Performing Arts

The Working Artist: Spotlight on The Cabiri—Phase 2

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Even those who “support” the arts often treat the making of art like an optional activity in life, something to be reserved for the gifted. It isn’t. In spite of what you may have read, art is not just about being crazy, weird, incoherent, and incomprehensible while expecting money for it–though surely there are people who believe this, too. This modern world is not a world where artists are artists because they’ve no idea what else to do, or because it’s an easy A or any of that sort of rubbish. It is actually the opposite of the art major party line in college, where “it’s all good, man, just do your thang.” On the contrary. Often it’s not all good and you cannot just do your thang.

Being an artist requires massive amounts of self-imposed dirty work alternating with almost palpable tedium. In that sense it is not unlike the jobs most people endure every day. But here there is another layer. Simply to be an artist requires artists to sacrifice large portions of their lives to activity that has precious little to do with enjoyment or even with art. Numerous minutiae are involved: day jobs, juggling rehearsal schedules around a dozen people, the simple cost of affording it all and hoping to make enough money to recoup the cost of simply mounting a work/show/exhibition, a distinct lack of the eight hours of sleep most people spend happily each night. The 14/48: World’s Quickest Theater Festival is a crash course in this sort of dirty work, of course, but that, too, is something most people never see. Even the ones in it are too exhausted and wired to notice it much.

What do artists prove when they prove that this is hard work? I’m not sure. But I’d like to know, and so I continue to probe the question. I believe we all live in a world in which art is a vital necessity, an essential component of a dignified human life with which all-too-chic and sophisticated technocrats and moneychangers have lost touch almost completely; that is, until someone takes away their well-designed electronic screens or forces them to sit in uncomfortable chairs in antiseptic waiting rooms with lime green walls.

This is for all those who do the dirty jobs.

***

Quando videris forma sine sacrum ignem, audi ignis vocem… So goes the rite of The Cabiri. I tracked the performers in this elite and extraordinary group for almost a month with those words in my head every night, stepping away from the drudgery of my own life to see if I too could listen to the voice of the flame. I tracked that flame and its progress through over three weeks of rehearsals and a week of technical rehearsals (affectionately known as “tech” to insiders). Over that time I grew a deep appreciation for their work, deeper than it had ever been. I debated how best to convey the impressions to an audience. Ultimately I decided to publish my notes with no rewriting at all. You will read here exactly what went through my head as I watched their beautiful piece Tarhun: Legend of the Lightning God coalesce into its final shape, with the occasional illustrative picture.

Eight players today–by the end of this I hope to know everyone’s name. It’s a big cast. I can see there is a core of performers that I recognize from having watched them awhile, a couple of new faces and a lot of support. Good. They’ll need it all. This looks like a vast project.

I know John, Charly, Kirra, Danny–the rest not yet. I feel very much like an outsider. Suspicion? Probably. What is that guy doing here? Is he just here to steal our souls and spread inane gossip? Doesn’t he know how important this is to us? I’m recalling David Smith’s words. Nobody understands art but the artist. Affection for art is the sole property of the artist. The majority approach art with hostility. The artist deserves to be belligerent to the majority. The artist is a product of his time, and his belligerence is a defense and not a preference.

I suppose I expect some belligerence then.

***

Starting with stretching exercises and warm-ups–makes perfect sense. I wonder how many people think about the strength and dexterity necessary for even the simplest things in circus/acrobatics.

All the mechanical details–

What motivates a performer in such an unappreciated form? Obviously the internal need to do it, but it’s not that simple, of course. Behind the difficulty and the joy of surmounting the obstacle–what then? I can’t speak for the Cabiri. Myself I write knowing it’s futile and that essentially no one cares, has cared or will care about anything I say: that is my stock answer for my work. I go on out of a combination of pure inertia and the stubborn belief that even when no one cares, some things simply need to be said. But my work isn’t nearly as hard as the Cabiri’s. This is labor, and this is love.

There’s a togetherness even during the warm-ups. Simple, elegant exercises not unlike what I’m used to for running and plyometrics. The stretching however is much more complex and the more complex it gets, the more individual things become; everyone has a basic stretch but there are variations depending on what each performer feels the need to work out. There’s a beautiful image to be made from all the limbs waving in sync, but I don’t feel cozy pulling out my camera.

***

They have new music, which is giving them some troubles with synchronization–this is two weeks before dress rehearsal, and they’ve only just got the music last week. Wow. Praise the musician for even putting together anything in such a short time, especially as fine as score as this is.

Technical elements for the day:

choreography
music
lights

Lights won’t be present really for a couple more weeks, so this is an approximation.

