Friday, October 25, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Gems of Abstraction" (on George Balanchine's Jewels, performed by the Marrinsky Ballet)

gems of abstraction
by Douglas Messerli

George Balanchine Jewels, performed by the Mariinsky Ballet / Glorya Kafman Dance at the Music Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / the performance I attended with Diana Bing Daves McLaughlin was on October 24, 2019

Last night I attended a performance in Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of George Balanchine’s iconic, three-part ballet, Jewels, performed by the renowned St. Petersburg, Russian company Mariinsky Ballet along with their own orchestra conducted by the august Alexey Repnikov. This is the same company, if you recall, which gave us Ggalina Ulanova, Alexei Yermolayev, Marina Semenov, Vakhtang Chabukiani, along with, much later, Irina Kolpakova, Natalia Makarova, Alla Osipenko, Irina Gensler, Alla Sizova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and numerous others.
     Created in 1967 by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet—who himself began his career in St. Petersburg and worked at the Mariinsky until emigrating in 1924—Jewels is one of Balanchine’s most popular works, with good reason.
     Instead of taking the traditional route of narrative balletic logic, this trilogy, using all of the devices of traditional dance, chose to abstract those movements, along with a somewhat traditional use of great composers’ music, in order to focus on the incredible en pointe movements of the ballerinas, and the remarkable leaps and spins of the male members of the ensemble, not that the female members don’t spin themselves into near toy-like tops throughout. Indeed, in all three of these gem-like dances, the choreographer focuses on the athletic abilities of his corps rather than hiding it behind the romantic stories so much of traditional ballet has relied upon.
      If it’s a simple device to break these rather un-related dances through three lovely “gems,” emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, Balanchine subverted into his terpsichorean text another connecting link, the three major sources of his own dancing experiences.

      Emeralds, the first of the three, refers through its musical scores of Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock, to the choreographer’s early experiences with French dance, where, in this case, the “emeralds” dance in light green longer tutus, spinning through the forests, with principals Daria Ionova and Maxim Zyuzin (in the evening in which I saw this), creating such lovely pas de deuxs that you might almost cry for their balletic balance. And then, of course, there are so many “emeralds” spinning nearly out of control, their tutus flying, that you almost begin to perceive the preciousness of the glimmer of the green jewels they represent.
      I loved this piece, but it was in Rubies that, for me, things began to come alive. All in red and white, dancing to Igor Stravinksy’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, the stage stuttered and stirred itself alive with the struts and playful, jazz-like stretches of dancers Kimin Kim and Ekateriana Chebykina.

     Here, in a far more Americanized version of life, the brilliant dancers Kim and Cheykina seemed more equally matched than in the traditional holding and lifting positions of the males in relationship to the females that you usually think of in traditional ballet. Drawing on Balanchine’s Russian roots, you oddly enough felt that perhaps the Socialist-Communist notions of equality, combined with the references to his US experiences, broke through the puffery of the French dance tradition. Kim, in particular is a male dancer to watch, with incredibly air-deifying leaps and spins into space that, if not quite matching those of Nureyev or the sometimes quirky positions of the great Baryshnikov, made you realize he is a certainly a challenger to that tradition. 
    I might have watched the red nuggets of that piece all night; yet, it was the shortest, perhaps simply because of the technical impossibilities put upon these wonderful dancers, and, in some senses, realizing the impossibility of their playful, yet incredible movements—skipping, jumping, spinning, leaping, all in relationship to one another—you had to realize that their legs and breath simply couldn’t hold on forever.
     The last great piece brought back the Mariinsky’s own older traditions in a grand, almost wedding-like gathering of the full cast in Diamonds, accompanied by, who else could it be, that most Romantic of all Russians, Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, with his Symphony No. 3 in D Major, representing Balanchine’s personal relationship with this very company.

