There’s a quote from Paul Darcy Boles that I use every year with my writing students. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought it up on this blog before: “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.” When Mr. Boles said it (and I was there, so I know), he was talking about how all of us writers, regardless of genre, language, level of accomplishment, place, or time in history are all engaged in the same basic and fundamental (and necessary) human activity, which has been around since the dawn of our kind. Today, we are still gathered around the crackling flames while shadows dance on the walls and the night looms outside. We are still entertaining our companions with tales — tales that apply to our lives whatever they may be, if we think about the stories and see the connections. Stories bring us fulfillment, but also education, insight, catharsis, encouragement, and hope.
Yesterday was a great day. Through the experience of seeing many dance performances, of having an exhibition of my paintings (such as they are), and of reading one of my poems aloud as a talented young dancer expressed it visually, I felt again the unity among all the creative arts. They’re all about telling stories.
The performance yesterday was mostly about dancing. It’s the second annual event called “T.A.Y. — C” (the letters standing for the names of the central organizers, who are some of the main dancers). It features the dance club of Niigata’s Minami High School (quite a large group) as well as OB’s and OG’s (which, in Japan, means alumni and alumnae — have I got the Latin right? — and those letters stand for “Old Boy” and “Old Girl” — former members who have graduated and moved on from a particular group). So this event also starred university students who came back for it from their various schools all across Japan — and a professional dance troupe from Tokyo. Quite a big production!
It was held in the Ongaku Bunka Kaikan — the Hall of Music and Culture. And what a day of music and culture it was! We gathered in the morning, set things up, had informal rehearsals followed by a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, and then the real thing starting at 6:00 p.m. Lunch and supper were provided for us. The various groups used different parts of the building as dressing rooms. I was with a trio of singers and their accompanists — one of the singers, Aiko-san, is my co-worker at the university who “got me into this.” Their group sang “Singing’ in the Rain” and selections from West Side Story (both including dancers) just before my part in the program.
The images you’ll see below are the pamphlet for my art exhibition, which was held in the corridor just outside the auditorium. This pamphlet was included as one of the inserts in the main program that the audience members received. The teacher who made this for us — free of charge — did a fantastic job, didn’t she?
Yes, I know that title, “The Dreamworlds of . . .” is awfully pretentious. We were just having fun. I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, and everyone seemed to like that idea. Don’t suppose that I’m taking myself all that seriously, okay? In this scan, the paintings have a strange quality, like you can see the weave of the paper or something. They didn’t look like that on the actual folder.
In the morning, a group of high-school girls helped me set the exhibition up. They attached monofilament strands to the backs of the paintings, and we suspended them at artistically-varied heights on two large corkboards along the corridor wall, just opposite one of the auditorium doors. I had made special laminated placards giving the title and some other information about each painting (usually a hint as to how to understand it — though of course, who am I to dictate that? — once a painting is out there, it’s all up to the viewer). Personnel announced the exhibition over the p.a. system, too, and invited the audience to see it. In the half-hour or so before the show started and during the intermission, I was on hand to talk with people who browsed the pictures. That was a good time.
My experience with the world of dance is very limited. Back in college, we needed a certain number of p.e. credits to graduate. Not being adept at sports, I wondered what course to take . . . until I saw one called “Folk and Square Dance.” Aha, I thought! Here was a chance to do something that might be fun, especially because I was sure it would throw me together with a lot of girls. That sort of physical contact would be infinitely better than getting slammed into by guys in football or basketball. And the course was a great time, but that’s the subject for a different post. My point here is, in nearly all the dances I’d encountered until yesterday, the moves are prescribed. There are right and wrong ways to do the steps.
But yesterday, these kids were doing what we always celebrate on this blog. They had chosen songs or simply ideas and developed their own movements to express them to an audience. They were telling stories with physical motion. And it was poetry of the most exquisite sort. I wish you could have seen it!
It would take far too much space to recount all of the dances for you (there were 17 other performances on the program, not counting mine). But I’ll try to hit some highlights. During the dress rehearsal I got to see most of them, and even during the real show at night, I went in by a back door and stood at the rear of the dark auditorium to watch the first half (the place was packed, and I heard that it seats 500 people!).
The professional girls from Tokyo did a fantastic piece from Senegal, which featured a red-lit background at one point, driving rhythms, and the music of Africa that evokes heat and an ancient heritage. I do not know how people can remember such a long progression of complex movements, let alone perfectly coordinating them with an entire team of dancers.
