Stitching the Stories of a Theater Season | By Julie Potter

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography and empathy is first of all an act of the imagination, a storyteller’s art, and a way of traveling from here to there.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

A theater season is a story and a speech as well. It’s armchair travelling and reflecting on ODC Theater’s 2013 season I ask, “Where did you go?” I found myself traveling more through questions, suggestions and empathic moments than crisply legible stories. And that’s good.  That’s what dance does.

Approaching dance, the audience member becomes the spinster making, as Solnit describes, “form out of formlessness, continuity out of fragments, narrative and meaning out of scattered incidents.” To consider the theater season a non-linear narrative, we find a route to meaning through these so-called incidents. We stitch the images, sounds, associations and feelings to arrive at a personal response beyond language. These are the stories, which dance composes.

Taking a long lens on ODC Theater’s 2013 season, curated by Director Christy Bolingbroke specifically around storytelling, it’s clear how many threads wove women’s stories, though not all feminist in nature. Female heroines and protagonists of strength, action and criticality have been represented from Sheetal Gandhi’s potent expression of a determined woman navigating cultural norms and roles in Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife), to Barak Marshall’s no-nonsense, rather violent female bride in And at midnight the green bride floated through the village squareRosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night offers another shade of femininity and power employing the narrative of Scheherazade – inherently a story about storytelling. Finally, among the 8 works presented during the Walking Distance Dance Festival, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters’ People Like You addressed motherhood, biological clocks and the stories we tell ourselves. Combined, the works illuminated how choice, resources, conditioning and time deeply influence our becoming.

Choice

Sheetal Gandhi. Photo by CedarBough T. Saeji.Opening the 2013 season April 19-21, Sheetal Gandhi’s Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife) dances her possibilities via a one-woman show. Gandhi enacts characters inspired by her family. To have options and choice is one sort of luxury but also a burden. What roles and values are prioritized, and for what reasons? How do you live your hybridity?

The roles of daughter-in-law, daughter and wife, link women from around the world, but the expectations of these roles drastically differ from place to place. Gandhi honors her family and North Indian traditions, but by exploring each character in the work, portrays her desire to break from certain elements of her culture. She dances the challenges that accompany choice, acknowledging the sacrifices that come with any chosen path. With choice comes a striving for balance and evaluation of values, and although less overtly represented in the work, Gandhi lives the roles of artist, teacher, student, traveler, circus performer and scholar.

At a reflective pace, Gandhi manipulates her costume and posture to transform into an old woman. As Gandhi embodies the elderly character, she gets the hiccups, which, she explains, is a superstitious sign that someone is thinking of her. We see her lament the life she may have had with another man had her arranged marriage not dictated her path. What does it mean to be a good daughter or wife? For whom do you make your choices? The stories portrayed by Gandhi’s characters read as warnings, no individual truly satisfied or content.

Equally charismatic in her tightly crafted solo as an elder and as a teen who longs for permission to wear a tank top, Gandhi’s presence is big and generous, inviting us to travel and empathize with her through the heaviness of choice. Hers is a thoughtful predicament, illustrated by the montage sequencing of characters. The final quiet image of Gandhi stifling a fluttering hand with the other suggests that there is a “too late.” Bahu-Beti-Biwi reminds us that we must lie in the bed we make, her portrayal of different paths begging the question of what it truly means to make “good” decisions.

Abundance and Scarcity

BodyTrafficWhere choice exists for Gandhi’s character, a scarcity and jealousy manifests in Barak Marshall’s And at midnight the green bride floated through the village square performed byBodyTraffic September 26-29 on a triple bill shared with works by Kyle Abraham and Richard Siegel.  In And at Midnight… good men are hard to find. One at a time, the men attempt to seduce the women by suggestively narrating delicious recipes of cooked lamb and fish, yet when the women gather to watch a film, they munch on simple bread. Abundance and scarcity.

Throughout the work, the women are handled aggressively. One scene features the women presenting themselves individually with great effort to appear attractive and desirable to a man sitting on a bench. Their aggressive labor to please makes them appear as desperate and hungry women. They are discarded one after the other, being dragged and draped over the bench.