    Many reviewers have described Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyavo’s performance as one of the most amazing performances of the season. But despite that remarkable duo, to me it appears that this is a corps de ballet performance, as dancers, gradually accumulating—who, arriving out of the wings, so to speak—weave and turn in and outside of one another as if this were a formal dance being performed in court. It is a lovely thing to behold, and we realize that this is the final gem in the ring that Balanchine has created for us.
      This might almost be something out of the famed company’s production of Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. And how could one not love the glorious female and male meetings of these so incredible performers. Even when a single dancer falls a bit out of sync with the rest of the perfectly synchronized others, we easily forgive him; after all this is so much better than the Rockettes, who just kick and kick. These dancers give their entire hearts and bodies to the performance and make for such lovely scenes that it appears to be out of some kind of fantasy of what dance can become.
      Diamonds maybe one of the best dances ever performed; it is the final jewel in Balanchine’s great work. Yet I still wanted to go back to that over-enthusiasm of Rubies. Balanchine evidently said “I’m Georgian. I love beauty!” So I might reply, “I’m American (actually of Swiss heritage), let the jazz of US-like rhythms provided by the Russian Stravinsky’s wild strums go forward without the resolve of the other two pieces. Let Kim dance his heart out.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2019

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2019).   

Douglas Messerli | "A Confusion of Dichotomies" (on Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's The Two-Headed Calf)

a confusion of dichotomies

by Douglas Messerli

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) The Two-Headed Calf / a production of CalArts Center for New Performance and STUDIO teargaleria / performed at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in Los Angeles, the performance I attended was on October 19, 2019

First performed in 1921, The Two-Headed Calf, by the noted Polish writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (known to Poles as Witkacy), is a bizarre family drama, which originally shuffled between Papua-New Guinea and Australia as the play’s young neurotic hero, Karmazyniello,  after the suicide of his beloved fiancée, attempts to determine who and what he is and how he was born into the mad family in which he exists.

     As in other such avant-garde productions of the time, which were later major influences on everyone from Artaud to Ionesco and Beckett, there is little coherent plot and no clear trajectory for where the play is moving. All we can truly be sure of is that the climate—an important factor here, as it may be in all of our futures—heats up the body, inner and outer, of the protagonist until he is confused about a great many things, as is the audience, perhaps a perfect metaphor for the way most of feel much of the time today.

     This spectacular new production by Warsaw’s Teatr Studio, headed by Natalia Korczakowska, transforms the location to Sydney and the California desert, ending in Death Valley. The character is now named Patricianello (performed through two hooded personas, representing obviously the two-headed calf, by Rett Keeter and Robert Wasieciz), the name suggesting both his patriarchally-controlled world and the Italian ribald jester, clown, fool and wit that defines the puppet Punchinello.

     This 2019 version of Witkacy’s major play asks many of the same unanswerable questions of the original but in ways that seem more contemporary. Is our young hero in love with his father, suggesting an almost pedophilic attachment, with his sister, his brother, or is the entire family—since three of the major male family figures at one point appear in full white gowns—transgender?

      Except for the highly languid Lady Leocladia Clay (Ewa Blaszczyk), most of the other figures, particularly the males, seem throughout to literally bounce off one another, in a remarkably athletic representation of both their loves and hates for the people with whom they live.

      There is also a Queen (Symone Holmes) and a beautiful blonde-haired man, which represents the best of the Parvis family, and the always suffering boy, who seems unable to determine whom he most loves or even what his sexuality might be or become. Witkacy suggests that perhaps he loves himself far more than anyone else.

      Scenic designer Salman Beydoun, along with the costume designer Marek Adamski and lighting designer Marek Adamski stir up this strange pot-au-feu with amazing visual transformations, accompanied with music by Beethoven and original compositions by Chris Kallmyer.

