Photo © 2009. Nannette Bertschy & Ann Moradian.

looking at the world and challenging our assumptions, definitions and creation of it through the lense of the body, movement, the arts and science.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reflections on Performance: James Thiérrée's "Au Revoir Parapluie" at Theatre Marigny, Paris - May 22, 2011

James Thiérrée and Kaori Ito. Photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez.

The first time I saw James Thiérrée's work a few years ago, I saw the production called "Bright Abyss," which left an unforgettable and thoroughly indescribable scent of a memory. I was and am still speechless. Not because of the performers' flying feats, which are truly impressive, but because of Thiérrée's ability as a director to measure, with elegance and precision, the balance between circus and physical poetry. It is a beautiful balance because it allows us to laugh and to be touched deeply, while setting the mind a-wander in an intangible realm that cannot be named or held. We cannot know what we have seen, we can only experience it. If we are lucky, it leaves a scent.

This season, I went to Thiérrée's production of "Au Revoir Parapluie" two times. I wasn't sure when I saw it the first time if Thiérrée had drifted off, out of his intangible universe into the realm of pure circus or not. I wanted to see if I had missed something. There are threads that bind a work together and give it coherence. Perhaps these threads are simply the trail left by the creator's mind at work in the material, his or her questions and intent. For me, as a viewer, these intangible threads matter. Where they are cut and abandoned, the work begins to fray, and our minds fray a bit along with them.

James Thiérrée and Kaori Ito. Photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez.

On first viewing, the array of effervescent vingnettes (each complete in itself and thoroughly satisfying) overwhelmed the overall work. I could only hold isolated bits in memory, and was left with no sense of the piece as a whole. I felt as if I had seen a great smattering of brilliant stars in the deep night sky, but was missing the one or two that would offer me the pleasure of believing I had discovered a constellation in their midst. I am glad I saw it again. In all of the rich and joyous phflash, twist and swish, the more subtle workings began to reveal themselves, exposing not only their threads, but also the beauty, mystery and tragedy of life, its chaos and contradictions, its returning themes, and momentary lunacies... its poetry.

Where I had feared Thiérrée had lost his Muse, I found instead that he was sharing her with us in the form of Maria Sendow who, like a metamorphing Virigil seems to guide Thiérrée's Dante-like character through the deep and buried layers of memory and mind. Her rich and powerful voice returned again and again, not only invoking her version of the story, but also bringing Thiérrée's character back to the thread he began with -- the story he silently sings us, in pure and accompanied mime, of his beloved and no longer present wife and child (or is it his dog?). We feel his yearning, his deep attachment, not to the actual beings they are, but to who he believes they were, how he believes they were, and what they meant to him. And can we ever really do better than that? Can we ever really know anyone, no matter how close or dear? Or do we really only ever know our perception of them?

Magnus Jakobsson, Kaori Ito, James Thiérrée and Satchie Noro.
Photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez.

I can't write about the work without mentioning how delightful the use of music was throughout, despite what was often (and perhaps intentionally) poor quality recordings. When Sendow rises out of a great black sea of fabric she passes a precious ball of nothing into Thiérrée's carefully cupped hands. When opened, we hear his first quiet listening, like a child hearing the ocean in a conch shell that very first, most wondrous time. When eaten, we hear it buried deep within his belly. Thiérrée has carried the poignancy and humor of his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin, forward and into our times, challenging the edges of his art and uncovering new possibility.

The performers are all excellent. The two female dancers, Kaori Ito and Satchie Noro, are both strange and beautiful -- hybrid creatures -- equally accomplished as dancers and acrobats, as comfortable upside down and sideways as traveling across the floor. Magnus Jakobsson, dressed in what looked to me like a variation on army fatigues, is full of life, humor and commitment in every moment (and I suspect on every night).

In Jakobsson's mimed 'magic act,' you can't help but love his confusion whenever anything 'real' turns up. He is so satisfied with the imaginary world he is creating for us, and so disturbed when confronted by the tangible, like the actual cards in the 'card trick' that suddenly pop up, or the fake bird that plops heavily to the ground rather than flying gracefully off, or when he is overwhelmed by scarves that, in his mind, shouldn't really be there. Nor should the scissors be, which -- because they are -- pierce his heart and set it bleeding. This theme, we could call it something like 'the maze of the mind,' is reflected throughout the work in the form of the mistaken, the remembered, the wished for that imprints and overwrites the 'real' in our experience.