Marshall’s choreography employs a humorous physicality to keep the dance in dark comedic territory. Like Gandhi, Marshall utilizes costume and regional music, in his case Israeli folk songs, to hint at a culture. The dance, inspired by his mother’s neighbors, responds to scarcity by portraying ugly female competition, not unlike the cattiness contained in television comedies like Cougar TownAnd at Midnight… is an archetypal story of the woman scorned – more lighthearted than say, Medea, but still ending with actions of anger and retaliation. The bride does not go quietly to sulk. She is angry and hysterical. While And at Midnight… conveys abusive and cruel moments, I don’t think Marshall actually hates women, however it is through a women’s story that he comments on the destructive potential of jealousy.

Conditioning

Rosanna Gamson World/WideRosanna Gamson World/Wide

Rosanna Gamson, on the other hand was driven by the question “Why do men hate women?” as she developed the work Layla Means Night which premiered at ODC Theater October 31-November 3. In Gamson’s eyes, the ancient story of Scheherazade is also about today’s complicity of women. Think about the many women trying not to age with wrinkle creams and liposuction, holding up teenage girls as paragons of beauty. She brings our awareness to the conditioning of mass media and notions of appeal. Gamson’s daughter originated the role of Scheherazade in an earlier version of Laylaand as a mother, Gamson wonders what her daughter considers beautiful.

To look upon this work is complicated. Self-discovery can rise from discomfort, thus revealing information about one’s own conditioning. Because of my personal sensitivity to reinforcing mainstream images of normative female beauty, a tension was elicited by the teen performers of the Dance Jam, many with long hair, red lipstick and slinky black satin dresses. While all willing and informed performers, their youthful presence in Layla Means Night raises the question of innocence, parallel to Scheherazade’s character. The teen performers both washed the hands of audience members and shared sweets, thus providing services and manipulating the audience to participate in an exchange. Innocence alternates with wit and manipulation through the actions of both Scheherazade and the teens. Are they innocent or knowing and calculating? The ambiguity keeps the performance alive and suspenseful.

Gamson’s multisensory and ambulatory site adaptive work choreographs the audience so that time goes backward and forward with different groups witnessing various nights. The relative innocence of the teens is juxtaposed with obvious sexualized imagery such as a silhouetted woman biting a banana. Ultimately Layla Means Nightis a story about how storytelling can save lives and how one woman’s imagination and defiance made her a hero.

Time

Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in “People Like You”Also addressing the desire to make sense of things, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters frame their work through narration, which has an invitational effect inPeople Like You,during last year’s Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF May 31-June 1. They stand at a microphone reminding us that “We tell ourselves stories.” They ask after our expectations and even request that when they get to the end of the dance, we “pretend it all works.”

An initial sequence reveals Seiters and Lincoln observing themselves holding round illuminated mirrors. A metronome ticks onstage. Limited time. Death. Biological clocks.  Again, like in Bahu-Beti-Biwi, there is a “too late” looming large. Film segments show the faces of the artists from a perspective similar to that of the mirrors held as the artists closely study their faces, pondering and perhaps checking for the changes of time in their skin. The film also features images of a pregnant Seiters. In front of her, Lincoln wears a white cast of a pregnant abdomen, pointing to the passage of time and allowing the past and present to be in conversation. The specific situation is unclear, leaving the possibility for Lincoln to be imagining or comparing her experience to that of another woman.

Like Gandhi’s work, People Like You addresses choice surrounding motherhood, domesticity, and action, however the attention to time feels more urgent. Where Gandhi lingers in reflection, People Like You builds to a roaring percussion and abruptly ends in blackout.

Experiencing the works of the season in relation to each other the audience becomes the storyteller stitching the dances together in memory. Returning to Solnit’s view of narrative creation, “the storyteller is also a spinner or weaver and a story is a thread that meanders through our lives to connect us each to each and to the purpose and meaning that appear like roads we must travel.” What does the season do? It allows us to exercise our narrative imagination.

Furthermore on this note, author, Alexsander Hamon suggests in The Book of My Lives that storytelling “is a basic evolutionary tool for survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.” Dance is one such engagement. To locate the women’s stories of the 2013 season in the architecture of ODC Theater suits a dance campus founded by three strong community-minded women. In a theater season we travel. We empathize and even learn how to survive by sitting in a dark room and being with the work.

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