m free-falling, yet I’m not going to die. I’m thinking it might be possible to have an audience understand this experimental journey, not necessarily get it—I don’t get it—but to have an experience. I would like for them to be exhilarated by the questions I bring up. Every moment in Tree is a question. But,” he adds with a mysterious smile, “a good question.”