I love the fact that Thiérrée reuses his sets and props from work to work. The rocking chair from his piece 'Raoul' reappears to dance again with Thierrée in their graceful duet of loops and suspensions. The see-saw like frame ladder that rolls on giant wheels I am sure I first saw in "Bright Abyss." I know I've seen the grass and pond before too, though I don't recall which piece it was in...

Foreground James Thiérrée and Magnus Jakobsson, background Kaori Ito, Maria Sendow and Satchie Noro. Photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez.

And on the subject of the grass -- tall dry stuff that swishes with the perfect sound of sabers as Thiérrée and Jakobsson duel -- I found myself lost here in the beauty of Thiérrée's 'juggling act' with one bundle of this grass. I found it the most beautiful moment of dance in the entire work. It is simply that. Juggling a single bunch of tall, dry, wheat colored grass. But done in such a way, becoming such pure expression of human movement, grace and feeling, that it becomes that thing that has no name and leaves its scent. It is done simply and sincerely and rings true in a way that imprints itself deeply in visceral memory.

The work is so rich and so full, and there is so much I am not telling you about -- like how dreamlike (and how lifelike because of that) the work is. Like how painfully touching it is when Thiérrée recognizes in what is now a very long-legged bird creature, the very articulate foot of his daughter/dog (Kaori Ito), and in recognizing her, finding her again. So much love and loss and separation, like getting caught up in a huge tangle of ropes and viscera. And how the heart, after all, is still beating. Somewhere... still beating. And the silly angel lady -- our Muse once again, strutting about in a huge white skirt that flips and thwacks with each step -- insisting on a game of badminton. The birdies, like stars, like snow falling... like dust falling. Like the dust on that magic ball of sound that came out of his head, that was gifted in the beginning, forgotten, and found again after being lost in the journey through his body, through his life... Like the dust of the tree that covers the stage before we ever began. That ball of dust blowing away. Too many birdies to juggle, thudding down until they pound on the head, like heavy hail. The work is a battered and battering thing. And frayed, like life.

James Thiérrée. Photo © Richard Haughton.

With costumes by Victoria Thiérrée and Manon Gignoux, lighting by Jérôme Sabre, sound by Thomas Delot, the stage by Marc Moura and Léon Bony, props and wardrobe by Lilliane Hérin and the directing assistance of Sidonie Pigeon, this team works together with the performers to create a magical world we can enter into and lose our way in, very much like Jakobsson and Thierrée lose their way with the very precise series of directions that are so complicated they cannot be repeated, despite how clear and obvious they were when given the first time! Quel voyage magique!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yoga: The Laundry - Part I (Choice)

Sthira, Sukha, Dukha
Stability, Ease, Dis-ease

My mother made sure that my brothers and I did our fair share of the housework when we were growing up. I think this was as much to ensure that we would be able to take care of ourselves when we set out into the world, as it was to ensure that the house ran properly since she worked fulltime! Even with lots of practice and excellent training, I remember feeling slightly stunned when I was out on my own by how much time I had to spend doing things like the laundry. Clearly I had been living under a delusion that 'independence' would allow plenty of time to do whatever I wanted.

The Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai. Photo © Scott Zetlan

The structure of life itself demands certain things to be sustained. On simply a physical level we need air, water and food cycling smoothly through the body on a regular basis, and we need an environment in which the body can maintain a temperature of approximately 98.5°F. These basic needs bring with them other requirements, like breathable air, clean water, the hunting, gathering or purchase of food and, in most regions of the world, shelter for at least certain times of the year. This all, in turn, requires... more than I had realized when I was 19!

The Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai. Photo © Scott Zetlan

Sthira sukham asana. Yoga asana, the physical practice of yoga through its postures, is defined as a steady (sthira), easeful (sukham) position. This relationship between steadiness and ease, strength and flexibility, stability and mobility, is constantly at work in the structure of our bodies and our physical activities. (The relationship between our skeletal system and our muscular and cardio-vascular systems, are obvious and tangible examples of this.) When we are aware of this relationship between form and flow, we may also become aware of how the body can guide us in any physical practice: where we can release tension or resistance, where we can direct more energy, when we need to ease up a little, when can we push more...

