General 8-7-2004

Fringe Diary: Rehearsal

Lightsey Darst is dancing in the Fringe--here' s her take on what it feels like to move from the audience to the stage.

Brinsley opens a bag of Twizzlers. She is wearing a nude under-leotard and a satin faux tutu with fuchsia lacing up the front. Her legs are bare and her platinum hair (brown roots flaunted) is spiked up into little knots and ponytails. Next to me one of the guys fights with his false eyelashes while I try to decide on a one-sentence bio. What part of my life is relevant here? Meanwhile, on the blond new floor of Patrick’s Cabaret, a dancer stretches her leg over her head, flops on her back, giggles, turns a page in the magazine she is/is not reading. Rehearsal.

It began innocently enough. I met the choreographer, we exchanged phone numbers, we forgot to call, three months passed. But then we met again, and she still had space, and I was still interested, frightened, and anxious, so I went to my first rehearsal for a Fringe show.

A little background: I performed with an amateur ballet company during high school and college, but I haven’t performed since. I usually say I’m a writer, a poet, and a dance critic, not a dancer. It’s true that I’ve gone on taking classes, and it’s also true that calling yourself a dancer is mostly a matter of self-definition, since hardly anyone makes a living from it, but I still like to preserve the distinction. I’m not involved. I may go to class, but it’s mainly to watch dancers and think about dance. I keep a critical distance. Right?

At first I’m not very involved. I don’t believe, somehow, that this is actually going to happen; I let steps float in and out of my head, skip a rehearsal, don’t tell anyone that I’m going to be in the Fringe. But slowly things change. I skip another rehearsal, sit on the back porch drinking a vodka lemonade and feeling guilty and wishing I was downtown. I become attached to sequences, certain steps. I blurt out the news at parties—“I’m rehearsing for the Fringe Festival!”

It’s late May. Rehearsal is supposed to start at 8:30 pm, but it’s 8:45 and we’re sitting around talking about Jamey’s fiancé, how she met him, etc. “This is when I was into costume changes,” she says. “I was changing my clothes fifteen times during a party. Remember?” Someone notices sunset and we go to the windows to watch it—pink and orange over the strip club next door, tropical, nuclear. “You were always into costume changes,” says Haley. “Oh.” Jamey shrugs her shoulders. We get up, climbing off the floor as if our feet were a story up.

Getting choreography is like having your scalp massaged. “Put your arms like this.” You do what you’re told, pause. “No, try it like this.” You switch, wait. “Can I see it like this?” It’s a relief to be told what to do, to be decisionless, a mannequin. It’s also, in the early stages, completely without responsibility, because the choreography changes often. Remembering can be a liability. I float through rehearsal, half-hypnotized.

At the same time, I’m desperately trying to pay attention. Jamey does something called postmodern dance, and I want to know what that is. It’s true—I can see that right off—that this isn’t classical, and it has an element of humor, but this doesn’t seem like the essential sort of definition that I’m looking for. We make vocal noise on stage, but we’re not making a point, just accompanying ourselves; the dance has a clear origin (“this one woman who really dances like this”) but no purpose or meaning; is this postmodern? Questioning the choreographer might be one way to solve my problem, but that’s the opposite of the kind of dancer I am. “So,” my partner begins, “you want us to look at each other instead of at the audience? I’m just asking. Because I think that’s a very strong choreographic choice.” I can’t imagine asking this. My question is, “Are we holding this for two counts or four?”

One day the choreographers’ friend, Suzanne, comes to watch. “I think I want to see only Jason alive at the end,” she says. “All right,” Jamey says, “Suzanne’s decided: only Jason gets to come back to life.” I’m impressed by her openness about her own choreography—is this what it means to be postmodern?

We try it Suzanne’s way and Suzanne says, “No, it’s not enough out. It needs to be more out.” We go back to the original, springing to life and hissing at the audience.

Rehearsal means getting home late and tired and dirty every Wednesday, talking in breaks about bodies and boyfriends and weather, missing a bus downtown at 10:45. It means a certain space I leave in my life for something I don’t understand and have no control over. I’m more curious about what dance is and what it means than I have been before, while at the same time I’m beginning to think that it’ll be one of those mysteries that only deepens with experience.

Costumes: black leotards, short black ballet skirts, no tights, drama queen red nails, teased hair, black eyes. One of the other dancers worries about jelly at the tops of her thighs. “You look fine,” I tell her, though what I really want to say is, “You look beautiful,” because, corny as it sounds, at this point it’s true. While at first I noticed one woman’s taut stomach and flat, plasticky bellybutton and another woman’s full, naturally push-up chest, by now everyone has come to look right to me, the way anything familiar is right. It’s a cliché of dancers, but by dress rehearsal we’re all changing in the same room, completely unconcerned about our nudity. I look up and Jamey is making a decision bare-breasted. Who cares? It’s only when one woman’s boyfriend comes to see her that I feel self-conscious. The dance body is functional; sexy and beautiful, yes, but because of what it can do, not what it looks like.

During dress rehearsal I see the other pieces for the first time. I’m impressed by their variety and adventurousness, and I’m proud to be in this performance. Postmodern, for these choreographers, seems to means that they can use whatever they want to, in whatever mood—a humorous tangled-up lesbian tango, a gestural coda to Vivaldi. The piece I’m in falls into line with the rest of the performance. I still don’t understand choreography, or what defines postmodern dance, but I’m starting to understand how these choreographers work: they take an idea and run with it, trusting themselves to produce something complex and interesting. They’re not bound by politics or preconceptions. They’re fearless.

At the same time, I don’t have a choice about understanding this work: I’m dancing it. I have to understand it that way, through the moving body, through my arms and legs. I don’t have a critical distance from the piece I’m in and right now I don’t want it.

Tech time. Our theater is dark and has a suspended feel, as if it were on the Voyager spacecraft or, better, on the upside-down cruise ship of The Poseidon Adventure. In the Heart of the Beast feels more like in the belly of the beast. As I’m lying on the scarred, tape-tattooed stage, stretching and staring up at a massive klieg light which, if I had wings, I would certainly fly to like a moth, a tech walks past my head, a guy whose clothing is sort of Luke Skywalker meets Hard Times Café. Dancers with their feet over their heads are clearly old hat to him.

The lights go on and off. “Pink romantic lights,” says Suzanne. The empty stage turns dreamy, soap-opera. I can’t read or write, and there’s nothing to do since I already put on my makeup in the little side alley, so I strike up a conversation with the guest choreographer. I tell her what I do and we talk about informed criticism and the difference between information and curiosity; it’s a ridiculous conversation to have while wearing false eyelashes and little trails of liquid liner. I tell myself that it’s a costume like any other.

The technical rehearsal is shaky. I stand at the bottom of the stage steps and forget, for half a second, that I’m supposed to go up; we’ve only rehearsed on flat surfaces before. My partner and I miss our lift and I catch myself two counts before anyone else on one section. But, on the other hand, it’s the theater, and electric. I look at the empty seats as if they were full of invisible people. Someone claps as we bow. We’re almost there.

Opening night. I’m writing this piece about an hour before the show. My red nail polish has chipped; I’m writing this for me as much as for you, because I need to remember to go find Jamey and put more on. I’m—not nervous—but excited, in that edgy, yawning, jumpy, stomach-twisting kind of way. I need to stretch, tease my hair, wash the dishes, remind my partner about the stairs. Call is at 9:30. I’m only onstage for seven minutes. I’m ready.