       In short, in this engaging production there is a lot for the ear and the eye, while the play fevers up the imagination in the viewer’s attempt to make coherent meaning of what is going on. Yet that is Witkiewicz’s real point: it is impossible to truly make linear sense of the psyche of any individual, let alone to try to explain the devastation we all suffer, to some extent, through family life. Meaning, “coming through” to whatever we mean by the “real” self, is nearly impossible, and it is only by facing the always heated-up landscape of pasts that we can comfortably move into relative stable future, perhaps simply to pass on our confusions to the next generations.

      The two-headed calf is always an abomination, even if it might be seen as a kind of wonder, for yes cannot mean yes, and no cannot mean no (for the opposite of which, at one point, a character argues) if you’ve got two minds in one. You are always of two minds, as anyone who carefully thinks will be for their entire lives. And that is the true dilemma of our handsome and plainer looking Patricianello, trapped in the confusion of dichotomies.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2019).

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Losing Your Mind" (on Adam Guettel's and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza)

losing your mind
by Douglas Messerli

Craig Lucas (book), Adam Guettel (lyrics and music) The Light in the Piazza / the performance I saw with Howard N. Fox was at LAOpera’s production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday, October 13, 2019


 I don’t like reviews that begin with the critic’s statements of his or her own ability to speak out about the work, but I have to admit that I begin this review with severe doubts my own powers to write intelligently about it.

     Adam Guettel’s 2005 Broadway (via Lincoln Center) musical is one of the most stunningly beautifully scored works of theater—or even of contemporary opera; and it won several Tony Awards for its magical invocation of a visit of an US mother and daughter’s to Italy, the mother in search of the love she has lost while the daughter discovers new love in Florence in the form of a beautiful young Italian boy, Fabrizio (Rob Houchen), when she temporarily loses her hat—a metaphor clearly for the mind that lies beneath it.

     And it is no accident that she has lost her mind in the incident, since we gradually discover in the work that this young girl, Clara Johnson (Disney star Dove Cameron) is what her mother and father perceive is mentally-challenged having been kicked in the head by a small Shetland pony in her childhood.

     The girl, now 26 years of age, does seem far younger than her years and is given to occasional flights of excitement and over-exhilarated behavior that might lead a casual observer to wonder if she has a deep emotional instability.

      Yet, for all that—and this is a problem in all the versions of this work which I have experienced, the book by Elizabeth Spencer, the movie directed by Guy Green (and the weakest of these versions), and now the musical, all are rather vague about the actual mental problems of the lovely young Clara. If perhaps she seems overly naïve, falling immediately in love with Fabrizio, so does he seem equally naïve and just as innocent—with only the excuse that he is still almost a teenager, having just turned 20.

      Clara, however, quickly learns several words of Italian, and quickly is able to speak up against her over-protective mother, Margaret (the great singer Renée Fleming); and, ultimately, when she and Fabrizio are about to be married, quite quickly learns the Roman Catholic liturgy, including several Latin phrases. For me, this has always been a problem with this work. If she is truly medically impaired, so might we all be.

      What is important in this work—with its absolutely beautiful songs and musical arpeggios, and absolutely stunning if quite simple set by Robert Jones along with glorious lighting by Mark Henderson—is that the elders, who almost all have failed in their adventures with love are desperate to protect their youngest from the same pains they have suffered.

     At the heart of this musical are the failures of the adult relationships: Margaret’s long empty marriage to her business-hungry husband Roy (Malcolm Sinclair), the unfaithfulness of Fabrizio’s father Signor Naccarelli (Brian Stokes Mitchell)—which at one point is described as recognized by his more faithful and forgiving wife (Marie McLaughlin)—and Fabrizio’s far-more disillusioned sibling Giuseppe (Liam Tamme) and his wife Franca (Celinde Schoenmaker), who almost brings poor Clara to tears in her attempt to convince her, in the crucial “The Joy You Feel,” which suggests that any marriage to Fabrizio will lead her to sorrow.

     The love of the two innocents is just that: beautifully charming. One might suggest that they are both not in touch with the real world, but in another sense they are the only ones who do know what love might be, and the beauty in which they sing about their love represents some of the highest moments of this opera-musical.

