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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Watch Your Step!

Wild Grass. Photo: Han Jiang

By David Hsieh

Being a performer is not easy. You have to remember your lines, your notes, or the movement. You have to watch out for light and sound cues. You have to pay attention to your co-performers onstage or in the pit. You have to be conscious of the audience. But for some ├╝ber adventurous artists at BAM, these are not enough. They present another challenge—to themselves and to BAM's production team. They put unusual materials on the stage surface for the performers to navigate.

In Pina Bausch’s Arien (1985), Vollmond (2010), and Canadian Opera Company’s Nightingale and Other Short Fables (2011) directed by Robert Lepage, waterproofing and plumbing were required to turn the Opera House stage into a wading pool for performers to dance, slip 'n' slide, row gondolas, and sing in. Bausch also covered the stage with dirt in Rite of Spring (1984) and Gebirge (1985), concrete blocks in Palermo, Palermo (1991), and flowers in both Nelken (1988) and Der Fensterputzer (1997). (In contrast, the upcoming Kontakthof, set in a gymnasium, is relatively spartan.) In Happy Days (2008) Fiona Shaw was buried up to her waist in a mound of earth.

Marth Clarke’s Endangered Species (1990) used a straw-covered floor to help all the animals, including a baby elephant, feel comfortable. In Sasha Waltz’s Gezeiten (2010) the floor was dismantled during the performance as the walls caught fire.

This season adds to this unusual tradition. Three productions use unusual floors—all unique in their own way.

Embers—rock load-in. Photo: Jennifer Grutza
In Pan Pan Theatre’s Embers seen in the Harvey Theater in September, the stage is covered with 20 tons of rocks. Jennifer Grutza, one of the many resourceful production supervisors at BAM, talked to a lot of professionals to find a landscaping company on Long Island which provided rocks that satisfied the company’s specifics—texture, color, size, etc. (We will let you in on the secret—they are from the Delaware River.) These then had to be spread in a labor-intensive way to resemble a natural pebble beach. Because actors walked on them, stage crews handled them, and audiences breathed the same air, extra cleaning was required. The stage needed added support underneath. Barricades had to be built to protect lighting, audio, and other equipment to prevent rocking, knocking, dirtying the equipment, or falling into holes.

Later this month Zvi Sahar and PuppetCinema perform Salt of the Earth, which might be more aptly called “Salt on the Earth!” Nine hundred pounds of it will be poured into the Fishman Space. Performers (including puppets) will use stencils, funnels, and sieves to manipulate this spread of white sand into various landscapes and topography of Israel: desert dunes, city streets, a seashore, etc. Talk about taking a Dead Sea bath.

First up, however, is Beijing Dance Theater’s Wild Grass. Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan took inspiration from the iconic Chinese leftist writer Lu Xun’s eponymous collection of poems. Lu Xun published the volume in the early part of the 20th century when China was struggling to shed its imperial past, including hidebound customs and unequal treaties signed with foreign sovereignties. Lu Xun encouraged his countrymen to embrace a new beginning, even if it meant death to the old—only after burning the wild grass would trees then grow.

Salt of the Earth. Photo: Yair-Meyuhas
Wild Grass uses three different floors designed by company’s co-founder and set designer Han Jiang, who also took inspiration from the poems. In the first section, “Dead Fire,” the floor resembles layers of leaves which were vividly described in the text. The leaves are white to evoke a glacier, also in the text. In the second section, “Farewell of the Shadow,” instead of directly depicting the images in the poem, Han contrasts the dancers’ bodies and the space around them. The entire stage is stripped bare; the floor is demarcated in black and white.

In the third section, “Dance of the Extremity,” he turned to the grass in the title. “The grass is a symbol of humans and nature being controlled by outside forces—whether they’re conscious of it or not.” To switch from floor to floor is a challenge to the dancers, but the athletic Beijing dancers are up to it. In its last appearance, Haze (2011 Next Wave), there was also a specially designed floor made of thick, bouncy crash mats. Han said that it took time and experimentation with the dancers to perfect the aesthetics and assure safety. BAM’s production team will also be challenged—how to swap out floors in the shortest time. Just another chapter in BAM's ongoing storied production history.

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