by Meredith Benjamin
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” This is the striking, if straightforward, revelation that begins Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis. In the pages that follow, Kafka chronicles Gregor’s turmoil and challenges as he struggles to adapt to life in his new condition, and the estrangement it produces in those around him. The conceit is not one that seems easily adaptable to dance, but choreographer Arthur Pita has taken on the challenge in a production that came to New York’s Joyce Theatre after premiering at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in London.
Adapting this story for the stage necessarily requires a shift in focus from the interior to the exterior: our perspective shifts from inside Gregor’s head, amidst his feelings and reactions, to his exterior and the physical aspects of his transformations. Whereas in the novella, we learn of his family and their reactions only through his eyes, onstage it is the family—his parents and sister Grete—who serve as our onstage stand-ins, registering the shock his changes elicit. When the audience entered the theatre, these three were already onstage, going about their daily business. The set (designed by Simon Daw), was split in two, emphasizing the duality that will come to characterize the dynamic in the flat: the family’s quotidian nervousness confined to the kitchen half, and Gregor in an austere bedroom on the other. In addition to these striking visuals, the tense and claustrophobic atmosphere of the piece is sustained by the eerie accompaniment of musician Frank Moon, which ranged from classical violin to guttural vocals.
The production begins with three squarely and methodically performed repetitions of a daily routine: Gregot goes through the motions of the day, getting dressed, buying a coffee, boarding the train, and returning home. Throughout his ordeal, family life continues around the kitchen table, often to the point of absurdity, as when his constantly worried mother distractedly works out to an exercise program on the tiny TV. Against this stark background, Gregor’s transformation is unthinkable, and uncontainable.
Edward Watson, a principal at the Royal Ballet more often seen in more traditionally balletic roles, was a marvel as Gregor Samsa. His transformation is evoked not through costuming, but instead through movement: the stiff, square man who went about his daily business in an almost mechanical manner becomes a creepy, tangled insect: limbs askew in unnatural ways, fingers and toes that keep moving like antenna, independent of the rest of the body. When he first wakes up on his back, limbs in the air, there is a dark brown substance oozing from his mouth: the first external sign of the change he has undergone. The sticky, slippery substance will eventually envelop his entire body as well as his bedroom, the eerily-streaked set beginning to resemble a scene from a horror film and illustrating the sense of confined chaos that prevails.
While the novella lets us inside Gregor’s thoughts, logical throughout, to remind us of the person inside the insect’s body, here it is the human body, still visible through the layer of slime and contorted positions that foregrounds the duality. At moments, we catch glimpses of his human eyes, conveying the increasing agony of his isolation from his family. The most remarkable element of Watson’s physical transformation was the way in which the relationship between his torso and his limbs changed in movements that suggested his legs no longer originated from his hips. Even when he paused, a creeping echo of motion always remained, as his fingers or toes undulated, echoing the near-constant motion of insects.
Grete (played by the splendidly vivid Corey Annand), is the figure who most clearly marks the passage of time for us: the first time her still-human brother returns home, she demonstrates, awkwardly, her beginning forays into ballet. By the end of the production, she is a full-fledged dancer in pointe shoes, expressing her frustration through dance, her movements emphasizing the more bug-like and angular qualities of ballet and tying her to her brother, despite the fact that she is now vehemently trying to separate herself from him. When the gooey substance spills over into the kitchen, a clear divide has been breached: as the family is forced to confront the effects of his transformation, we see their own movements begin to change as well.
Ultimately, after scaring off a trio of boarders who would have been a much-needed source of income for his family, Gregor’s sense of being a burden becomes too great, and he escapes out the window to what we assume is his death. As an audience, we see his experience only from the outside; in his metamorphosis, Gregor is rendered mute, unable to communicate. His thought process, so carefully detailed in Kafka’s telling, remains a mystery to us, and in the end, we are left only with the highly theatrical spectacle of his absence.
Where do we draw the line differentiating performance from rehearsal? Between prompts for a class or workshop and choreography? These were some of the questions that came to mind at Surprise Every Time, a mini-festival of “live choreography” conceived and programmed by Sally Silvers and held at Roulette, an arts space in Brooklyn, over two days in the last weekend of September. In contrast to the highly theatrical and stylized production of The Metamorphosis, Surprise Every Time thrived on the tentative and the provisional. The festival consisted of four different performances, each featuring three different choreographers or pairs of choreographers. The choreographers had not selected their dancers, and they had no opportunity for advance collaboration. Each choreographer had thirty minutes in which to create and then have their dancers “perform”—complete with reminders when time was running out. The program read like a veritable “who’s who” of the contemporary dance scene, featuring choreographers including Bill T. Jones, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Alexandra Beller, and a number of well-known dancers, many of them choreographers in their own right.
When I attended on Sunday afternoon, the first choreographer, Jérôme Bel, was Skyping in from Paris. His face was projected on a large screen at the back of the stage: a fact which made him decidedly uncomfortable. His initial requests to the dancers centered around getting them to hide his image or drown out his voice, to challenge the physical manifestations of his power that put him so ill at ease. While the dancers were occasionally successful in hiding his presence, the challenges of choreography-by-Skype proved overwhelming: the looming image of the choreographer seemed to inhibit development on either end.
Different approaches to the task at hand took shape over the course of the afternoon: Bêl was tentative, asking the dancers to try things out, becoming a part of the process himself, and changing direction according to his own unscripted reactions. Paul Langland and Mary Overlie gave the dancers a series of conceptual tasks (e.g. “doing the unnecessary”), asked them to combine them with a one-line script (“Darling, I feel like I’m falling in love for the very first time”), and then sat back to see what happened. The final two choreographers, Aynsley Vandenbrouck & Abigail Levine came in with the most pre-determined idea, explaining to the dancers the multi-step process they would go through (Vandenbrouck noted that she felt uncomfortable with this one-sided dynamic in which they dictated to the dancers; Levine, on the other hand, said “I’m fine with it.”).
While only Overlie explicitly mentioned it, the ethos of the 1960’s Judson Dance Theatre—in which the practice is the product, and ordinary movement is privileged over spectacle—echoed throughout the afternoon. No one seemed particularly anxious about finding something that worked, or developing a polished piece to present. None of the choreographers gave any particular “steps” or even any suggestions on the type of movement. Their directions were each of the sort that one would hear in an improvisation class: abstract suggestions about the quality of the movement, or the intention behind it.
A performance of this kind is inherently difficulty to write about—what is fair game for evaluation? For interpretation? I was at times frustrated by my own passivity, unable to try out on my own body the choreographers’ evocative instructions. My friend suggested that perhaps we as the audience were nonetheless participating—doing the mental work that the dancers were doing, as we thought about how we would interpret a certain cue or directive, despite the fact that we ourselves were not moving. Less about witnessing a spectacle and more about witnessing the creative process—failures and non-starters included—the festival was a reminder of the value of practice and investigation. Perhaps as audience members, we were meant to feel frustrated by our role as spectators—the better to push us to go forth and experiment on our own.