Monday, October 14, 2013

Unpacking “Queen of Knives”

Sharp & Fine, the dance company that I co-direct with my brilliant sister, Shannon Kurashige, is working on a new project, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s poem “Queen of Knives.” In December, we’ll be putting it on stage in San Francisco, which means that, right now, we’re in the studio wrestling with how to turn one thing into another, how to take the poem and make a new version of all the things it’s telling us in a medium that isn’t necessarily the most natural for the translation of the written word.

It’s been more challenging than I expected. “Queen of Knives” is a strangely tricky poem. Every time I read it, I’m surprised by how much less there is on the page than I remember. Between readings, it sits in the back of my head and grows, developing unsettling shadows, complicated backstory, and strange images that are never actually described in the text. It’s like a mysterious box that has an impossible series of equally mysterious and important boxes nested inside—every time you unpack one, you discover another. As Shannon recently pointed out, the delivery of details is perfect. You are given exactly what you need at exactly the right moment in exactly the right order to make the poem a ruthlessly, wonderfully efficient courier of image and feeling.

“Queen of Knives” is a brief narrative about a boy who visits his grandparents and is taken to a magic show where his grandmother is called up to the stage as the volunteer for the old trick where a lady is put into a box, sliced apart with swords, and then vanished. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the poem manages to make this simple sequence of events into an almost distressingly pungent reflection on love, aging, regret, and loss.

We’ve been trying to identify the necessary parts of the story, to figure out which of those perfectly delivered details will survive the translation into dance and hopefully become something just as vivid as the poem itself, even if it’s something rather different. Dance articulates different kinds of things with varying degrees of accuracy. It struggles with complex, factual situations, but manages the visceral and gut-driven with relish. This is the first time we’ve tried to tell a story—an actual linear story—in dance, and deciding what needs to be in there to make sense and what needs to be changed so it can be told in movement has been a fascinating exercise.

Here’s a little snippet of our translation so far:

Without context, that bit of dance is, with any luck, beautiful, but probably doesn’t have much meaning. With context, our hope is that it will wring out some genuine tears. This duet is meant to come near the end of the dance when the events of the narrative are mostly over and we get to bring the audience into the wonderfully enormous landscape of devastation that follows.

When we’re not in the studio, we root around in all the things that we can find in the poem and grab onto whatever tangents drift past. There are lines from old songs in the poem, so we hunt the songs down. We listen to them, we read their sheet music, we get sidetracked by the life of Al Jolson, and listen to new ukulele renditions of them. There are magic tricks in the poem, so we watch videos of Cardini, David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, and Apollo Robbins. We attempt to create tableaux of acts of violence and our comic attempts at a bar fight turn into a strange sequence of movements that fill the stage to the imperious voice of a metronome.

Our dancers (Eric Garcia, Katharine Hawthorne, Shannon Leypoldt, Carson Stein, and Megan Wright—all absurdly intelligent, gorgeous movers and beautiful people to boot) send us emails full of thoughts and YouTube videos. They ask us prodding questions and mostly don’t laugh when we ask them to do odd tasks, like mimic a foxtrot, or attempt a waltz, or draw their walking route from room to room in their house on a weekday morning. It all sounds very roundabout and possibly excessive, but it’s a necessary excess and wandering. It’s how we unpack all those mysterious boxes and details that Neil managed to put into his poem, so cleverly that you sometimes only notice them when you’re trying to turn it inside out. It gives us the stuff we need so that when we go into the studio, we can get to work on the strange business of saying the whole thing in dance.

If you want more information on Queen of Knives, or if you are in San Francisco and would like to come to one of the shows, please visit the Sharp & Fine website or follow us on Twitter.

By Megan Kurashige