11 December 2016

Visual & Spatial Structure In Theater And Dance

[About five years ago, I posted a two-part article called “Theatrical Structure” (15 and 18 February 2011) which was my attempt to introduce and explain the analytical system of Michael Kirby (1931-97), a professor of mine at NYU who was a Structuralist.  He published “Manifesto of Structuralism” in The Drama Review in 1975 and taught a course in the Department of Performance Studies called Theatrical Structure, which I took.  My 2011 post is a description of Michael's analytical method, using Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead as a model.  In “Theatrical Structure,” I posit that Kirby’s Structural Theory is useful, both in analysis and in creation, to playwrights—Michael wrote Structuralist plays; I even did a staged reading of one—directors, designers, and teachers of theater and drama, not to mention practitioners of other disciplines such as dance, opera, vaudeville, and, even, circus.  As an illustration of the system’s applicability, below are two articles I wrote for Michael 33 years ago, one examining structure of a dance performance and the other looking at the performance structure (as distinguished from literary structure) of a play.  (For detailed explanations of some structural terminology, it’s easiest to refer to the 2011 post which includes definitions of all the structural devices Michael identified.)]

7 December 1983

In The Art of Making Dances, Doris Humphrey identifies the ingredients of dance as a design in space, dynamics or energy flow, a rhythm, and a motivation. To make a dance from these elements, she says, “the creator must then know how to put the parts together . . . .”  The “technique for sewing them together” is the structure of the dance, and it’s what we see as spectators that unifies the performance in our minds so that we recognize it as a whole dance, and not a series of “broken fragments.”

So much for theory.  On the stage at La MaMa E.T.C. in the East Village, the performance of Sin Cha Hong’s Laughing Stone troupe in Here/Now (viewed Friday night, 2 December 1983) frequently proved structurally ambiguous.  This was most true if one attempted, as I did, to identify structural connections among the three pieces—“Two-in-One,” “Tripterous,” and the title piece, “Here/Now”—all of which were choreographed by Miss Hong.  Whereas individual dances evidenced several strong structural elements, those common to all three dances were few in number and minimal in effect.

Formally, the three pieces all seemed to fall into what Miss Humphrey calls “the ‘broken’ form, deliberately illogical, in which lack of continuity in idea is the point.”  She further describes this dance form as one in which “all the movement is disconnected from its natural sources.  Small parts of the body, such as hands and feet, move independently of the trunk and of each other.”  The result of this is to make structural analysis very difficult because the movements, gestures, and designs incorporated in the dances are purposely disorienting—even anti-structural.  Structure, nonetheless, exists, though perhaps in a vaguer manifestation than in more regular or classical choreography.

The areas of design, rhythm, and dynamics formed the structural common ground in the program.  Those few elements which connected the three separate pieces into a somewhat unified whole—identifying them as part of one choreographer’s oeuvre—occurred in these fields.

Though there were incidents of Contrasting rhythms, the dominant tempo of all Miss Hong’s pieces was slow—almost excruciatingly so.  Occasionally this alternated with a rapid, jiggling rhythm and, more frequently, near or absolute stillness—but the dancers always returned to a slow-motion walking rhythm in which the dynamics were smooth, rounded, often circular.  In fact, Miss Hong’s uses of sharp angles in gesture or movement were rare and stood out in Contrast when they occurred.

Circularity in one form or another was by far the most common technique in the design of the program.  Though the La MaMa performing space is rectangular—almost square—Miss Hong’s pieces were frequently lit by round pools of light from overhead spots.  (Lighting was by Blu, the professional name of William Lambert.)  One such pool was a perfect light circle in the center of the stage within which, in one significant example, Miss Hong performed her entire solo piece, “Here/Now,” which itself was circular in movement design.  Even though the light circle spread out ambiguously during the dance, Miss Hong never strayed beyond that circle’s original boundaries.

This light circle also occurred, less markedly and more briefly, in “Tripterous” and “Two-in-One.”  Even David Simons, the composer-musician for “Tripterous,” seated on his square rug down right, was lit by a perfect circle of light.

But circularity was also apparent in movement design as well.  I have already mentioned that Miss Hong moved in a circle in her solo, rotating as if around a fulcrum in the center of the light spot.  In “Tripterous,” the four dancers (Monique Ernst, Nadine Helstroffer, Phyllis Jacobs, and Margueritte Johnson) frequently formed a large circle, and individual circles occurred as performers in the three pieces danced in small circles or curled their bodies, carrying the smooth, curved dynamics to the extreme.