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I’ve just met Erin. Erin is their choreographer. She’s extremely focused. I just watch. I love watching choreography. Here they’re practicing a smooth section. She calls it “honey” and “syrupy.” This must be for just after the Hahhimas section, ol’ Jack Frost himself. Amazing really how widespread some myths are. I suppose Mircea Eliade is smiling away.

Next up: working with silks – circle bound — impregnating the mountain. Interesting.

***

What interests me about the technical approach?

They really do make it look so simple. This is an endurance test, even in rehearsal. Why do I watch? The physical beauty of it, sure. The admiration for anyone who puts himself through that sort of trial. The spectacle. When does beauty come from spectacle? When does spectacle alone suffice? How do you get meaning out of spectacle? Do you overwhelm an audience with spectacle so they’ll actually pay attention to story beneath? So many questions.

***

Starting to see a bit more of the show. I’m annoyed at missing the run through yesterday. Apparently they did it three times start to finish and naturally I bogused it with the wrong times for the date.

There’s a tornado. A “spaceship” caught in the tornado. A dragon. Of course they’d do the Illuyankas tale. Dragons are cool. And familiar: there are an amazing amount of dragon tales in virtually every human culture on earth, even in Africa (Aido-Hwedo, for instance), though no one talks about African dragons. Not too much of the tech so far. I can see Danny and Lauren’s routine with the straps is going to be awesome–a test of endurance for sure. The triangle routine is still not coming off for me. Lines are jagged and it’s rough. But I’ve only seen it once, so I’m not completely sure what it’s supposed to be in the first place. They’re working on Kirra’s part of it now–a bit of difficulty with transition in poses.

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The aerialists have their advisor, the dancers have theirs today. How much do they overlap I wonder? Costume and props are working hard on the dragon. It’s pretty awesome-looking. Can’t wait to see it under lights.

John tells me there’s a book to be released with the show–one hundred pages, volume five of a ten volume encyclopedia. Awesome idea. Never enough mythology books in the world, especially for geeks like me. John calls the group “dance revivalists” quoting the Cabiri’s predating of the Athenian Mysteries. Fascinating. Remind myself also: dig into the Harry Hoffner Jr book of Hittite Myths at home.

***

Chains after tissue. Silks are giving April problems. Probably a centrifugal force issue to my eyes. She’s pushing up while she spins, making it hard to get her hip up and over. I can feel her frustration. It’s also delicate timing because there’s a dragon below her and things have to be just right. Try again Friday.

John’s on his chains. I saw him working on this Friday last. This time it’s not about technique or practice; it’s about esthetics. So difficult to get things just right. I didn’t bring my video camera but someone should. I wonder how many choreographers do that these days, with all the cheap, portable video devices.

***

Tech time. Just loaded in everything last night. Not glamorous. Lots of stitching, lots of tape, lots of cord, lots of glue. My old union would go nuts: no clear division between actors/dancers/crew/tech/musician duties. Everyone chips in because, of course, they have to. The younger performers are a little more inclined to gather together and kaffeeklatsch in the corner unless someone specifically asks them. They’re waiting for makeup.

The formerly bare rehearsal room now has brand new black curtains surrounding the room and a huge scrim covering the window. A massive scaffold on wheels in the back of the stage doubtless is going to move shortly before rehearsal proper begins. The SANCA rehearsal space now looks like a stage, finally, except for the missing curtain over the entrance.

It’s dark. Lighting patterns are being tested. Folks are chowing down. Food on a set is always a sign that this is going to be a very long day, and I expect it is. Spots, floods, barn doors–all the gaffer’s work. I wonder how many people ever even see this part of the process unless they perform themselves.

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Kirra is sitting there stitching what I believe is the skin of the dragon Illuyankas. It’s headless. Right now it’s a collection of hoops and a duct pipe with an oblong piece of cloth on a frame–the vertebrae and atlas, so to speak. Mike joins her as they work on putting fabric around the first hoop. Intense. Five days till show time and the main creature for the first act isn’t even done yet. They’ll be working fast, for sure. The big puppet for the finale isn’t built yet, either. Ah, the joys of being the below-the-line folks.

My goal today is to be invisible. Too much going on. I don’t want to be in the way any more than I already am. Less hostility now, less of David Smith’s “belligerence,” but I still don’t feel like I belong. And that’s fine. I know I’m a guest here at best; at worst, I’m an alien invader trespassing sacred ground.

