I'm a huge sucker for dance theater. The performance form that marries theater and dance has always struck me as having incredible promise. At its best, dance theater tempers theater's plodding linearity while rejecting modern dance's tendency toward artifice, and the union creates something deliciously ephemeral, a performance conveying fundamental truths in the way that dreams often do.
That's in the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, I inevitably find myself disappointed by the reality that creating abstract, resonant performance art is tough. Most artists don't fully succeed. And yet, I keep hoping.
So when I heard about Big Dance Theater, that old excitement arose again—and this time, I'm more hopeful than usual. The New York-based company, which is coming to UNC's Memorial Hall this week, has won a slew of awards in its twenty-five years, including several Bessies and Obies, the Oscars of the modern dance and off-Broadway worlds.
And, after I learned about their creative process, my expectations jumped a little more.
The company's latest production, 17c, is intriguing. Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts, it focuses on Samuel Pepys, a seventeenth-century Englishman known for his chronic journaling. Pepys (pronounced "peeps") wrote every day about topics large and small in an almost modern fashion, covering the quotidian—his meals, his bunions, the women he wanted to get it on with—and the weighty (the Great Plague, the coronation of Charles II) in equal measure. In 2003, the diaries were posted online, spawning a humming community of commenters who dissect every sentence.
Among others, Annie-B Parson, codirector of Big Dance Theater, has followed this commentary with interest. "I've been reading his diary for way too long, maybe ten years, on and off," says Parson. "It has a porous quality where you can find your own place in it as well." One day she was talking about Pepys to her husband and codirector, Paul Lazar, and they realized that his journal could be the basis for a new show.
But 17c isn't just about Pepys himself; it also features a couple of modern-day commenters who hover over the Englishman's every word and action. A female playwright who was contemporaneous with Pepys (but never actually interacted with him) is in there, too. And so are references to philosopher Roland Barthes and the late dance critic Jill Johnston.
In fact, finding connections between seemingly incongruous concepts and characters is a hallmark of Big Dance's work. At heart, it all comes from the directors' slow, nonlinear creative process, one that relies on trial and error.
"I use a mountain of sources in my work," Parson says. She's a collector, constantly gathering ideas from music, fashion, photography, books. Eventually, she and Lazar take their ideas to company members and try them out.
"I go into rehearsal intentionally with too many ideas, knowing lots of them won't work," she says. "It's almost like you're giving the group a game to play and you're watching it. And you ask, How do I feel about this? Do I like this? Do I want to see more? And what wouldmorebe?"
Dance plays a starring role in those exercises. In interviews, Parson has repeatedly referred to movement as "the sacred object." Because dance is nonverbal, it has the capacity to convey ideas and emotions differently than a narrative script can—more authentically, perhaps, and more ambiguously. As audience members watching dance, Parson says, "We may feel something in our body in a way that can be a deeper kinetic experience than if we learn it through the teaching of the playwright, who tells us that we should feel a certain way."
Eventually a structure comes together; Parson, Lazar, and their colleagues add in sound, video, set design, and costumes. In the end, ideally, they have a show in which audience members perceive serendipitous connections between ideas and characters.
That certainly occurred in the case of 17c. When the piece was first being developed, Bill O'Reilly was little more than an annoying right-wing commentator, and Harvey Weinstein was simply a savvy Hollywood producer. Now, of course, both have been outed as serial sexual harassers, and the nation has embarked on a course of communal soul-searching about how men treat women. Which makes this show—starring a misogynist who's "somewhere between a philanderer and a rapist," as Parson puts it—inadvertently relevant.
But whether the performance comes together is, at this point, impossible to gauge. Because its storyline is nonlinear, talking to an artistic director or watching a few snippets on YouTube gives little hint of whether its disparate elements genuinely cohere to create that elusive thing: a moving, evocative dance theater performance. Find out Thursday and Friday nights.
Correction: Because of an editing error, the headline of this piece originally misstated the century in which Samuel Pepys lived. It was the seventeenth, not the sixteenth.