     And yes, it is truly a kind of operatic piece, in which, often the lyrics move to complete abstraction, words like “piazza” having to be desperately elided in the work’s major song in Act Two, Scene 3, sung by a very excited (back in Florence after a desperate attempt to take her away from Fabrizio to Rome by her mother), “The Light in the Piazza” and the gushing expression of love by both Clara and Fabrizio at the end of Act One, “Say It Tomorrow.”

      It is not accidental that in my first round of my musical theater favorites in My Year 2018, I could not choose a song from this wonderful musical: none of them are songs you can take home to your favorite local stage. They need operatic productions, with a complete orchestra with harp, major percussion instruments, violins, violas, celli, bass, piano, oboe, etc., and great conductor to oversee this orchestral combination, in this case by the more than competent Kimberly Grigsby.

     So why mightn’t I just say I loved this work and cried and through it all; all of which I totally did?

     One of the greatest singers of the world was starring in this production, Renée Fleming, the central figure of this production, a woman whom I adore from her various operatic performances. But here, I felt, she was toning down her grand voice for several reasons. She clearly did not want to out-perform the younger singers, particularly her stage daughter, Clara. But to give Cameron her due, she did quite remarkably with her fragile soprano voice in representing her own blossoming coming out—and in this case that really is what it is. In his role as Fabrizio, Houchen literally came alive as one of the most remarkable young singers of today; I would immediately advise him to get out of Les Misérables-like roles and move into better musicals or even operas wherever and whenever they might appear. He is so talented that he might do remarkable things in many a Broadway revival of the great musicals of Guettel’s predecessors, from his mother Mary Rodgers to his grandfather, Richard. I think he might have great in Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd as the young sailor in love with Johanna. In some senses he is the real charm of this Piazza production.

     Celinde Schoenmaker was wonderful as the unhappy wife of the also talented Giuseppe. Her evil statement of unhappiness was a true pleasure of this production.

     But where was the great Fleming, fussing constantly over the possible failures of her stigmatized daughter? Well, of course, she was stunningly beautiful in the first act song of sorrow about when you first realize that love has broken down, “Dividing Day,” perhaps a song I might have included, when I think back, in the 2018 collection of favorites. And she was quite charming, surely, in her attempt to change the mind of Signor Naccarelli when he becomes outraged after perceiving the 6-year difference between his son and Clara’s birth, in the lovely seeking-out-solution song, “Let’s Walk,” a hard work to perform on a stage based around a circle, but nonetheless beautifully conceived.

     Yet we’d come to hear that glorious voice, this time even amplified by microphone. Only in her absolutely amazing last song, “Fable,” did the renowned singer finally shine forth. Here, in expressing all of her anger for her denial and later change of mind to allow her young daughter’s marriage, she finally becomes a fierce force right out of Wagner, allowing that all of her and her husband’s, as well as the Naccarelli’s family’s, notions, of marriage are nothing of importance. Yes, like Stephen Sondheim has often argued, love is a “fable,” but there is no possibility to love if you can’t ignore that reality, and perceive it as a myth completely gone wrong. It is a brilliant “Try to Remember” moment when you have to give up your own notions of your youth and to imagine what your children might find in one another, as well a plea for forgiveness, a demand for the correction of time and previous failures, a hope for a future in which you yourself cannot be embraced. Finally the great diva was allowed to come alive. It was worth a visit to this wonderful musical-opera just for that moment.

Los Angeles, October 15, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2019).