One of the more interesting dances was called “Passing Each Other,” performed by a guy and a girl. The soundtrack was simply a jingling, an irregular ringing, as if you would take a spoon, hold it loosely, and shake and jerk your hand to keep the spoon bouncing against a metal pipe. The dancers’ attitudes conveyed a sense of unfulfillment, of longing toward each other, but their paths were always skewed, always at odds, never quite lining up. They never quite managed to come face-to-face and make contact. So it is with some relationships, right? People can bounce all around the edges of a genuine connection, never quite getting there, until time takes its toll and their ways part irrevocably. The jingling became more urgent after the halfway point with a sound like static, which increased the sense of desperation. Toward the end, these sounds were joined by a recurring deeper note which, to me anyway, signified the big chunks of life breaking up and beginning to move, bigger things changing, the time of opportunity passing. At the end, when the guy almost embraced the girl from behind, she bent her knees, slid downward through the hoop of his arms that weren’t quite touching her, and very slowly paced away into the dark with him following — their postures showing resignation and sadness.
The most beautiful dance, I thought, was one called “Cosmos” (the flower, not the Carl Sagan show). It was performed by one girl. I won’t even lessen it with an inept description, but it communicated all that is best in the feminine and in the beauty of spring and awakening summer.
To me, the most interesting and moving dance was done by two girls — the same one from “Cosmos,” but in a different costume, and another girl in a matching costume. It was called “Little Girl.” I had the chance to talk to both of them at the party that night, and we discussed the interpretation of it. The dance showed the fear, reluctance, sadness, and shaky, fluttering hope of growing up, of moving from childhood into adulthood. The dancers very effectively used two pairs of bright red shoes as symbolic props. Barefoot, the girls slowly approached the shoes from opposite sides of the stage at the beginning, and then they did all sorts of things with them — tentatively trying them on, rejecting them, being drawn back to them, and at one point linking them together into a dangling chain of four shoes that then came apart and rained down like falling petals. In the end, the girls put on the shoes and moved forward into their grownup years. (I couldn’t help thinking of Narnia’s Susan.)
The music for that dance with the red shoes was Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” It’s about having a dream when you’re very young, and trying to find what you’re supposed to do in life. The end, which really got to me emotionally, goes like this:
“Now I’m old and feeling grey. I don’t know what’s left to say about this life I’m willing to leave. I lived it full and lived it well, there’s many tales I’ve lived to tell. I’m ready now, I’m ready now, I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing. I had a dream.”
Man, I can’t even type that with dry eyes! Sooner or later, I’d like to get a recording of the song. Isn’t that great, though? Live full, live well, and when it’s time to die, be ready.
I asked those two girls why nearly all the songs the groups chose to dance to were English-language songs. Their answer really made sense. It’s because their audience won’t be familiar with the songs. If the dancers chose popular Japanese hits, the audience would already have a clear mental image of the particular artist singing the song — they would bring all sorts of baggage to it. By using music that is unfamiliar, the dancers have a clean canvas to work with. Isn’t that an impressive answer?
The atmosphere backstage was energetic and a great thing to experience, too. It reminded me of my thespian years in high school, but this was on a much bigger scale. Imagine all these groups (many involving 15 or 20 people, many in identical costumes) crammed into various rooms and hallways, some girls helping each other with makeup, and many of the chief dancers (guys and girls) stretching in near-impossible ways and bouncing on their toes and practicing their expressive twirls and bends and gestures — everybody leaping around, the stage manager with his headset trying to keep things coordinated, the lighting and sound people at their consoles, adjusting toggles, watching the needles hop . . . Most of the large groups had to use long hallways to eat lunch, keep their stuff, and change (outer) clothes in. The room my group was assigned to was at the end of one such hallway, so every time we went in or out, we had to pass among all these high-school girls.
The dance club at Minami High School is incredibly well-mannered and highly disciplined. They act and answer in unison, like troops — Mrs. Funayama’s troops. Every time we would pass them, every one of the girls would brightly say “Konnichiwa” to us. So we would say it back. We all greeted one another all day. (The girls have an abbreviated form of the word that sounds like “Ch’a.” They say it politely, with a little bow.)
Two of my teacher friends from the university came for the big night, as well as one other acquaintance — it was good to see them.
