As the legend goes, when the minimalist composer Morton Feldman first met the avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett, he stumbled on a curtain and fell flat on his face before they finished shaking hands. This was because Feldman had come from a bright backstage onto a dark stage to meet Beckett during a rehearsal in a Berlin theater, and his eyes hadn't adjusted to the change.
World-renowned choreographer Shen Wei echoes this moment in his reimagining of Neither, the 1977 "anti-opera" Feldman and Beckett created out of their meeting. Shen's huge set features towering walls with multiple doors that allow swaths of light to cut into the dim, gray stage space.
"Every door gives you an in and out, an opening and a closing," Shen says about the production, which ADF brings to DPAC on Saturday and Sunday. "You feel safe inside a place, but also you feel you are unsafe inside that place. You feel you're trapped and want to get out, but at the same time, you ask what the outside means to you."
Every aspect of the work expresses this liminality and defiance of oppositional logic. From the writer's inscrutable libretto, a sixteen-line poem Feldman received on a postcard, to the composer's minimal, occasionally disorienting music—and from Shen's choreography to Jennifer Tipton's lighting design—every element refuses to settle into a category. Rather than either/or, it's neither/nor.
In a way, the original Neither barely exists. After that onstage pratfall, Feldman and Beckett had a meal together to talk about collaborating on an opera while admitting to each other their mutual disdain for the form. After deciding to make an "anti-opera" together, Beckett jotted down the libretto, lacking stage directions and cast, and mailed it. The artists didn't meet and barely corresponded again.
When Shen describes Neither as his most difficult production to date, he's not necessarily talking about the challenges of a large set with a lot of moving parts and eleven dancers; he's expressing how hard it's been to retain the not-thereness of the original work while still being inspired by it.
"It's such a philosophically difficult text," Shen says. "It's an opera piece, but you're not really telling a story, so you have to use a lot of movement to emphasize the parts of the words and their meanings. You have to use movement to transform that kind of meaning. Dance is a really difficult way to do it, and of course, the music is difficult, too. It's minimal but at the same time extremely theatrical. And it's not music that has a really clear structure, like people are used to."
In Shen's Neither, the gray uncertainty of the stage space and the hopeful lights shining into it through the doors carry the weight of characterization. The space, and the dancers' movements into and out of it, can represent different things to different viewers. Shen rattles off a list of possible metaphors: a house, a family, a society or country, a universe. Feldman's music begins with a jarring drone. Beckett's opening lines are "to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow/From impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither." This won't be a light night out at the theater. But if anyone can find the beauty in the severe text and music, it's Shen Wei.
"I have been thinking 'What am I getting myself into here?'" Shen laughs. "As I've worked on this, I get myself into a place where I am really seriously working on a work, not thinking about the entertainment side of making a dance piece. But it's a really worthwhile journey, and I'm excited to bring this production to the ADF audience, because they really know me and my development the best."
CHRIS VITIELLO'STOP FIVE ADF SHOWS
Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre (Reynolds Industries Theater, Jul. 6 & 7)
I depend upon Rosie Herrera for her willingness to throw everything onstage, holding nothing back. This year, the Miami choreographer premieres Make Believe, an ADF commission deconstructing religious and magical iconography.
Murielle Elizéon(The Fruit, Jul. 8 & 9)
I saw Elizéon premiere her emotionally raw solo, Brown, in the tiny Monkey Bottom Collaborative performance space last December, where the audience was essentially sitting onstage. Can't wait to see how it spaces out a bit at The Fruit.
Wondrous Women (THe Carolina Theatre, Jul. 13 & 14)
Solos always make me hold my breath. They embody vulnerability. These five choreographers are all so different from one another; it will be fascinating to read their performances as a whole. (See story, p. 19.)
Kyle Abraham's "A.I.M."(The Rubenstein Arts Center, Jul. 17–19)
In the last of three ADF shows at the Ruby, the interdisciplinary and diversity-focused company A.I.M. offers Dearest Home, an interactive work of solos and duets about love and loss.
Footprints (Reynolds Industries Theater,Jul. 20 & 21)
I always anticipate this program the most, regardless of the choreographers, because of the raw energy of the student dancers onstage. You are literally watching careers begin in this show.