Lighting also played another structural part in unifying the performance.  All three numbers began and ended with the same lighting sequence.  The dancers entered in darkness and took positions to be “discovered” as the lights faded up slowly.  Movement started long before the lights were fully up, and stopped before the final slow fade-out was complete.  At the end of the piece the performers exited in darkness as they had entered.  (The only exception to this routine was the entrance of the performers in “Tripterous,” which was dimly lit, presumably to allow Mr. Simons to enter down left and cross to his rug down right without stepping on his instruments in the dark.) 

Aside from the rhythmical Continuity (i.e., exaggerated slowness), the most noticeable stylistic repetition in the program was the total lack of expression on the dancers’ faces.  Except in one phrase of “Tripterous” in which the quartet sat in a circle and laughed, their faces were mask-like and immobile.  Even in “Two-in-One” where the two dancers (Jacobs and Karen Cahoon) faced one another and interacted physically, there was no “eye contact” as we know it in theater—the pair’s facial expressions did not change in reaction to this interaction.  There was, therefore, no suggestion of emotional or psychological interaction and, consequently, no discernible Action, Aristotelian or Stanislavskian, indicated in the pieces.  Structurally, however, this absence was itself a Thematic and unifying device.

A Pattern of pairing was another unifying element in Miss Hong’s work at La MaMa.  An alteration of an action and its opposite recurred a number of times in the performance.  This was least obvious in the solo piece, where it only showed up as stretching upwards and then contracting back down again and as regularly reversing the direction of rotation.  In the other two pieces, however, there were many variations of this action-reaction routine: separation-coming together, stretching-collapsing and, most basic perhaps, movement-stillness.  (This last occurred as a true regular Pattern in “Two-in-One,” where the periods of movement and stillness each measured approximately 12 to 15 seconds during one segment.)  In addition to these paired physical Actions, there was an auditory pairing that occurred in all three pieces when the voices in “Two-in-One,” the music in “Tripterous” and the sound effects in “Here/Now” alternated with silent passages.

The last element I found among all three pieces was less dynamic than the others, but no less common.  In many of Miss Hong’s motionless passages (and a few of her very slow ones), each performer balanced on some part of her body—a knee, one leg, her toes, her buttocks, her head (in a three-point head-stand).  In her final solo piece, since Miss Hong never rose higher than to her knees, there were only a few instances of balancing, but in the first two pieces, as with the action-reaction pairing, balancing occurred often and in a variety of forms.

Overall, then, what sewed Sin Cha Hong’s program together structurally was to be found for the most part in the areas of spatial design, rhythm, and dynamics.  The program Here/Now was primarily circular, slow-paced, curved and smooth.  In the individual pieces there were other structural devices, such as Contrasting rhythms, Parallelism, Echo, and Expectancy, but they did not recur in all three dances or work structurally to unite them across the entire performance into a whole. 

*  *  *  *
23 November 1983
“Structure” is defined as “the arrangement or interrelation of all the parts of a whole.”  Performance structure, by extension, is the arrangement or interrelation of the parts of a theatrical production as perceived by the spectator.  If we restrict our perception to the visual or spatial structure of the piece, then the parts in whose arrangement and interrelation we are interested become limited to the nonverbal elements of the performance, specifically the stage setting, the costume and props, and the gestures and movements of the actors.  The arrangements and interrelations that are visually structural are those that, in the spectator’s mind, create a connection across not only time, but space, uniting two distinct points on the stage as well as two isolated moments in time.

In the White Light Productions presentation of Jean Genet’s The Maids at the New Vic Theatre on Second Avenue in the East Village (viewed Friday night, 18 November 1983), a number of visual connections were obvious from the moment we entered the auditorium.  The set (by Mike Vesea) was stylistically unified by both its color Theme—entirely black with white trim—and construction medium—wire mesh throughout, including walls, furniture and two hanging “mirrors.”  The Thematic color combination was repeated again in the costume (uncredited) of the maids Claire (Mim Solberg) and Solange (Shelley Volk).

Within the dichromatic set, movement, gesture, and pose created several striking connections.  (The staging was by Peter Scangarello.)  A physical Parallelism connected two areas of the stage when Claire was seated at the secretary down right using Madame’s cosmetics to apply her toilette, while Solange knelt up center left, behind the mesh “wall” that divided the set into two rooms, ritually lighting a pair of candles on either side of a statue of the Virgin Mary.  The two women moved their heads in unison: as Claire examined her face both right and left in the mirror, behind her, Solange lit the candles first right then left, turning her head in each direction as she did so.  The two women put on half-masks simultaneously, and as Claire rose from her seat, Solange raised her head from its bowed position.  Both actresses froze at that moment and held their poses for several seconds.