Friday, October 11, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Dreaming Through Music" (on Brooklyn Rider and Magos Herrera)

dreaming through music
by Douglas Messerli

Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider / I attended the performance at The Wallis Annenberg Center’s Bram Goldsmith Theater, with Thérèse Bachand, on Thursday, October 10, 2019

Let me begin this review by admitting that I do not have language skills in either Spanish or Portuguese. It is important to say this when you are reviewing a concert when almost all the songs are in these languages.
      Last night at the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith Theater, apparently, many of the Beverly Hills audience members felt that, given that language gap, they had to get up and politely exit the theater, while my evening companion, Bachand and I remained in our seats to soak up the lovely music of the beautiful and jazz-inspired Brooklyn Rider quintet—Johnny Grandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Nicholas Cords (Viola), Michael Nicholas (cello), with Mathias Kunzli playing a wide range of percussion instruments—accompanying the wonderful vocal renderings of Magos Herrera.
      The songs she sang and the quintet played were from composers from Mexico, South America and Spain, including Chile’s Violeta Parra, Argentina’s Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón and José Castilla, and Carlos Aguirre, Mexico’s Álvaro Carrillo and Magos Herrera’s own compositions—one in collaboration with Felipe Pérez and another with Nicaraguan composer Fabio Gouvea, along with a popular Mexican song, a Spanish composition based on the work of Federico García Lorca by Vicente Amigo, and several songs by the most brilliant Brazilian composers of the 20th century, whose works I have heard on my two trips to that country, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and João Gilberto. Although I might have liked to have minimal translations provided, I think my theater companion and I truly understood their undercurrents of love and betrayal.
      But what the audience who remained truly understood is in the Octavio Paz quote, which prefaced this performance:

             Dream of the sun dreaming its world. Sing till the song throws 
             out root, trunk, branches, birds, stars. Sing until the dream 
             engenders the spring at at which you may drink and recognize 
             yourself and recover.

        Based on the group's Sony Masterworks recording from this year, Dreamers, this important work refers not just to the “dreamers,” not just born in the US in fear of deportation, but on all those who might dream to be free of dictatorial governments and able to move across borders with the ease of these lovely songs. If I didn’t comprehend many of the words, I knew what they meant through Herrera’s lovely phrasings: they were all a cry to love, care for one another, to join together with a joy in just being together.
        The darker tones provided by the quintet worked brilliantly with Herrera’s soprano voice to provide us with a language that spoke of the stupidity of any walls between people. This was a music that communicates its intensity of loving, of caring, of passion that doesn’t even need a translator to communicate it to you. And I feel so sorry for those who felt excluded and left because of that. I’d only cry out: open your ears and you will hear an ocean of comprehension.

       Herrera—dressed in a gorgeous white gown, covered with a caftan with stunningly sashed green rows of ribbons, and white shell-like earrings—sings with a Latin-based sopranto voice (and what a voice!) of a world open to the borders of linguistic differences. Although I might have desired to understand every word she phrased, the point was aptly made: music transforms us simply by its remarkable rhythms, its pulses, its amazing ability to pull us in by our ears and hearts.
        Those of us who remained were treated to an evening so memorable that even I as a critic,who often does prefer to stand up for the now standard standing ovation, stood willingly up to applaud this amazing musical demonstration of borders completely collapsed. I could have almost cared less whether or not I understood what was being sung: it was simply marvelous to hear it.

Los Angeles, October 11, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2019).

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "A Sacred Domain" (on the death of Paul Badura-Skoda)

a sacred domain
by Douglas Messerli

On the death of  the great pianist Paul Badura-Skoda

On September 25th, 2019, the great pianist Paul Badura-Skoda died in Vienna at the age of 91. Badura-Skoda was recognized by many as one of the greatest of classical interpreters, yet his repertoire included a wide range of composers, including as The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini noted: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Scribin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith, and the Swiss composer Frank Martin.
      Badura-Skoda began his career as a pianist whose musical artistry was unquestioned, yet in his early 20s, after hearing the Austrian harpsichordist and fortepianist Isolde Ahlgrimm, he began to question his notions of the piano as being the dominant interpreter of classical musicians.

