General 8-15-2004

Fringe Diary II: On Stage

Here's Lightsey Darst's second installment of her Fringe Diary--the performance and its aftermaths.

Ten minutes to house opening and we’re on stage for the last time before the show. We’re stretching or rehearsing but what we’re really doing is touching the stage: black, rough wood, tape-pocked, solid. This stage is something we’re going to have to trust and know, our only sure surface in the floating void of performance. We want to make sure of it now, introduce ourselves, lie there and feel the surface with our shoulder blades, our chests, our arms, the backs of our heads, the hollows behind our stretched knees.

In the side aisle that functions as our dressing room I ask a woman in dreds, a leopard-print miniskirt, and holey pink fishnets if my hair is wild enough. She decides no, so I sit on some piece of stagecraft while she teases and sprays. The aisle is dark and crowded with props, some of them labeled “fire code violation: endangering human life”; it’s narrow, dirty, dark except for a clip lamp. I can hear the audience talking, rustling programs, laughing. “Wow, it gets big fast,” says my hairdresser, looking at me with a mix of admiration and fear. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to brush my hair again.

“There’s a lot of people out there!” someone says. I peek. How many is a lot? Thirty or forty? My own contribution to the audience is out there, sitting towards the back of the theater, and he’s never seen me dance before. It’s cold here. The music for the first piece whistles through the speakers, softer than I think it should be. I sneak to the back of the aisle to watch.

Almost time. I find my partner and we take off our socks, sweatpants, and sweatshirts and creep around the props to our spot. The piece before ours ends. Dark theater. Backs of peoples’ heads. Our music starts; my partner stands in front of me, hands in position, waiting for our cue. For a moment I think something’s wrong: the stage is still unlit. But then the lights fade up. It’s time to move. We start hopping down the aisle towards the stage.

On stage I realize that I’m shaky—cold, nervous, haven’t stretched enough. But I’m aware of this the same way I would be aware of a barrette on the floor: I just know I can’t push my balances or pull up too high on my toes. I see faces in the audience, but more than that, I feel them. Whatever artists say about creating in the dark without anyone to see, dancing in the mixed dark, in front of these various faces, is entirely different. Performance adds a dimension, and while the steps still matter, what’s most important is the unbroken connection to the audience. I can feel you out there.

The performance runs smoothly, and then it’s over. I take off my makeup and find Jay and go home. I’m tired but I can’t sleep; I hear music all night. I don’t know what it is that I communicate to the audience, I don’t know what a dancer is—an instrument, raw material, an interpreter?—or what dance is, or why I want to do this. You can’t know much on stage, with dark all around you. But it’s not about knowledge, is it? —Eventually I fall asleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The second performance happens on a Monday night at 10 pm. I feel sleepy. Oh, so this is still going on? We have a lazy rehearsal before, we schlep our things to the theater, I struggle with my fake lashes, I have a sudden shaky need for chocolate. I look over and Arturo is standing in the light of the clip lamp, eyes closed, while Jason presses a fake lash to his lid. I’m calmed.

I watch the performance from the back corner of the theater. How will the dances wear over so many viewings? As a critic I never get to see a show more than once, though I’d like to; I decide to consider this an experiment in how wrong I can be, how many things I can miss. Tonight I see little changes, variations, flubs. Suzanne seems to have hurt her back. Jamey and Brinsley wrestle through a partnering section. But the audience laughs like mad, led by a man who guffaws so heartily he could hire himself out for parties. In fact, by the time we get to the stage, they’re laughing so hard that we screw up, giggle, smile. We’re totally unprepared for people laughing at our darkly humorous piece. I keep a straight face by concentrating on my character, something I haven’t consciously thought of before. I don’t know much about her, this woman with the frizzed hair and black eyes, but I know she takes what she does seriously; her punk-gothic romantic ballet may seem ridiculous to others, but it’s a true manifestation of her inner state. I’m not here to mock her, but to represent her. I stare at the laughing audience and they laugh more.

This moment, and a negative audience review (one amid several glowing reviews), and our dour third night audience make me think more about the content of the piece. Are we just making fun of ballet? Is this a spoof of Miss Somebody’s Academy for Dance, little girls and boys on stage thinking they’re making something beautiful? I don’t believe it. The next step (from this piece) might be to stage “Giselle,” or The Kingdom of the Shades from TK, and to have the audience laugh. We’re not bringing down ballet or serious emotion, but elevating laughter, acknowledging laughter as a valid and important human reaction. Eventually audiences could cry at our palpably funny performance. We’re opening a door in a series of doors that lead in, or out, towards not “truth” but a certain dense original moment. While I’m theorizing, Jamey, Brinsley, and Suzanne are onstage shouting.

I’ve never tried to figure out what we’re doing before; I thought thinking would get in the way of dance. We, the dancers, never talked about our characters in rehearsal. But now, I notice, I’m not the only one finding explanations. We all talk about Weebles, the (in my critical opinion) entirely perfect piece third in the program. The Weebles, who gesture and make faces lethargically and then furiously to music of Vivaldi, have a certain dignity, despite their ugly Savers thrift shop skirts. I catch some Weebles rehearsing on stage and making noises (“oh! hi! uhhn . . . “) as they gesture. “Do you make noise all the time?” I ask them. “I never heard it before.” “No, we’re not supposed to make noise on stage.” “It’s the inner speech of the Weebles, how they talk when they’re alone.” I understand. We need a story to animate us.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Everyone has read the first half of the Fringe diary. I’m so surprised. I told them about it before rehearsal one day, thinking they’d forget, but instead they remembered, searched it out, and read it. I have the dizzying feeling of two pieces of my life colliding. “I remember a lot of those moments you wrote about,” Brinsley says. “You can never tell when writers have their little antennae out,” Jamey agrees. Haley catches me in the dressing room. My description of the theater almost made her cry, she says. Everyone agrees that it catches the feeling of being in rehearsal.