As I said, I spent the first half of the show out in the auditorium itself, standing at the back, so I knew just how packed the place was. Five hundred souls. But when you’re on the stage under the bright lights, you can’t see the audience at all. Out there in front of you is just this huge black gulf that somehow conveys expectation and attention. If you listen really hard, you can hear the gulf stirring . . . you can hear it breathe.
In an interview, Gilda Radner talked about nerves before a performance, but how the moment before she’d go on stage, she just couldn’t wait to go on. That last part has always been my feeling when it comes to performance. There’s this sense that I have to get to that moment or I’ll go supernova — I belong there, I want to be there — I feel that I could tear through an interposing brick wall with my fingers if I had to.
I honestly wasn’t nervous for this one because there was nothing hard I had to do. I had my manuscript on a music stand, I knew the sound and the height of the microphone were adjusted, I knew the material, and I knew Tsuchida-san would do astounding things with the dance aspect — for me, it was just a matter of stepping out there in front of the breathing gulf and letting the moment ignite — enjoying it to the fullest, doing the sort of thing I was born to do.
When you have the audience there, an intangible something nearly always happens that simply can’t be generated artificially. No matter how well you nail a part in a rehearsal, when you’re doing it for real, something kicks in and takes hold and pulls you up out of yourself. I think that happened for both of us. When we’d finished our part (three scant minutes of a long evening of phenomenal dancing and singing), the applause was thunderous, and when I got back into the wings, two of the singers threw their arms around me in emotional hugs, which is pretty rare in Japan.
During the reading of “Blue Were Her Eyes,” I had to be looking mostly at the invisible audience, with occasional glances at the text — so I couldn’t be watching Tsuchida-san. (I’m told that I’ll get to see the video, and of course I saw some of his work in the first informal practice we did in the morning.) [He is the “T” in “T.A.Y. — C,” by the way — according to one of the singers, he is nationally known among dance people — he’s that good.] What he did in this case was a kind of spontaneous interpretation — chance art, or art of the moment. He had practiced for some weeks with an audio tape I’d made of me reading the poem, but we didn’t meet until yesterday. He coordinated his movements to the pace, pauses, mood, and volume I was using. He started out in a side aisle among the audience, appearing there under a spotlight as I began to deliver the poem. Then he was up on stage, flying and whirling, as the narrative led us through love and painful parting to the battle . . . to long imprisonment like death . . . to eventual release and the reunion of the lovers, with the changes their lives have undergone. By all accounts, he outdid himself — I can’t wait to see it!
Aiko-san, the singer who invited me to be part of this, described how she first started arranging for dancers to dance along with her group’s vocal songs. The stars of musicals, she noted, have to be able to act, sing, and dance. But not everyone is good at all three of those. So why not put together people who excel in the individual disciplines? After all, think of the various talents that go into making a movie — hundreds and hundreds of people working at their own crafts, but joined to produce a whole that no one person could possibly create — not even someone like Da Vinci. (Or a book! Again and again I’ve experienced — and did so again this week — how greatly my writing is helped by editors who know their business. And thank goodness I don’t have to do the cover illustrations myself! Or the binding . . . or getting those pages to be the same size . . .)
Just before the poem, Aiko-san interviewed me on stage. She made the point to the audience that when you see a poem and a dance come together like this, the sum of it is much more than one thing plus one thing. She asked me what the sum was, and I said, “I’m terrible at math,” which got a laugh. She asked me about the relationship between my writing and teaching, and I was able to say how blessed I feel to be able to teach creative writing — to share what I love so much with my students. When she asked what I thought of the dancers, I said they gave me goosebumps, and the breathing gulf laughed pleasantly — I think they were surprised I knew that word. (Don’t worry — I know “goosebumps” has the same meanings in both cultures.)
So — it was a shining day, one of those experiences that remains as a treasure of the heart — one of those times you’re thankful you had the privilege to be there for. It made me want to do more with performance when the opportunity arises.
Let’s all keep living in a way that will take us to that moment of readiness to depart when the time comes. “I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing.” Let’s put on the red shoes, but not too quickly — first, let’s string them together and let them fall like petals. And when it’s time to put them on, let’s put them on with calmness and grace, and discover all that is good about wearing red shoes.
Oh — that’s another thing Aiko-san and I agreed on in front of those two young dancers at the party: there’s nothing at all bad about growing up as long as you keep your childhood’s heart — as long as you love, and take part, and keep space in your life for stories.
God bless the storytellers — including those who pirouette!