     That transformative encounter led him not only to acquire dozens of fortepianos as well as other 19th century instruments, but to explore the sonics of those keyboard-based tools and to rethink his musical interpretations of the over 50 recordings he had made by the age of 30.
      His musical gifts were widely appreciated by audiences throughout the world, yet particularly in his later years, according to Tommasini, seemed “to lack sparkle and clarity” of his earlier recordings—but then similar complaints were made about Glenn Gould’s somewhat mannered performances.
      Basically, Badura Skoda was widely admired for his playing as well as he critical works, written with his wife Eva, a musical historian and fellow performer, such as Interpreting Mozart at the Keyboard.
      I think I never met Badura-Skoda and his wife, although I may have at a party of the Music Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which I attended as a young student (at the age of 18), which apparently resulted in a great amount of gossip, so I perceive now at the age of 72, since the department’s chorale director Vance George, with whom I was having, at that moment, sexual encounters, invited me to attend. As a student who worked in the Admissions Department and even in my sophomore year engaged to numerous professors to help make beginning students feel comfortable, I saw no problems in my attendance; yet a couple of years ago, visiting Vance in San Francisco, where he had been now long been the director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus—winning Grammy Awards for Best Performance of a choral work Orff’s Carmina Burana, 1992 and Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, 1995, Best Classical Album of the year Stravinsky’s Perséphone, 2000 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, 2004, with TV and film credits including an Emmy for Sweeney Todd, 2002 and soundtracks for Amadeus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Godfather III—he hinted that he regretted that invite. I truly don’t even remember it (I was so very innocent, even then) but I now gather that taking a student to such an august event might certainly have resulted in many a wagged tongue.
      I certainly had heard some of Badura-Skoda’s recordings, however, and just this moment listened to his version of Beethoven’s  Piano Concerto No. 4, where he literally takes the piano on a trip through lovely thrilling trills and almost waterfall-like trips up and down the scale. I wish I’d recall meeting him and his wife and have been to discuss his interpretations.
     Now dead, they can’t even imagine how much their living meant to me. After having spent an rather difficult and exhausting year in New York, leaving after my then-lover Richard, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History—I might now guess that curators are a big thing in my life—literally dumped me one morning, telling me that he had previously made a commitment to another man, I, more pained that I now realize, took to what must have been the last New York City phone booth, just a few weeks before the now famous Stonewall protest, to call my parents in order to help me pay for my trip back to their Iowa home. I didn’t want to return, but I knew I needed to. And after a few days, I was ready to get back to my university studies at Madison.
     I arrived there without housing, and still hurting from my NYC days. But I was certainly ready  to my student life. I don’t at recall how I hooked up with Vance again: in those days we knew how to use telephones. Nonetheless he amazingly invited me to come to the house in which then ensconced, caring for a property owned by the Badura-Skodas who had traveled to Europe, probably Vienna, for the summer. Why Vance, who had his own Madison apartment was staying there, I didn’t ask, and why our mutual friend Pat, was also there I was silent about. I loved them both.
     To me, it was just a wonderful and beautiful moment of comfort, a kind of redemption for my naughty days in New York. Yet, of course, the three of us shared a big bed, although no longer with sex, just hugs and kisses. It’s hard to imagine all that simple and silly sexual dalliance these days. It was just a terrible friendliness, no demands to be made.
     I remember seeing the Badura-Skoda library, their books and manuscripts, but we were all protective of their lives. No one ever pulled open their glass-encased shelves. The bedroom and kitchen was all we truly allowed ourselves, one evening Pat, cooking up sausages which I believe her farm-bred brothers had made, adding a good deal of fennel, to provide one the greatest meals I’d ever encountered. I can taste it still today. I don’t like licorice, but fennel is something different, which I will never forget.
     And during those few days at the Badura-Skoda home I healed from my silly first romance (a relationship, giving Richard’s adamant conservatism I would never have survived in a long-term companionship), and was ready suddenly to go back to school, ready to return to the Madison life. I rented an apartment, and soon after met Howard N. Fox, with whom I have remained with for now almost 50 years.
     I don’t think the Badura-Skodas ever imagined that I’d entered their precious domain. But it was so very important for my life. And I am so sad for their deaths.