In more isolated instances, three repeated Actions connected moments across time.  The least frequent of these was a repeated gesture, or posture—standing, usually center stage, with arms stretched out to the sides.  Claire struck this pose early in the play, first when she demanded Madame’s dress from Solange, and shortly afterwards, standing down center in an attitude of ecstasy, stating that she was being carried away “By the devil!  He’s carrying me away in his fragrant arms.  He’s lifting me up, I leave the ground, I’m off . . .”  Much later in the play, after Madame (George Sutton) had returned and left, Claire, again as “Madame,” uses this stance when she was waiting for Solange to bring her her tea: “Madame must have her tea.”  Finally, in her closing monologue, Solange repeated the gesture, this time far up right at the window in the adjoining room.

The second visual Theme was a frequent juxtaposition of the women on stage in which one stood down center with the other (and, in one case two others) kneeling in front of her.  During Claire’s first masquerade as Madame, Solange, while dressing her sister in Madame’s purple gown, knelt to arrange the fall of the dress.  Later, after Solange had assumed the dominant role in the masquerade, she grabbed Claire around the neck and forced her sister to kneel in front of her.

During the second masquerade, Solange, using a wire whip, again forced Claire to her knees before her—this time onto all fours.  But the most striking variation of this repetition occurred while the maids were undressing Madame.  Both servants ended on their knees down center facing Madame standing up stage of them. 

The third and most pervasive blocking Theme in the production was the use of the two hanging wire mesh “mirrors.”  All of the characters spoke into the mirrors frequently, using them as a means of communication in three different ways.  In the two most direct ways in which the mirrors were used, characters talked to themselves or referred to someone not on stage.  In the most dynamic use of the mirrors, one character talked to another who was on stage by addressing her reflection in the mirror.  However it was used, the repeated business of talking into the mirror was common throughout the production, starting with Claire’s opening lines to Solange: “Those gloves!  Those eternal gloves!”  There were some dozen or more instances following this opening moment, involving all three characters in all three uses at one time or another.  Here is a sample of the more outstanding moments where the technique was used:
 CLAIRE (to Solange behind her): Am I to be at your mercy for having denounced Monsieur to the police, for having sold him? . . .

 CLAIRE (to Solange behind her): I see the marks of a slap, but now I’m more beautiful than ever! . . .  Danger is my halo, Claire, and you, you dwell in darkness . . . .

SOLANGE (referring to Madame who is not present): . . . . Look, just look how she suffers.  How she suffers in Beauty.  Grief transforms her, doesn’t I?  Beautifies her? . . .

CLAIRE (to Solange behind her): . . . . I’m capable of anything, you know.

MADAME (referring to Monsieur): . . . . I’d follow him from place to place, from prison to prison, on foot if need be, as far as the penal colony.

MADAME (to herself): . . . . And what about you, you fool, will you be beautiful enough to receive him?  No wrinkles, eh? . . .

MADAME (to Claire behind her): You’re trying to kill me with your tea and your flowers and your suggestions . . . .

CLAIRE (to Solange behind her): I said the insults!  Let them come, let them unfurl, let them drown me, for, as you well know, I loathe servants . . . .

SOLANGE (referring to Madame who has left):  . . . . What?  Oh, Madame needn’t feel sorry for me.  I’m Madame’s equal and I hold my head up high    . . . .

CLAIRE (to Solange behind her): You’re talking too much, my child.  Far too much.  Shut the window.  Draw the curtains.  Very good, Claire!

As we saw a clear example of visual Parallelism in the opening moment, the closing moment contained an instance of another visual structure.  Combining Memory and Expectancy, it harked back to the opening ritual Solange performed before the dialogue even started.  At the beginning of the second masquerade sequence, Solange knelt again at her “altar” and lit her candles.  This was immediately reminiscent of the opening sequence (Memory structure) and also led us to expect her to mask herself as she had done at the beginning in order to play “Claire” to Claire’s “Madame” (Expectancy structure).  In fact, Solange did not remask, but the Expectation was nonetheless strong, and, because she held the mask in her hand for several minutes after Claire’s masked re-entrance, we kept waiting for her to put it on and enter the game as she did in the first scene.

Though there appeared to be some significance to the use of color (the flowers, the purple gown, Solange’s red slip, and Madame’s brown suit and fur cape), it seemed more connected to the meaning than the structure of the production.  And though the masks themselves were indicative of Levels in the performance, that seemed to belong more to the realm of verbal structure than to the purely visual.  The masks in this case merely aided in distinguishing the Levels in acting style, but did not create those Levels themselves by visual means.  Aside from the two salient examples of nonthematic structure, the major structural dynamics in the production, then, were those of repeated gesture, pose and blocking, which, in the three types mentioned, gave a unified—or structured—style to the performance.

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