Last autumn, the fearless folks at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City let Big Dance Theater into their basement to stage Sybil Kempson’s Ich, Kürbisgeist. Performed in an invented language based on German (with bits, according to the company’s website, of English, Swedish, and Sid Caesar), the piece was inspired, says Kempson, by “redneck Austrians” described to her by a German friend, who “told me that what [the characters are] doing is how people behave there. The language carries part of the landscape, and the behavior of the people who live in it. In Africa you can tell where someone’s from by the way they talk and the way they dance; they say it comes from the land.”
Voice critic Alexis Soloski, reviewing the original production, described the language as sounding “a lot like English with Latinate words removed and vowels addled.” Here’s a taste of the dialect:
All will take one way or the odder
Take or be taken heaven ond hell
Set as much of it raght during KürbisGeistNachten
Widde dde hjælp of dde Army of dde Lord of Jesus in Heaven wi shall faght it . . .
The show’s look, not to mention its sound and smell, is similarly addled. Suzanne Bocanegra’s Bessie-nominated costumes, with their elaborate ceremonial headgear and messy aprons, and Joanne Howard’s wraparound environment set a scene in which a clutch of celebrants hurl pumpkins—as many as 100 a night—through the air, smashing them into a pulpy mess. There’s dancing, all right, including a demented wedding.
But most of the show, which opens on Halloween at New York Live Arts after its Hurricane Sandy–interrupted debut, is a creepy narrative progression that the show’s director (and cast member) Paul Lazar describes as follows: “At the beginning, the world of the kürbis-people is intact, and at the end, their world is in shambles. Their behavior, or misbehavior, makes it go from intact to in shambles, which is a hell of a lot like our world.” Lazar, who co-directs Big Dance’s polyglot projects with choreographer Annie-B Parson, explains that for the kürbis-people, trashing their environment and dancing are both natural. “In our culture, trashing the environment comes as second nature, but dancing, no.”
Kempson has been developing Ich, Kürbisgeist since 2006, workshopping it at Dixon Place and then shelving it while she made another piece on the theme of sentient potatoes, won a slew of awards, and earned an MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College. “I’m always messing around with language,” she says. “This is the worst-behaved I’ve ever been. I can’t believe anyone’s actually doing this piece.”
Kempson and the show’s original producer, Brian Rogers, met two decades ago at Bennington College, where Rogers studied theater and she ultimately headed for the visual art department. “I learned a lot about how to keep the creative impulse active all the way through a process,” she said during a phone interview from a retreat in the Poconos, speaking from her own pumpkin patch. “They taught me the most about playwriting, even though I wasn’t writing plays and they weren’t teaching playwriting.”
Transferring the intimate piece from the cave-like Chocolate Factory basement to the shiny precincts of Chelsea’s New York Live Arts poses its own challenges. In the Queens cellar, only 36 people at a time were able to bear witness, sitting on swivel chairs in the middle while the action transpired against all four walls and in alcoves under the stairs. Compounding the scarcity of seats was Hurricane Sandy, which struck soon after Ich, Kürbisgeist‘s opening night. While the theater canceled just one show, audiences were hampered by flooded subways, and forced to arrive on foot or by bicycle, private car, or cab.
“It’s durable enough that we can move it,” Lazar says of the production. “The audience will enter through [Live Arts’] back stairs, and we’ll dress that passageway in a way that transitions people from New York 2013 to Kürbisworld.”
Carla Peterson, artistic director of New York Live Arts, is taking the hit of reducing capacity from 200 to just 80 swivel chairs per show. But she’s also scheduled a run of 12 performances, up from Live Arts’ usual three or four.
“She’s bringing it back because it shouldn’t be missed,” says Lazar proudly. “It’s closer to a theater-length run than a dance run; we’ve been the beneficiary and the victim of existing on this cusp between dance and theater. We have access to more venues, but we’ve been perpetually just outside various categories that it would be good to be inside of.”
This category confusion was especially evident two years ago when Big Dance Theater offered Supernatural Wife, its version of Euripides’s play Alcestis, translated by Anne Carson, at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, and the New York Times sent a dance critic. The ensemble, founded in 1991, has won both Obie and Bessie awards, further testifying to its boundary-blurring accomplishments.
Ich, Kürbisgeist runs through November 9, with late-night shows available on the weekends. Cynthia Hopkins, a longtime associate of Big Dance Theater, replaces injured co-founder Molly Hickok in this run. “Cyndy is a gift from on high,” says Lazar. “Music, movement, and acting, all done at the highest possible level, is what defines us, and that’s what Cyndy is.
“Sybil and I have joked that the show caused Sandy to happen,” Lazar continues. “The piece says you can only fuck with nature so long before the Pumpkin God will do its destruction upon you. Either we caused it, or the thing we were talking about came to pass, or both.”