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StageStruck: Form and Substance

Serious Play! devises an homage to a dance-theater visionary

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Thursday, August 09, 2012
Ellen Augarten Photo
Meta/Pina

It's called The Meta/Pina Project: Blind Dreamers. "Pina" for the visionary German choreographer Pina Bausch, whose tanztheater (dance-theater) was fashioned from natural movement, spoken phrases and everyday interactions. "Meta" because this project was inspired by and builds on Bausch's work process and gestural vocabulary. The piece rides on the wider reputation that Bausch, who died in 2009, has attained thanks to Wim Wenders' recent film, Pina.

It's co-directed by Sheryl Stoodley, founder/director of Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble, and Toby Bercovici, who trained with Serious Play! as a teenager and has emerged as the Valley's most daring young director. It's a devised piece, created by an intergenerational ensemble who have come together from the worlds of theater, dance, contact improv and arts activism. Make that 11, adding guitarist extraordinaire John Sheldon, who performs a live soundscape to accompany the action.

And "action" is what it's all about, says Stoodley of this piece, which she terms "movement-theater": not pure dance, but with little spoken text. "The essence of what you see in theater is action," and what actors express physically is just as crucial as what they are saying, Stoodley insists.

As Bausch did with her company, Serious Play's piece was developed from improvised movements and structured interactions, informed by the performers' personal histories and incorporating some of Bausch's trademark gestures and themes, especially images of greeting and parting, attraction and betrayal, violence and restraint. Out of these experiments and exchanges, conducted over a two-month rehearsal period, emotional and narrative connections emerged. These in turn led to the framing concept of an extended family—mother and father, aunt and uncle, sisters, a cousin and a boyfriend—the "blind dreamers" whose veneer of polite civility masks tensions and dark secrets.

Meta/Pina is performed on a bare stage hung with gauzy drapes. A dining room table and 10 chairs create family tableaus, delineate spaces and define relationships. The action, in groups, solos and pairs, ranges from playful to frenetic to furious, from purposeful movement to swing dancing.

"We came in different ways to the idea of civility and savagery, control and rebellion," says Bercovici. "I was very interested in the meta aspect of what's happening between these people in the room together and what that is generating, and then seeing what encounters we can have among the family members, entrenched in Pina's gestural life."

"Pina said, 'Hint at things,'" Stoodley adds. "There was always a story in her pieces, but she invited the audience's imagination in, to read their own responses into the emotive gesture." The intention is the same here. For the most part, the multiple story lines are not explicit but are hinted at through gestures and interactions, though there are several short monologues in which performers relate parts of their personal histories.

The challenge, Stoodley explains, is to find a median between being too literal, "which destroys the ability of the audience to engage their own imaginations and have their own story," and too abstract, leaving too little substance to invite the audience's imagination into. That balancing act informs Meta/Pina's form, texture and trajectory.

August 9-12, Center for the Arts, 17 New South St., Northampton, (413) 584-7327, nohoarts.org.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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