Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dealing with Death Together

In their newest work, Crossing the Bridge, Leonix Movement Theatre Ensemble gives us the opportunity to reflect on the forms, ceremonies, feelings and desires of death in a way that we can’t when it strikes in the context of our own lives. Without the usual guilt and regret, and with resignation to the sad end that will come for our wonderful narrator, David, we calmly observe those experiences that we’ve stumbled through before, bleary-eyed, when death claimed a loved one: the tragedy of attempts to make every moment with the dying quality time; the terrifying and exhausting experience of waiting for breathing to stop; the bizarre instantaneousness of the switch from life to death; the blessedly onerous, distracting, and concrete task of arranging a funeral. I was lucky enough to see the final L.A. performance of Crossing on Friday, August 14 at the Electric Lodge in Venice.

The gifted Leonix ensemble tells the story of David’s journey to death through smart, down-to-earth dialogue and ever-changing physical relationships. Our understanding of David’s final destination colors our first glimpse of his healthy life, a dance of dinner preparation with his lover, with special poignancy. Cooking in parallel with David’s sister Kate and her boyfriend, the two men wind around each other to open drawers, wash hands, chop vegetables, and steal tastes with tenderness and pleasure – limbs intertwining effortlessly to coordinate tasks symbiotically. Here we view life with an awareness of death, seeing and loving the beauty in every mundane gesture. The two couples return to their dinner dance after David’s AIDS diagnosis, and we feel the change. Now halting hesitations, distracted gazes, and overly energetic compensations disrupt the process, and dinner is left unfinished.

More abstract, sometimes dream-like sequences dominated by inventive and expressive movement convey the disbelief, incomprehension, and horror surrounding death. Invasiveness and indignity push David’s initial hospital visit from ridiculous toward frighteningly carnivalesque as he is manhandled mercilessly by human x-ray and MRI machines. Later on, the unreality and injustice of a fatal prognosis appear as a death sentence handed down to David in People’s Court – a hilarious TV courtroom complete with sniveling stenographer, bombastic and salacious judge, and fantastically inappropriate back-up dancers.

Evidence of strong direction by Erin Schlabach and Jones Welsh, Crossing demonstrates elegant economy throughout, but particularly in its transitions – more miraculous transformations than segues. Especially exquisite are the actions of the chorus as they care for David in his last days, as one merciful organism: breezing through to tuck him into bed, forming and softening their bodies into a chair to accommodate his languid form.

David and Kate's utterly human relationship, fleshed out beautifully both in words and movement, grounds the work through all of its imaginations and exaggerations. The realness of their interactions in particular, and the wholly earnest, sometimes awkward nature of the ensemble’s movement in general, say, “We’re not experts at this business of living and dying. We’re just doing it. We look and feel silly and frustrated and uncomfortable sometimes.” And I think this quality is a large part of what drew us to our feet when the lights came up.

In post-performance discussion, the appreciative, articulate audience offered plenty of insightful suggestions for change, especially to the end of the work. I suspect this great variety of conflicting opinions reflects not simply our diverse aesthetic preferences, but our very individual modes of dealing with death – with space and silence, with activity, with verbal reflection, with physical expression. This proliferation of ideas and desires for a revised Crossing surely indicates our need for the work, our desire for this dialogue, and some understanding that engaging with death brings life into truer focus.

Crossing the Bridge continues with performances tonight in Seattle, and August 21-30 at the Indianapolis Fringe Festival. For all of you Los Angelenos who are sad you missed it, please check out the Leonix website http://www.makingfacesproductions.org/leonix/ and blog http://www.leonixtheatre.blogspot.com/. Be sure to catch them the next time around.

Other responses to Crossing the Bridge:



1 comment:

  1. Anna,

    Another excellent review with vivid description that makes the reader sad to have missed the performance and wish he could be more part of this conversation.

    I appreciated your insight on "the tragedy of attempts to make every moment with the dying 'quality time'." Thank you for putting this into words. I'm sure we have all experienced this and sensed the tragedy of it, even if we could not fully express what it was.

    I think this happens in other circumstances besides with the dying. For example, many people have a community they are a part of - through work, school, church, neighborhood, etc. These are the people we spend most of our lives with. For many people, much of their family is not included in that group, usually for geographical reasons. So although we love our parents and siblings more than any of our friends, we know them less. When we spend time with our families, it has to be as "quality time" - doing special things, going to special places. We tend not to just do what we normally do and live life together because the time together is so short. There is a similar tragedy here - that of not being able to make the most of the short time available.

    I think this is one reason why we are captivated by families in movies like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," where people live their daily life with their family. This is a mode of living more associated with "the old country" and which tends to erode in America (as often propounded by my own Sicilian grandfather). (Spoiler alert!) This knowledge explains why the father in the movie made sure his newly married daughter (who married some American boy) lived in the house right next door. Had he let things take their natural American course, they would have likely moved across town if not out of state. The first words out of his mouth when he heard his daughter was getting married was "you want to leave me?"

    In Crossing the Bridge, the people in David's life were a part of his everyday life. Therefore, the attempts to make every moment "quality time" are even more tragic because they replace the authenticity of their pre-diagnosis life with something less real. Even that is taken away when the remaining time is short.

    This was long-winded, but thank you to the creators of this piece and thank you to Anna for bringing the insight alive for we deaf and blind muggles outside the dance world.