Los Angeles, October 8, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2019).

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "One of Us" (on Shyam Bhatt's Treya's Last Dance)

one of us
by Douglas Messerli

Shyam Bhatt Treya’s Last Dance / the performance I saw at The Hudson Guild Theatre was on Wednesday, October 2, 2019

First performed in Los Angeles’ 2015 Fringe Festival, traveling after to New York and London, Shyam Bhatt’s one-woman play Treya’s Last Dance recently returned, in a slightly revised form and directed by Poonam Basu, to Los Angeles, where I saw it at the Hudson Guild Theatre the other evening.
       Bhatt, playing a British-Indian woman (her own background, although she insists that the work is not autobiographical) represents a literal whirlwind of beings, as she tells stories of Treya’s family, centering particularly her beloved gay brother who has evidently died of suicide, cousins, her supportive mother and father, friends of the family, and even a homophobic Afro-Caribbean preacher.

    So fast-paced and taut is her mimicry of these many voices that a US audience may have difficulties in discerning some of her sentences given her British-Indian intonations. If nothing else it means opening up the ears to take in all the intricacies of her numerous stories.

     Yet, for all the discussions of Treya’s family life, the play is also a long treatise—and I don’t mean this academically—on her own sexual activities and possibilities, and the difficulty of second-generation migrants. Concerning the latter she argues that while it is understandable that the original migrant family members might desire to be surrounded by their own kind, fearing the radical changes in culture they have just entered, their children, born in Britain in this case, need, sometimes painfully to pull away from their parents, friends, and familial values. How does one do that with love and grace? It’s a dance of a different kind, the metaphor that bookends the expanding vision of her world.
     Clearly, Treya has previously experimented, quite casually, with sex, yet much of this work is centered upon a wish to please her mother by attempting to discover a man she might marry. Perhaps attending a speed-dating event with the talkative Treya is not a very good idea since the males, after their original question, are thereafter pretty much silenced.
     Yet her potential dates all seem so inane and unoriginal that we hardly feel sorry for the males she confuses and perhaps repels. Treya is after all a beautiful and smart woman who’s willing to come back with honest, open-ended discussions which should charm them, as it does the audience, but apparently pokes and prods these dense male egos, forcing them to disappear after her intense answers to their mostly stupid questions. She is a charmer for anyone who does not take themselves as seriously as these clearly incompetent would-be partners.
      Bhatt begins her show with Treya in full Indian garb attempting to dance a traditional Indian work, but after her night(s) of speed dating, she comes suddenly to a new realization, even if we don’t quite know where that might lead her, psychologically and sexually. What we do realize is that she will not subdue her logorrheic personality to simply please some stranger, male or female.
      And in that realization, she has become much stronger, willing to put on only traditional ankle bracelets to perform a different kind of dance which encompasses both the “petal-like” complexity of the East with the restrained and simple elegance of the West. Finally Treya has brought together her multiple identities and fused them into the woman she has already revealed to the audience.  
      If her first dance, awkwardly performed with fits and starts, was not a perfect rendition of who she actually is, we can recognize her last dance as statement of her newly discovered self-identity, one which she has been displaying to us all along. This play, in the end, is about not only the difficulties faced by migrant families, but the realities contemporary societies place upon them with regard to the LBGT community and feminism.
      As I said, we can never know where her life-journey will take her. But we do know, most surely, that she is a dancer in life with all the beauty and grace she has sought out in her search to comprehend the various pulls she has experienced throughout her youth. Like most of us, actually, she is a blend of cultures, despite some current leaders’ attempts to reclaim an imagined purity of thought and blood. In the end we perceive that Bhatt and her marvelous Treya is one of us.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2019)