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).
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.
As with all of Parson and Lazar’s rich works, writing this has made me want to hurry over to the Kitchen and see it again.
The sight of a Persian carpet sets off little eruptions in the brain: Cleopatra having herself carried onto Caesar’s ship rolled up in one, exquisitely drawn Persian miniatures (so at odds with the present-day images of Iran in newspapers and books), Victorian parlors. I never thought to see such a rug used as equipment for a workout—no, for an ordeal.
Maria Hassabi begins Solo, the first half of her new “dance diptych,” lying on the floor of P.S.122’s small ground-floor theater, a rug drawn over her as far as her waist, like a blanket—except that it’s about 8 x 10 and heavy. Its scarlet surface bears symmetrical designs traced in blue-green, cream, peach, and black. We have plenty of time to ponder this artificial garden, because Hassabi is in place as we enter and remains motionless for a long time, while we listen to James Lo’s score. It sounds just like the traffic outside on 9th Street, augmented by what could be feet pounding down the corridor overheard, doors slamming, things falling over.
We also view Hassabi in the context of where she is. The room accommodates a relatively small audience. The cement floor is pale gray. The dark gray walls bear signs of past and present functions: pipes, an elevator, a non-functioning door, covered-up windows, a fuse box, a bank of heaters, a flat sheet of metal with one corner broken off.
When Hassabi finally slides out from under the carpet and flips onto her stomach to sprawl across it, she stays there a long time too. We can peruse her lithe body in its flesh-colored leotard and pants, her slim bare arms, her long-toed feet, her black pigtail. Like previous pieces of Hassabi’s, Solo is part installation, part dance (although there are no dance steps per se in it). The rug becomes a heavy weight, a tent, a prop, a platform—altering in relation to her body. But because she is a component of this work, we read into it her desires, and the strength and endurance they involve stir up whispers of drama.
She rolls up the rug, sits beside it for several moments and then arches back over it. Her torso is twisted and, from the front row, her head is invisible. Her arms are spread, and you can watch the stretched muscles surrounding her armpits. She’s breathing harder. When, still arched back, she slowly crooks a knee and lifts her foot off the floor, her leg quivers. Then she rolls over and rests, looking like a drowning woman draped across a floating log.
Almost every “picture” she creates is achieved with difficulty or is difficult to maintain. Hassabi’s timing varies (thinking back on it, I wonder if her changes of action and design became gradually faster). She wrestles the carpet on end and stands beside it, her arm around it, then, after a few seconds, lets it go with a thud. She holds it horizontal for almost as long as she can bear to. She stands wrapped in it, its underside out, so that only the top of her head protrudes from the pyramid it forms. At one point, she lies down, so torqued that one arm seems not to belong to her. At least once, Joe Levasseur cools and dims the lights and then slowly restores a warmer glow.
Finally, Hassabi seems to feel she has accomplished—almost—what she set out to do. She goes to the back wall and, facing it, fixes her hair. Then she bundles up the rug and stands on it, adjusting her clothing and gazes behind her, turning her body as far as she can without losing her balance. Now for one of the hardest, short-term tasks—fortunately soon over: She gathers up the rug and, bent back under its weight, walks to a side wall, throws it down, and sits calmly beside it, looking over her shoulder at the sealed-off, handle-less door.
Gazing at this exquisitely designed living sculpture, you also feel your own body straining with Hassabi, and in the slow friction between these two views, mysterious emotions ignite.
From November 12 through 15, at P.S. 122, Hassabi will alternate with Hristoula Harakas in SoloShow.