Friday, May 25, 2012

A Fantastic Collision: Dancing to Jamaica Kincaid

For the past few months, I’ve been hearing the same stories read over and over again. Little pieces of them stick inside my head and I find myself saying them under my breath without noticing that I’ve started. “Metal-colored scales,” I’ll say. Or, “which were now ablaze.” And then something unusual rolls across the eye of my brain. I see a woman turning into a lizard, just the way that Jamaica Kincaid describes her doing so in “My Mother,” but at the same time, I also see the view from the inside of a dance studio, all that blank, inviting space, and the view from the inside of my body, the whiplash jerk of throwing arms into the air or crashing them against ribs. It’s a strange way of experiencing a story.

That odd, doubling sensation is part of a new piece that I’m dancing in with Liss Fain Dance. The Water is Clear and Still is a performance installation, which means the choreography is spread across a space that the audience enters alongside the dancers. They are theoretically given the freedom to choose their point of view, to move from one angle to another, to see things or not see things as they see fit. The piece makes use of text from Jamaica Kincaid’s short story collection, At the Bottom of the River, and animates it with the skills of actress Val Sinckler, who moves around the dancers and the audience, shaping the emphasis and attention of both.

Stage notes marked in the text
The piece has music (a thick sound environment that you can drown in, in a good way), but the text is what floods your ears and lodges in the movement. And, as a dancer, the movement forces me to consume the text differently. Stories become a landscape, something to be gotten inside of, something that requires both inhabitation and illumination. Their architecture has a solidity beyond what I might appreciate as a reader. The rhythms of sentences are concrete things with walls and edges that a body can fit into or jar against. I can push movements up against them, deliberately matching the swing of a foot with the beat of a word, or I can let them wash past and let a sequence of steps float on top. I can’t sink into a story the way I might do when reading it to myself in the comfort of my bed. I’m forced to confront it full on, as an odd hybrid of companion and partner and musical accompaniment.

The stories we’re using are full of fantastical, vivid images. A mother turns into a lizard. A ghost drinks rum and taps his foot out of longing for his lost accordion. A woman murders a man with her smile. Soldiers cause night to fall forever. These are the kind of details that would normally slide under my skin and make me eager to read closely and leisurely, the kind of details that make me imagine a story in full, overly saturated specificity. But when I dance to them, they become landmarks and routes. Still striking and fascinating, but somehow more abstract. Icons of something instead of the thing itself. I feel, when I’m dancing to these stories, like I’m being taken on a guided tour led by someone who vacillates between a deep, unusual understanding and a stunningly blunt blindness. Certain things slide right by (I’ve heard these stories so many times, but I still can’t recite one for you whole), and certain things hit me between the eyes every time we go through the piece (I can’t curve my leg around in a particular way without hearing the words, “wearing his nice white suit).

It has been (as I keep mentioning) a strange way of experiencing stories. But I hope our audience will feel the same. It’s a new viewpoint from which to see both movement and literature, a collision that hopefully bestows an unexpected freshness and a carefully manufactured, but still absolutely genuine, intimacy.