psychic geology in theatre & dance

zsuzsanna soboslay: septimus & clarissa; dancer crush, new york

Septimus and Clarissa, Ripe Time

Septimus and Clarissa, Ripe Time

Septimus and Clarissa, Ripe Time

LONDON, JUNE 13, 1923: A WOMAN IS ROUSED FROM SLEEP. THE GREAT, VIBRANT, TEEMING CITY HAS NOT BEEN SHATTERED BY THE GREAT WAR—IS IT REALLY OVER?—BUT SHE AND HER CITY HAVE BECOME FRAGILE, SHAKEN. OUTSIDE HER WINDOW, FRAGRANT FLOWERS STILL BLOOM; SLEEK CARS GLIDE. INSIDE, HER SERVANTS HAVE ALREADY BEGUN PREPARATIONS FOR HER PARTY.

Mrs Dalloway is what some writers call Virginia Woolf’s take on James Joyce’s Ulysees—a short stream of consciousness novel with an upper class housewife and young war veteran in place of Joyce’s protagonists. Whilst there are definite actions in the novel—the party to be prepared for, soldiers back from the war, businessmen from the colonies—the underlying structure of the work is like a weaving between conscious and unconscious worlds, between history and memories, missed moments, excitements and enervations. The narrative is like a psychic geology, formed out of sensations and insinuations. In between the comings and goings of her self, her husband, ex-lover and others, it weaves from the surface of Clarissa Dalloway’s psyche through to the beauty, mystery and terror of the sub-terrain.

At the same time, it is also the story of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran five years’ returned from a war most can’t mention. The narrative folds through layers of his hyper-calibrating consciousness as well.

New York troupe Ripe Time arranges this narrative of two parallel lives in an intertwining of bodies, voice, sound and space with such finesse that it reminds me: theatre matters. We participate, body to body, mind to mind in a 3D space that revolves within and before us. We feel this process remorselessly as the actors’ insides turn out, thoughts playing in muscles and along their skins. As in the greatest of physical theatre practices—from Le Coq to Theatre de Complicite to Les Ballets C de la B—we are brushed against, and bruised by their energetic proximity.

A rotating right-angled triangular scaffold, with stairs running up the hypotenuse, defines the space, with Clarissa’s bedroom and commanding sentry-point at the top of the stairs, dining and ballrooms below, streetscape just beyond. Septimus’ enclosed tenement beneath is an apt metaphor for his caved-in mind. The structure is also the hillside where Septimus and his soldier-friend, Evans, killed by mortar shell, once shared poetry, and where Evans’ ghost, a spider-poltergeist, now chases Septimus down its incline. It is both a scaffold for memory and a monkey-bar for tormented clambering.

This adaptation is a ‘period’ piece, yet the company’s stated drive is to represent the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on contemporary soldiers returned from the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The psychologists Woolf portrays with lacerating scepticism are depicted here, one as a blustering man of straw, the other a suffocatingly self-assured roly-poly at the top of his professional tree. Septimus is like a red hot bowling ball amongst them; ironically only Clarissa, from a distance, not witnessing but only hearing about his death, begins to understand. Scenes which include Septimus’ wife depict a frightened dove fluttering between immutable monoliths, amongst chaos. She tries to wrap Septimus with her words and hands, but he cannot access her comfort. Finally, he races up the stairs to escape the doctors and throws himself from the balcony. The frozen moment of his leap out at the audience burns with his agony.

Septimus and Clarissa, Ripe Time

Septimus and Clarissa, Ripe Time

Septimus and Clarissa, Ripe Time

The socialite Clarissa’s softer world also harbours the winds of doubt and agitation. While for Septimus, nature whispers urgings through his nerves, for Clarissa the colour of flowers, the patterns of the street, the doubts and missed moments in her relationships also paint questions in her mind. What is most moving in this stage adaptation is that the workings of consciousness become so deftly rendered in the actors’ mellifluous physical work, in Ellen McLaughlin’s script and Gina Leishman’s piano score, that we recognise the intertwining of mind and matter as a human trait shared by all. Septimus and Clarissa share a continuum—although Clarissa’s shell is thicker, and fate has dealt her a safer reality.

New York Live Arts was founded in 2011 by a merger of the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with the Dance Theater Workshop—two companies with rich histories. October’s curated Dancer Crush stirred the great postmodern dance archive, revisiting and reforming some classic works alongside new work in development. It was fascinating to watch great dancers working through, with and against some of their legacy. A few pieces in particular worked some sharp edges.

Ishmael Houston-Jones, a strong, squarish man of nearly 60, is in the hot seat whilethree 20-somethings sit in chairs directing his actions with three single-word commands. Houston-Jones is caused to move, speak or freeze, and often left hanging. Whereas Septimus and Clarissa [and Woolf] tease the question, “How am I shaped by things?”, Houston-Jones’ question seems to be, “how does this information change how I give shape to things?”

The piece is a simple construction but he shows the depth of his experience and his comfort with edges. Caught hanging on one leg, he quips: “I’ll be the one to subvert the rules/I can stop payments on their cheques any time.” To his audience: “The last person who sat there on Saturday was terribly embarrassed.” To another, caught very close, sotto voce: “You have lovely eyes.”

Bill T Jones insists “the intellect is always present in the act of performing movement.” Leah Cox re-creates Jones’ solo Floating the Tongue, a piece which requires the dancer to quote the phrases (of speech and movement) of several choreographic giants, whilst weaving a continuous dance and running commentary. Cox’s interpolations show an ability to inflect homage and repetition with a sparkling, teasing wit, lifting quotation into brilliance. It is as if, mid-contest, Davida emerges from behind Goliath, drops her rock and gleams.

Finally, a sad clown crowns them all. David Neumann‘s hapless, suited man enters, then falls over his only prop (a chair) while the Voice of God gives a running commentary on how inept he is. The man keeps trying to right the wrong but only fails the commands. The voice is a projection of the inner voice, provoking, judging, measuring him. The man takes his own pulse; nothing helps. This is like a Joycean day which just won’t end well. But the postmodern condition is one of knowing it will end, that the stage is just a stage. The strong, canny body laughs, darts and exits. The joke, cheerfully, ends on us.

Ripe Time, Septimus and Clarissa, adapted from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, writer Ellen McLaughlin, direction, development Rachel Dickstein, music Gina Leishman, design Susan Zeeman Rogers, costumes Oana Botez-Ban, lighting Keith Parham, sound Jane Shaw; Baruch Center for Performing Arts Sept 7-Oct 8; Dancer Crush, curators Carla Peterson with Annie-B Parson. New York Live Arts, Oct 8, 2011. The event also included works scored by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Meier, Tere O’Connor.

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 31

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

21 February 2012