Blogs by Ian Thal
5/5/2004 10:08:11 AM
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What follows is the self criticism that James and I engage in as part of Cosmic Spelunker Theater. It might be of limited interest if you haven't seen us perform "Waltzing to War."
Monday, April 19, 2004:
The narrow foot path leads me through the tall hedges to the yard behind the weather worn house. The sailboat, resting on pylons in the untrimmed grass, planks missing from its thirty foot long hull, is no better shape than this house on Savin Hill. I catch sight of Jan working in the garden and mention that I'm there to watch the video with James, she asks if I've met Ray, their ancient land lord who is sitting on the dilapidated front porch.
I enter through the side door and clamber up the steps to the floor where Jan and James make their home. James has just set up the video as I arrive, offers me some tea and we sit. It is a ritual for us to meet within a couple of weeks after a major performance to watch ourselves on video so that we can engage in self critique and thus make the following performances stronger. We've never had a flawless performance, but the videos have shown us steadily progressing towards stronger, more ambitious, and more interesting work since we began taping our performances as Cosmic Spelunker Theater.
We watch the opening and critique our work as if we were commentators on a special edition DVD. As we see our images walk onto stage we agree that from now on, that I should not be the only one in white face, that James should also wear makeup. As we open with a series of ever more elaborate bows, I note that I need to quickly get to the bow instead of using ornate buildups to the final immobilities. It's too "pretty for pretty's sake." I note that I have the same problem during the waltz of moving my arms too much. James states that he should have just followed me in that instance. These are things that most audience members never notice, but we, as performers do.
There's a nice second or two at the end of the waltz and box step sequence when I take off my army helmet, and it to James, and he puts it on. It's clean and elegant with the perfect timing of a Chaplin two reeler. It is followed by "A Cat During Wartime" which is a real virtuoso workout for me. Some of the new bits I have added to it, like hooking my left leg over my head to simulate the tail of a cat, and dancing about the stage more during the helicopter invention, make for dramatic improvements, but I still pass my hypercritical eye over the video: it's card to project my voice in some of the more physically demanding poses; the arabesque I use for the geese needs strengthening (in fact this is the worst arabesque I have ever seen myself do on video) the fixee can stand some improvement. Still, the interaction between us is great; James supporting role in this scene is a perfect counterpoint to my work and the "sax solo" is nice.
"Godfather America" is James' first speaking role in "Waltzing to War" and the slapstick improv we've created allows for some funny and surreal physical interactions as I pick his pockets or poke the foot long beak of my mask between his legs but we both agree that like classic vaudevillians, we ought move towards a more choreographed comedy. The same hold true for the more manic and even more surreal "Front Line Troops" when I take on a more cartoon like persona.
Il Dottore di Difesa's briefing on "Operation Hit Them Back First Before They Hit US" gets the most laughs. Despite the mask that makes me look like a skeletal carrion bird, my voice projects quite well. The various immobilities I take are very bird like with extended arms and fingers, crossed feet, standing on the balls of my feet, bent legs and a torso that is never quite erect. I've never really seen myself as a comedian before and I am very happy with what I see. It only needs some tweaking with the timing and rhythms. Now if only I could keep the momentum in "Simple Plan" with more extended arms and legs.
Since we are in talks of doing a larger scale theatrical production of "Waltzing to War" I have already thought about how to expand the scale this scene using a "presenter of the cards," a role I have taken at a few dance concerts.
The fight is a little too wild for either of our tastes. Instead of an elegant invention based on some karate exercises, it looks too much like a real brawl. It needs more work, still my collapse in to the floor and into the next scene is done well. It's difficult to throw and block punches with the limited visibility of the mask that I have worn for the last four scenes and perhaps contributes to my anxiety levels as I see James' fists coming for me.
When I rise again, I am unmasked, and tell the story of my childhood when my parents were protesting the Vietnam War. There are some minor bits of technical detail I note to myself but they are simple changes. Most importantly is when I deliver a few lines as my father-- and realize that I'm getting his body language all wrong. Unlike my mother and I, my father does not gesture much with his hands.
At this point I sit down on the army helmet, using it as a stoop and take an immobility, there is an almost Buster Keaton level of intensity that makes me almost become inanimate and disappear as James delivers "Remembering Vietnam"; it is almost as if I have become a ghost-- one of his fellow soldiers who didn't come back from that war.
I continue with the Keaton like intensity as I rise and mime the role of a DJ setting up his turntables, putting his records on, putting on his goggles and earphones, etc. before I start to speak the titles of the the two pieces that I form the aural part of the cutup "our...our... our... death...death... our...death...national...death...death...death...anthem...of the ball turret gunner" that I had first tried as an improve at Whimsy back in January. The dance that follows has some nice moments but needs more precise trajectories. I am very please with the immobility I take on the line "six miles above the Earth; freed from its dream of life" that involves my arms fully extended to my sides and my torso parallel to the floor as my legs take a deep cross legged bow.
My fall to my death could be done more smoothly but it does make a good impact and the resurrection could be done better, and the waltz time peace dance that we improv as we come to an end works well. We bow and begin to sing "Danny Boy's Answer" to the figure of the snail antennae and we end.
James hands the army helmet back to me and I give him a very Chaplinesqe look. Between Chaplin and Keaton, I am stealing from the best I suppose...
The exercise of the auto critique is very helpful to us, but in the end we remind ourselves that too much perfectionism is self destructive. I find comfort in the experience of seeing technical imperfections in the performances of artists I admire without feeling that they detract from the performance. We are, after all, only mortals.
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