Reading a novel is usually a linear journey; we come upon scenes, move on. In her Book Dances, Melissa Briggs intensifies this illusion by setting four scenes from novels in four different spaces within the 19th-century First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn. The little dances play simultaneously, four times each, while small groups of spectators are cycled through the chapel, the narthex, the undercroft, and the Frances White Room. Book Dances isn’t really a site-specific piece—that is, one in which the work was inspired by the site. The church houses scenes the way a book houses pages, and there’s a curious tension between what we see and what we imagine.
Briggs doesn’t seem to care whether all the spectators for this engrossing evening—a co-presentation with BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange—are up on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Salinger’s Franny & Zooey, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. She provides no program notes and warns us that, in any case, the scenes she’s chosen may not be major ones in the novels. In all of them, two characters meet, by appointment or by chance—sometimes near a train station—in a public place that necessitates mannerly behavior, but where, gradually or suddenly, their private differences erupt into violent movement.
For the Salinger encounter, Leave Something Beautiful, a table and two chairs cue us to see the white-vaulted chapel as a café, where a well dressed man and woman (Colin Stillwell and Erin Owen), greet each other cordially, laugh extravagantly, dance a little to the recorded voice of Sarah Vaughan. The woman (Franny) has a book hidden in her purse, symbolic, perhaps, of aspirations her companion would rather she didn’t have. As the two become increasingly riled up, she drops her head onto the table; he empties her purse savagely. Chairs and table are banged around, tipped over.
The adjoining dark red parlor with its fireplace, fine rug, and burning candles (augmented by Timothy Cryan’s subtle lighting effects), suggests an ambiance appropriate to Tolstoy, while sounds of a train (hinting at Anna Karenina’s eventual suicide?) and breaking glass vie with Shostakovich piano music. In this scene, I, that girl with the red hands, a red purse is a bone of contention between Ivy Baldwin, chill and haughty, and Molly Wilson, defiant, frightened. They waltz, but Baldwin, seated, forces Nelson’s head into her lap. When Wilson finally succeeds in rising, Baldwin tackles her, and in their long black gowns they crawl back and forth.
To see Salinas, 1912, we’re guided along a hall and down narrow stairs to the undercroft, the large, barren, low-ceilinged chamber standing in for Steinbeck’s saloon. Like the participants in all the scenes, the edgy man who arrives (Thad Wong) and the woman with the pistol in her pocket who awaits him (Toni Melaas) compose themselves and sit guardedly on chairs between confrontations. She smoothes her dress before vaulting up to stand on his lap and point her gun at his head.
Sound effects tell us that the narthex’s chilly passageway is a station platform. Briggs has refined the tension between the two Fountainhead characters in Armistice (Lawrence Cassella and Mindy Nelson) to simple, compressed acts. They sit on chairs side by side, and Nelson briefly lays her cheek against their clasped hands. He grasps her shoulders and she walks out of her coat; he grabs at her feet as she heads for the train and she steps out of her shoes.
All the characters merge curiously in the epilogue, as if wind were blowing pages from one book into another. Perhaps Briggs is thinking of the way fragments of what we read sometimes blur together.The piece’s four episodes blend reticent behavior and fevered physicality, but the choreography never obliterates the individuality of the characters who people these enigmatic, finely etched dramatic encounters