In asana practice (as in dance, sports, the martial arts...) it is not unheard of for injury to occur, especially when we are directing the body to do what the mind wants without tapping into the body's storehouse of information. Dukha (pain, discomfort, dis-ease) serves as a guide, teaching us to pay attention to the body's knowledge and creativity. It tells us not only what is comfortable or uncomfortable, but also what is constructive or destructive, inviting us to open to new possibility. The desires and fears of our ego-mind (ahamkara) are strong, persistant, and often very loud, like children clamouring for attention or wheedling for their way, and the body-mind (manas) speaks in a language we may have forgotten how to hear or understand. By allowing space within oneself for this conversation between mind and body, where we can hear, observe and measure, a space is created in which we can develop balance, steadiness and ease. With a certain amount of awareness, a great deal of rigor, and a deep breath of compassion we can usually find this place of sthira-sukham in even the most intense of postures or practices.

Yoga asana are designed to work deep within the body, not only on a muscular and skeletal level, but deep within the connective tissue and in the cells themselves. This 'inner universe' holds within it not only immediate feedback, but also the residue of memories and emotions that lodge within the body. Maybe this a way to store information that the mind is not ready to handle on a conscious level. Maybe it is simply the trace life leaves – its imprint or mark. By listening to this inner universe we can discover what we need for our stability, strength and wholeness, what we can release, what we must release and where we can invest and direct our energy and attention. We can discover not only ease and strength in the body, but also clarity and calm in the mind. Like the body, it too experiences sukha, dukha and sthira.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the human organism is that body and mind tend to reflect one another, so we can approach the relationship between sthira and sukha both through the body and through the mind. Mental tension, fears and blocks are very often reflected in the body in the form of muscular tension, energetic blockage, injury and disease. A mind clear of its clutter and fears can affect the overall health and well-being of the body, its alignment, efficiency and ease. At the same time, creating patterns of ease and strength in our physical practice influences and is part of that same balancing process that can carry us toward not only wholeness in our entire being, but also deeper understanding and greater awareness. This includes not only the clearing and balancing of the body's energy channels (nadis) but also the sheaths (koshas) of the body, breath, mind, intellect, and what is referred to in yoga tradition as the 'supraconscious.'

'Pointing a Finger at Star Formation.' Photo © 2011.NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

This relationship between sthira and sukham is reflected throughout our lives, on every level. Not only in our physical practice and personal lives, but also in larger organizational structures, like families, businesses, communities, governments and nations. The relationship between sthira and sukha is constantly at work, guided by dukha. Life itself presents the ongoing challenge and opportunity to find a balance between work and play, effort and release, strength and flexibility, stability and mobility, between responsibility and freedom. Between survival and annihilation.

The unspoken and often forgotten element in this relationship is that of choice. What do we do when confronted with dukha, with sukha, or sthira? Do we respond and adjust, sacrifice, ignore, cling, reject, deny, justify, blame, suffer, sleep? Marvelous, all the different choices we make. I like taking the issue of road maintenance as a simple example.

Pothole in the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan area. Photo © 2010. Stefano Giovannini.

New York, where I lived for many years, is full of potholes – deep dips or actual holes in the roads where ankles are twisted, cars are tossed off track, and entire body parts have been known to disappear, at least temporarily. The people who live here vote on how much and in what ways they choose to maintain their common roadways. For the most part, they prefer the discomfort and occasional risk to life, limb and wheel to the discomfort of paying the additional taxes to better maintain their roads. So, potholes abound! This is the choice these people have made, consistently, for many years.

In Paris, on the other hand, people have a different response to the same question of how to maintain their roads. For these people, apparently, the discomfort, embarassment and risks caused by poorly maintained roads outweights the discomfort that might be caused by higher taxes. So, their roads are beautifully maintained and new systems are sometimes established to address future problems before they have become actualities. It costs. And this is their choice.

This example is simplified, of course. There are many things at work, including a different relationship between the individual and the community, a different definition and sense of responsibility for the 'common good.' The two cultures are intrinsically different on many levels, but I hope you get the basic idea. Essentially, we find our rhythm and make our choices within the constraints we are confronted with, and our perception of them. And hopefully we find within the parameters we set at least fleeting moments of satisfaction – time outside the loads of laundry and maintenance to play a little. Better still (if anyone is feeling ambitious), if we can find sweetness and pleasure in doing the laundry!

I wonder if we can't assess our progress, our development, by how we respond in a crisis. Who are we and how do we choose to respond not only each day – and certainly each day – but also on our worst day, in the midst of our most fearsome challenge? How does a warrior meet weakness? How does a dancer respond to a broken body? How does a scientist manage the madness of his mind? How does a monk who has spent his entire life dedicated to non-attachment fight for his life? How do we choose to respond to the challenges we meet? Not only is choice an important element, it is a critical one in which we take part in shaping our lives and the world around us.

The Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai. Photo © Scott Zetlan