***

The kids are waiting around for something to do. Lauren K. calls them for makeup and tells them mostly they’re going to watch–it’s a “makeup lesson.” This is a brand new makeup crew–it’s the first time they’ve done makeup for Cabiri. Charly and John are showing how to do the fish face and the eyes. Charly is amazingly good with the makeup brush and liner but John–mastery at work. Incredible how swift and accurate and deft his hands are. Clearly he’s done this so often he could probably do it looking backward in a mirror. Pretty cool, though: other people the Cabiri have had do makeup for their shows have never had the official lesson; they’ve just had to figure it out all by themselves. Harsh–shows the pressure of time. This time, though, the Cabiri principals are exercising a bit more control and order. The sign of a big show, for sure.

Watching lighting is interesting. Sara is bumming about it but John likes the wrinkled texture of the scrim. I actually thought it was that way on purpose, so I suppose I like it, too. Still needs some tension but I think the rest will work out. Makeup has come along. Lighting cues are being tested. Big issue is working with the puppets. They still aren’t done yet and might not be soon. Performers still have to work with them to get used to it all. Should be interesting.

All lights up now. Good sign. It’s just about two o’clock. Still two hours to go. I can stay till 4:30 or so, then off to the Klavihorn show.

***

Three weeks and some change. Now it’s really showtime. Dress rehearsal. The final chance to make big changes. Once the show previews tomorrow night and then opens officially, all bets are off.  Charly’s had to take almost the entire week off from working afternoons for tech and such. I wonder how many hours these people have sacrificed of their paying jobs and “normal” lives to make this all happen. Someone should really do a tally of everyone and how many hours they’ve taken off work, how many hours they were scheduled to rehearse, how many hours they actually put in, and how many hours each person actually had to concentrate on their routines instead of all the busybody work that typifies the “small company” dance theater in Seattle. I suspect it would be eye-opening.

Just before the show now: scurrying. Seats are up, being counted. Tickets also being counted. 100 tickets expected, 106 seats. All the minutiae of a show. I’m holding a piece of paper with something written on it. My linguistic knowledge tells me it’s Hittite. Charly tells me it’s a chant to invoke Ea. I’m not about to check for proper declension of cases or offer advice on morphology. Besides, I have faith. She’ll do fine. She always does.

Some of the performers are here: I see Danny, Kirra, April, and Charly and John of course. No sign of Heather. Lauren has her hair down and is putting on her evil, dark makeup. No sign of the children yet. John tells me things are about an hour behind. I reply that an hour isn’t that bad at all for a dress rehearsal. I’ve had much worse than that.

All the unspoken hard workers are here, the people who screw together the rostra, set up the chairs, make sure no parts are missing. Danny and another worker are over there with a Sawzall or Makita, cutting some board and perforating some foam. They aren’t too proud to get their hands dirty. No primadonnas or divas in this company. I’m too far away to see what it might be that they’re cutting, or what it’s supposed to represent.

Somewhere in back people are in the costume area. No one’s dressed but there are various artifacts of costumes being worn about. It’s been awhile since I had to worry about that sort of unfocused energy hovering over a set but I remember it well. A film set is so much more calm–at least mine are.

I haven’t seen things since the first tech earlier this week, so I’ve no idea how anything has come together. I’m excited to see what they’ve done. Dress rehearsal–such an interesting time. There’s always a reminder of how truly chaotic everything is below the finely laid patina of order.

***

Cast meeting time. Thirty people all sitting listening. Time to hash out all the details for the show. Where? When? How? Who? All the stage questions. Procedure. Precision. Timing. What to do if the much-feared Something Bad occurs. Of course it won’t. By this time, technique has to be axiomatic. Craft and art both submerge into execution.

Time for warmup. Then we run the whole show start to finish.

What can I do here? I am unsure of my role as impartial observer. I suspect the most important thing to do is not to interfere in the process. I can’t be a fly on the wall–everyone knows I’m here–but I can be like a referee, only here when they need me. No need, no interference.

On my mind: avant-garde technique, the basis in exercise for much of experimental film and drama. Artists exploring technique are valuable to the art itself for a multitude of reasons. My friend Meghan hates that stuff. She always says, “I know that exercise and I’ve done that. It’s so transparent.” I don’t normally reply, but the rejoinder is simple: “I practice the C minor melodic scale, too, but I don’t discount music that’s based on it. And I can certainly hear when it’s being used but that doesn’t make it any less musical for knowing.” There is nothing wrong with this. Why do people in theater resist this?

This occurs to me as I watch the Cabiri warm-up. How many dances around the world begin with something that happens in warm-up or exercises? I would wager the number is probably much higher than people think, even higher I suspect this is also true of music, especially improvisation.

Computer’s battery is running low. I think I’ll put it on the charger and just sit back awhile and watch. I’ll write more at intermission. Or maybe I’ll just watch. Yeah, I think I’ll just watch. Someone should.

***

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net