Being somebody

I once had dinner with a cinematographer.

“There’s a song about you!” I exclaimed. “It goes, I AM a cin-e-muuh-TAW-grapher….”

The cinematographer smiled: “Isn’t it the only song about us?”

Yeah, probably. Which is one reason it works so well as prologue to Faye Driscoll’s “837 Venice Blvd,” the dance-drama that played at Here Arts Center in the South Village for ten days earlier this month, though it should have been for ten weeks.

Like the dance, the Will Oldham song jumbles the strict specificities of a child’s world–the one job you imagine for yourself (cinematographer), because the word has six syllables and they go together well; the one address you’ve memorized (837 Venice Blvd), because it’s home and you want a name for that place–with the mammoth emotional terrain it takes adulthood to contract into a line. “I walked away from New York City,” sings the cinematographer in a wobbly voice. But by the next verse, he’s an adult: “And I walked away from everything that’s good.” The absoluteness of feeling may belong to childhood, but the generalization “everything that’s good” is grownup (just in time for the good to be gone.)

Driscoll–age 33, recently included in Dance Magazine’s annual “25 to Watch” issue–captures the threshold between the first line of the song and the second. The three magnetic characters in “837 Venice Blvd” are playing dress-up with self-image and testing the rules of the game. One day they may forget there was a game; only the rules will remain. “837 Venice Blvd” offers a reprieve from that day and a confrontation with it.

As addendum to “I am a Cinematographer,” Celia (Celia Rowlson-Hall) chants, “I’m waiting to grow up. I’m waiting to be young,” in that special drone of children singing a private epic to themselves. Celia has just strung together, like mismatched beads, many scary adventures, including that “the Russians put a nuclear bomb in [my family’s] TV and blew us into a thousand parts. I had to go to the doctor and get a thousand stitches. Over my heart.” She concludes, “I’m waiting for you to show. I’m waiting for the show.” And then the show–far enough away to prompt laughter and close enough to hit hard–begins.

It’s the kind that Celia would have concocted with her family when “the Santa Ana winds blew through Topanga Canyon and we were a we. Weeeee!” Now that they’re torn asunder, the overriding theme will be “how exhausting it is to have to keep being somebody all the time” (that’s from the program notes). And how exhilarating. The dancers burst through the red velveteen curtain dividing HERE’s black box front to back and introduce themselves again and again.

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Michael, Celia, and Nikki (Photo by Steven Schreiber)

First to emerge is Michael (Michael Helland), with glittery headband, extra-short running shorts, and false eyelashes he loves so much, he wants you to love them, too–so he glances sidelong like Betty Boop as often as possible. Scuttling behind him to guarantee that he become a cartoon is his puppetmeister and ventriloquist, Nikki (Nikki Zalcita). At one point she thrusts a fist between his legs. It begins to writhe–and squawk “I’m hungry!” What does the lubricious snake hunger for? What else?–a peanut butter and jam sandwich.

When it’s his turn, Michael hoists Nikki up by her own petard, showing off her kung fu legs as she dangles in the air; he tries to twirl her tatas (they pertly resist); and he has her do the gangsta-girl squat ‘n’ talk.

Their mutual manglings are hilarious–like a child mauling her baby-doll’s face, wringing its limbs, and squeezing all the stuffing from its body, all while cooing like her mother–but their aim is true.

Nikki, for example, is tough. Hunkered down in a wide squat a few feet from the front row, she discovers the glories of her pelvis. She gyrates with such singlemindedness that Michael and Celia, who’ve been running and leaping and grabbing at each other in the background, wander over to stare. After a few minutes, Michael warns, “That’s weird, Nikki.”

“837 Venice Boulevard” proceeds like child’s play, with one thing disintegrating into another. Nikki’s forays into Pelvis Power slide into an extended anime adventure in which she performs villain and heroine alike, thrusting herself through with her sword. Meanwhile, Michael and Celia disappear. Once Nikki’s fantasia comes to a ferocious end, she exits via the heavy black curtain that marks the wings, and there they are, behind the curtain, in a secret bedroom. (Kudos to Sara Walsh for the ingenious set.)

No one ever exits 837 Venice Blvd. They just wake up from a self-engrossing dream to open a door–or a curtain, as it happens–on a kitchen, or living room, and people we weren’t expecting. (How could we be surprised when the inhabitants amount to three?)

About half way into the 80-minute show, just as we’re getting the hang of its digressive nature, the three don identical satiny capes and charge right at us. We straighten up: This is it! The Show. A dance number, with jazzy steps and unison, like on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

But as usual when marshaled exuberance replaces distended, distractible whimsy, someone gets plowed under. Celia takes the routine as far as it goes, as far as she knows; Michael and Nikki keep going. Celia yells, “Wait! Wait!,” then realizes, “You practiced without me. You made stuff up behind my back.” They’re pretending not to hear her. They’re dancing and grinning. “Stop. Stop. STOP. STOPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP.” She unleashes a single, endless, throat-destroying scream.

We’ve all done this–hurled our heart into our mouths to shout “Stop,” and the magic didn’t happen. Wanted something so simple and so entirely that it seemed impossible we wouldn’t get it. And then didn’t. It can make a person inconsolable for years–and ashamed, because the feeling comes direct from babydom. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to get over: it’s pure.

The audience grows hushed while Celia channels the worst of adults–their special brand of tyranny, bigotry, hypocrisy. She strips Michael and Nikki of their “cape privileges”; trumpets her own virtue (“All I’ve ever wanted was to love you”); tells Michael to just try to make it with a woman (she dares him), and announces to Nikki that her calves are too thick for the fuck-me boots she covets and her family is disgusting, squatting buglike when they eat, and so is her craterous face.

They watch, still and stupefied, like she were a rabid dog: you don’t need to know dog language to know the creature is mad. When the diatribe is over, they smooth her sweaty hair with her defeated hands and carry her through a winding solo of grief and aspiration.

To keep being somebody, you’re always giving someone up. “837 Venice Boulevard” doesn’t just depict that wrenching routine, it performs it. Driscoll understands that at the heart of live theater are emotional distances (perspective, we might call it if this were a painting). She beams a light on theatrical self-fashioning, and lets you feel the scraps of being fluttering in the dark.

In the shadows of the dance that Celia, Michael, and Nikki create between themselves is the haunted, shivery dance they do with us.


Here’s the wonderful review, by my esteemed colleague Roslyn Sulcas at the Times, that prompted me to see “837 Venice Boulevard.”

From Youtube, here’s a two-minute interview with director-choreographer Faye Driscoll, interspersed with a few snatches of the dance (with the sound off).

If you live in the New York area, are intrigued by dance theater, and are even just a little curious about its history, don’t miss the José Limon company’s powerful staging of Anna Sokolow’s 1955 masterpiece “Rooms.” I saw it last night and can vouch for the excellence of the dancers’ interpretation. The dance brought to mind early Godard and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: it opens the Age of Anxiety right up to us. “Rooms” will be performed on Program A of the Limon troupe’s Joyce season this week: Thursday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

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