Baryshnikov Arts Center
Dec 13, 2013
If you didn't know that Elijah Green, Andrew Ondrejcak's in-development movement-theater piece, is based on Strindberg's A Dream Play, you'd never guess it. Ondrejcak's own relationship to the “source” of his dream-logic exploration is playful, elliptical, tenuous. “I haven't read it!” he confesses. “I've read the Wikipedia page! And my dramaturg has made me a beat-by-beat breakdown...I'm thinking of letting that notion go entirely.”
He looks mischievously about, and drops his voice. But there's no shame here, since somehow deep themes of Strindberg—the divine visitor, the sense of humanity ignorant of its own loveliness—have managed to weave themselves tightly into the work.
Writer-director-designer Ondrejcak has more than a hint in his process of a crucial mentor—Robert Wilson. That same glancing contact with a story characterizes some Wilson processes, it releases a maker from “faithfulness” and lets only the deepest resonances vibrate their way onstage. In rehearsal,Elijah Green was made in this same spirit of the inspired accident. Actor-dancers ask for feedback, and Ondrejcak laughs, “I don't know! Do something else.”
In response his performers sing snatches of song, look fixedly at ping-pong balls, invent wandering monologues on the spot. They generate constant impulses; he grazes among them like a cow in clover. “I use what's in the room, whatever object, whatever person,” he says. His attention span seems, at some moments, to be quicksilver changeable—then he'll lapse into a reverie watching something profoundly simple and still.
In Dream Play, the daughter of the god Indra comes to earth to try to understand human suffering. In Elijah Green, actor-dancer Yuki Kawahisa plays this role, or, rather, the echo of it, moving among the other performers with an expression of gentle, puzzled calm. Ondrejcak—who can seem somewhat eldritch himself—places her into strange scenarios: first a kind of gentle, sliding, seated ritual on top of a giant fiberglas rock, then an abrupt leap onto its surface, then a slow drifting into the others' arms for a sequence the group calls the Middle School Dance.
Ondrejcak is not himself a choreographer. The dance-maker Rebecca Warner (“Into Glittering Asphalt”) works with him, generating physical vocabularies for rehearsal, and making dance-sequences which Ondrejcak then tugs apart and refashions. In an early iteration of one of Ondrejcak's other works, Feast, performers stayed almost completely stock still, nattering to each other down an exaggerated banquet table. Now we can see his composer's eye for the still image working its way through movement as well. It's unleashed an excitement about sequences: one actor cuts tape into the shape of a grave, and, almost inevitably, staunch Ryan David O'Byrne must carry the giant rock around in a circle like a mild-mannered Sisyphus.
The Baryshnikov Arts Center residency has deeply affected the work. During its earlier gestation at a summertime retreat on Governor's Island, there were broad jokes—like the giant poo suit Carlos Soto wore in one improvisation. But the studios, set high up in the shining landscape of building-tops and the Hudson, have embedded the project in a kind of permanent, mystical aura. In this incarnation, “I think I'm figuring out the tone, the mood—it's white and neutral and pastel,” says Ondrejcak, whose academic training is in fine arts. One of his inspiration pieces is “a Japanese print, very clean, of monsters—which creates a very flat space. Looking around him at the studio, he muses, “I'm inspired by the light in this room, this very grey, foggy room.”
The next step after the residency involves text—right now actors do read long, strange monologues, but Ondrejcak thinks of them as placeholder text. Essentially, “I'm sort of freaked out by narrative...because it can turn the stage-scene into illustration. I'm always simply using text as another texture.” He goes on, “In the rehearsal room, I'm just working on the formal things—color, rhythm, line. When I'm in the writing process, it's very diary...most of it sounds like it comes from my voice. It's incredibly liberating: I can have my overt expressions about life, and then I can assign a character to say it and suddenly I lose ownership of it!” It's a kind of magic, one only a visitor to our world could make.
Helen Shaw currently writes about theater for Time Out New York magazine and teaches theater studies and theater theory at NYUTisch. Previously, she was senior theater critic for the NewYork Sun and has contributed to the Village Voice, Performing Arts Journal, Playbill, TheatreForum, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the forward for Mac Wellman’s anthology of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She curated the Prelude festival in 2011 and 2012, and coordinated programs at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center for approximately the same period. She also works as a dramaturg, and has assisted Martha Clarke, Lear deBessonet, and Simon McBurney. She has an MFA in dramaturgy from the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University and a BA in Anthropology from Harvard.