Writing My Dancing Life
“Our Little Sunbeam”
33 Fainting Spells
Philadelphia Live Arts Festival
September 3 - 5
I remember watching the Wooster Group in New York’s Performing Garage reeling out their spectacles based on T.S. Eliot’s “Cocktail Party” and Arthur Miller’s “the Crucible.” The tenuous line to their base texts would be augmented with the overlay of other text – on Timothy Leary’s group experiments with LSD at his Connecticut house, say – and with pandemonium in movement, erratic sound and even video monitors suspended high in the space where the same action was shown as that occurring onstage. The group had taped and then learned their own improvisation and showed the doppelganger spread apart just enough that the eye had to jump dizzyingly back and forth.
This kind of smart mix is exactly what 33 Fainting Spells is up to in “Our Little Sunbeam.” Taking Anton Chekhov’s early and little-known “Ivanov” as root text, they branch out, incorporating the awed testimony of astronauts from space. They “respectfully borrowed” from Andrew Solomon’s recent “The Noonday Demon: an Anatomy of Depression,” and from Bruce Nauman’s video installation “Violent Incident”. The former vividly records the author’s experience of depression and in the latter, Nauman achieves a disturbing amalgam of comedy and horror, not unlike the overall tone struck by 33 Fainting Spells here. Their subject matter – the meaning of our actions and relationships in the context of the enormity and beauty of space, the challenge of facing impermanence, the quest for the sublime – is evoked while continually permeating one layer of performance with another. The genre-bending production is intercut with the players’ commentary on it. The dancing dissembles, situations and songs coalesce and disintegrate with a meta-awareness that might at any moment poke straight-faced fun. It’s as though Sartre had started a tongue-in-cheek girl-group garage band.
Performed before a backdrop of a lunar landscape formed by a grid of slide images, and adorned with moddish black and white design elements, the piece first introduces 33 Fainting Spells (Gaelen Hanson and Dayna Hanson, who are not related) on video. They sing a complex lyric, gesturing softly, in a nightclub-esque scene, flanked by owls. Mysterious. Next, the character Lev speaks in a low pitch while looking incongruously like a lanky long-haired gal. In the first of many witty turns, with mike before her mouth, Gaelen Hanson lip-synchs to guest collaborator Linas Phillips’ voice speaking in a Tom Waits-like growl. Hanson makes this trick gradually obvious, and delivers as astute a rendering of the moves of a swaggering, beer swilling rocker as we might ever hope to see. It’s parody but it’s meticulous, a joke and social science, both. Could each of us be dissected this clearly? This beginning portends well. From here on we see nothing one-dimensional, and no easy reads.
Next we meet Nick, married to the frail Anna, who is wracked with tuberculosis, and Sasha, the alluring woman who tempts him. In a therapy session the married couple attempt to “work through” their difficulties, Anna on an oxygen machine (actually helium, which renders her voice comically child-like). Nick questions everything, dropping character to ask himself the meaning of his actions. Rather than seeming self-consciously self-referential, this scene pulls the rug out from under easy assumptions, as a sort of existential wake-up call.
Threaded with Chekhov’s plotline is rhapsodic language about the experience of being in space. Just as Nick eventually succumbs to Sasha, so the astronauts, whose words are heard on tape and in a variety of songs written by both Hansons, are mesmerized by sights like sunsets and golden iced crystals of urine floating beside their ship, and by the perspective one gets on human life by being so cut off from earth. Unsettling indeed.
Like the Wooster Group, 33 Fainting Spells are virtuosic and variously accomplished. Both Hansons come from dance as a ground but continually understate their gestural vocabulary, dancing in tantalizingly brief bits, like the coolest of rock’n’roll babes, which only increases the tension of the show’s dramatic thrust. Much of the movement in “Our Little Sunbeam” is played close in, like a hand of cards one doesn’t flourish. Nothing is without purpose; they don’t ever just plain dance.
At one point, Dayna Hanson’s white platform sandals are seen in close up video in a gravelly street as she dances a slide-y sequence, drawing out the gritty sound by slowing her moves. Borrowing from 33 Fainting Spells video, “Measure”, this section shows the live Hanson in unison with her close-up video feet.
Gaelen Hanson’s star turn comes in Anna’s final solo. Hanson, in black gown, begins nearly still, making sharp shifts in position – 3 little jerks to the neck, a swipe of hand around head – oh! here is the dying woman’s dying swan! The dance grows, segmenting limbs and shifting position through self-manipulation, and rises, to become real recognizable steps. Combined with the consumptive’s beautifully arcing coughs (move over Marguerite), her frailty morphs into Red Shoes strength as she goes out in a blaze of whip-turned glory. It’s a spectacular reframing of the “Swan Lake” original right down to the diagonal upstage exit.
Other memorable sections include a dance of attraction with Nick incongruously crawling doggy style, a unison love duet using the added element of a swooping chair on casters, a re-enactment of lunch in space complete with floating food, and the playful dialogues of two anthropomorphized stuffed owls.
Can we reconcile ourselves to the nature of our human drama even with the wisdom of long-distance perspective? The tale told here is full of dizzying cutaways – dramatic action dissolves into players arguing about how it should be played, into performers wondering again and again (maybe one too many times?) what kind of meaning their action has. Instead of some insipid Hollywood ending, Nick’s angst does not resolve. Neither nihilist or eternalist, the work is about limbo.
33 Fainting Spells is based in Seattle, and has worked together over the last ten years. By inviting Linas Phillips to co-create this work, they make an exponential jump in the range of possibilities for plays on gender and tone. Philips switches voices masterfully and plays the searching Nick and the befuddled actor, i.e. himself, with disarming candor.
Violent and tender, “Our Little Sunbeam,” is rich in split-second coordination of actions overlaying one another. They make a complex, incongruous whole, infinitely smart in the framing of gestures and quandaries from the daily world. So smart in fact that I literally cannot remember the last time I saw something its equal. Maybe it was in the Performing Garage.