The funny thing is that I thought I was just writing about my experience. I thought I was relaying a dance experience to a non-dance world, making an aside to people who know me better as a writer. Instead the writing has circled in on itself, so that people who’ve seen me change clothes have also, now, seen me thinking in written words. Exposure. But why did I think I could or should keep my dance and writing lives separate? And what will happen if I let them blend?

Before the third performance I’m so tired I think I’m going to fall over. Trying to attach my fake eyelashes is like trying to glue a pair of wet bats to my eyelids. “You shouldn’t wear nail polish to work,” my supervisor told me earlier, as if I would ordinarily paint my nails gore-whore red. I’ve never felt so unglamorous in my life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The audience is dreadfully cold, a pack of face cards or politicians or dead people propped up in seats and given programs which they occasionally drop. I hunch backstage and take notes for an article on how customer service work eats your soul, writing by the light of a clip lamp. For a moment I can see how dancing too would be a job: you’re somewhere in Ohio, playing a half-full theater with no one you know in the audience, uncomfortable, antsy, unable to do much of anything while you wait for your seven minutes on stage.

But it’s not a job for me. I’m still excited and nervous. Before the performance I get up on the stage, in what’s become a ritual for me and everybody else, this contact. I remember standing behind a curtain when I was nineteen: I practiced pirouettes, made shadow birds on the back wall while the audience rustled and talked in the house. Different stage, same feeling—an irreplaceable excitement unlike anything else in my life.

We have a few days off before our next performance. I go to another Fringe show, curious what the standard is for Fringe. This one features nudity—see-through shirts, a woman taking a bath on stage, a female streaker in a ski mask. I’m not there to write about it, so I don’t take notes. I can’t tell yet whether being in a performance again has changed the way I see dance, though I do wonder whether I would be comfortable wearing a see-through shirt on stage. Of course, I’m not sure that showing a breast or two on stage is any more intimate than publishing a diary like this one.

I met the choreographers of this other Fringe show once. They asked me whether I was a dancer and I said, “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a dancer. I go to class but no one pays me to dance. I don’t perform. I’m not a professional.” In my mind I didn’t meet some standard of dancerhood, some ideal weight or fitness level or tax bracket or savvy in-group status or hip holey costume. “No one pays us to dance either,” they said. They looked at me like I was crazy. I’m starting to understand why.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The second-to-last performance feels like opening again, and closing. I’ve bought new eyelashes; I may be nuts to buy new ones for two more shows, but I tell myself I’ll take care of them, save them for the next time I perform. Just as I’m batting my new lashes and rushing back into the theater, I run into a choreographer who wasn’t terribly happy with the review I gave him. Is he here to review me? Who does she think she is, he’ll say. She’s not such a great dancer. But, while I keep thinking about him, my anxiety doesn’t last. He’s not an antagonist, just another member of this community to which I also belong. Who knows? We may even work together in the future.

I have my usual set of pre-performance cramps, worries, aches. I’m going to twist my ankle tonight; it’s folded on me a couple of times already. This is going to be the night I fall off the stage. I’ll lose my balance and drop my partner during our lift, I’ll go on still wearing my warm-up pants. Oh no, I need to go to the bathroom and I only have three minutes. I’ve forgotten my lipstick. “I lost my skirt!” Haley whispers. “It was there and now it’s not!” I try to comfort her. “We’ll all go without skirts,” I say, and give her a hug as she’s turning away. “Thanks for grabbing my breast,” she says. “I feel better already.” We go on without skirts. “I didn’t even shave!” my partner spits. Still, we dance.

I watch Weebles for the second-to-last time. I already miss it and I want to be able to see it any time, I want Weebles for the screen saver on my computer. But part of its value is that I can’t quite hold it, can’t see it in one glance, can’t fully understand it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sunday morning. Our last performance starts in three hours. Some of my friends are coming to see me, and now I wish I’d made them all come. I’m not dancing in a closet, after all.

Right after the performance I’ll leave for a little retreat up north with Jay, his parents, his brother, his sister, and his sister’s family. I’ll be stripping off my red nail polish and smoothing my teased hair at seventy miles an hour. At the same time, I’m using the same bio for the performance website that I use for everything else, the one that identifies me as a poet and dance critic. Before I asked what part of my life was relevant here; it turns out that all of it is, and that dancing matters to the rest of my life.

Last night I cornered Jamey while she was changing back into her street clothes. “I really enjoyed this,” I tell her. “I’d love to do it again.” “Great!” she says. “Next we’re going to make a movie. You’ll be a movie star!” If I am, I’ll write about that too.

Time to pack for my trip. Between now and then I’ll have that seven minutes on stage, looking into the dark house, hearing the music. I’ll be someone else, part of something else, lost, but keeping my balance.