Amy’s Dominican Diary

Amy’s Dominican Diary
In May 2006 we brought Hippie Elegy to the Encuentro de Danza Contemporanea in Santo Domingo. Amy, Jeb and Anna learned how to live in the delicious way that they do in the Dominican Republic, thanks to Mundo Poy and Pedro Alejandro who devised and organized the EDANCO festival. Amy wrote about her experience here:

Dominican Diary

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fun travels with Anna and Jeb. Anna reading Lonely Planet, Jeb reading restaurant reviews in New York magazine, Amy attempting sodoku. On the way into San Juan, Anna and I realize that we know nothing about Puerto Rico, even though they are our colony. Are they U.S. citizens? Do they vote or pay taxes? What passport do they have? How sad that educated Americans know so little about our compadres to the South.

Arriving in Santo Domingo, we realize that Mundo Poy, the organizer of the festival, will have no idea who we are, and vice versa. How will he recognize us? Of course immediately upon exiting the airport we hear “Headlong?”. His first words to us are: “Welcome to the Dominican Republic, time to relax.” I immediately love this man. We pile into the tiny van of young Guillermo, who dances with Mundo. He pops in a Doors tape and puts on the red interior light, and we have a nearly hallucinogenic ride along the sea into Santo Domingo proper. A midnight torta con queso and fried plantain (Cuban sandwich for Jeb) later, and we fall into bed.

Thursday, May 25

The longest day in history. Mundo picks us up at 8:00 to go do tech rehearsal at the space. The theater is an exercise in contradiction. It’s a beautiful, well-designed facility, with a nice sized stage and about a 500-seat house. But the air-conditioner is broken, there’s no water, and toilet paper is scarce. Thank God Anna can speak some Spanish – she manages to communicate our lighting and sound needs to the staff. Jeb is entranced by the crazy scaffolding on wheels, with a plywood platform on top for focusing lights. The man who climbs it does so barefoot and shirtless. There is definitely truth to the idea of “Dominican time”. Everything starts a bit late and people aren’t where they should be, when they should be. But by some miracle, we run through with lights and sound almost perfect.

There isn’t anyone in the audience when we run through “Hippie Elegy”, but the tech people seem to really enjoy it, which is pleasing. I imagine the question of “is it dance?” is in people’s mind, but they truly enjoy the humor and theatricality. I think it’s a welcome change for them to see everyday-type people doing everyday-type things on stage. Most importantly, Mundo loves it. His aesthetic and value system are very close to ours, from how he describes his work and his life.

We briefly meet SilverBrown Dance. Eva is much more strong-willed and leaderly with her dancers than we are – the egalitarianism of Headlong’s aesthetic becomes pronounced in the moment of watching her tech in her piece. The work they are performing is an abstract quintet to classical music, in the style of Mark Morris. Proficiently danced, with lots of nice patterning, but not innovative or conceptual (to my eyes) at all.

One structure we have been doing a lot of at the end of warm-up is a get-to-know-ya sort of dance-making structure: we make a big circle, one person steps out into the middle, invites someone out to dance with them, and they make a dance. Others may join, too. Lots of nice following, contact, and short minimalist dances. Sometimes music informs the tone, but they are very open in style.

After a long rest in the hotel, we walk up the Avenida Independencia to the Plaza Independencia. There is some kind of vault there (dead founding fathers?) and an armed guard instructs me to remove my hat. We wander down a pedestrian street full of vendors selling carved wooden tchotchkes and cheapo clothing stores. Jeb sticks out quite dramatically and attracts a lot of attention. Anna gets the up-and-down from about half the men we pass. They are appreciative, but polite. I get suckered by a 12-year-old boy into letting him shine my shoes (which are sandals, with only about 8 square inches of leather). He asks for $5 and I give him $2, which is more than I paid for a pair of beaded earrings from a street vendor. The third-world economy can be disheartening.

Next, we hit the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, built in 1520 out of native coral. It’s stunning. A guard instructs Anna to put a pareo on over her sleeveless top. Men are constantly trying to sell us guided tours or send us into the shops. It’s tiring to have to say “no, gracias” every 2 minutes. Makes one long for the American puritanical politesse of not speaking to strangers. On the other hand, one kind man goes out of his way to help us cross the street (the Malecon, a beautiful seaside road, with 2 lanes of cars whizzing by in each direction), just to be nice.

We find a little restaurant and drink beer by the sea for about 2 hours. We watch a man fishing on a small concrete jut and the kids swimming in their tighty-whiteys, carefully avoiding the trash littering the beach. It feels like it must be dinner time already, but it’s only 3:00. Ay, dios mio. The sun is hot on gringo skin. There’s a reason most people take a siesta in the early afternoon.

We stagger back to the hotel. Napping, reading, staring at the fan for about 3 hours. Finally at 8:30 we go out for dinner. A sweet place on the Malecon that makes their own pasta, and has Italian food that rivals South Philadelphia’s best. A welcome treat for me and Anna, who have eaten nothing but queso tortas all day.

When we hit the hay at 11:30, all agree that it has been the longest day in history. Somehow the Dominican relaxed time-sense has infected even the time-sensitive Americanos.

Friday, May 26

The day of our first performance. Mundo picks us up early to go to the theater for a morning dress rehearsal. The first piece is by a Dominican choreographer, an emotive high-modern ballet, ostensibly about the Mirabar sisters, who were Trujillo martyrs, I think. The sisters grimace and stretch their arms out pleadingly between renverses and stag leaps. There is a chorus of about 10 young dancers, who bring on fake flowers and gauze capes for atmosphere. At one point, they form an upstage line with buckets of water, which they splash on themselves (and all over the stage), and the final image is of the sisters dying in a red down spot with water pouring all over them. Why did they make this the first piece of the evening?

After a stage wipe-down with 2 Scooby-Do comforters (?), Jeb and I do our thing. It feels good to have performed the piece so much over the past year that we are really easy and playful within it. Thank god Anna brought her laptop, as the CD version of “For What It’s Worth” doesn’t play the vocals when they play it through their sound system. Weird.

A surprising pleasure is the third piece on the program, by Maricarmen Rodriguez. A trio for 2 actors and one dancer, the piece is a neo-clown dance theater romp. The three keep fighting over, sitting in, and wheeling each other around in a shopping cart. Their monologues, which I got partially translated, are making fun of stereotypical egomaniac types: the sexpot woman, the intellectual revolutionary man, and the lesbian artist. The performances are amazing. The dancers use their faces and voices and find full-body characters in a way that reminds me of Philadelphia dance theater work. They are fluid and precise, and do some amazing contact with and on and inside the cart. I hope we can figure out a way to bring the piece to Philly, or at least stay in touch with Maricarmen. She is so humble and lovely I smile every time I see her. And it’s fun sharing a dressing room with the trio, who are all funny freakers, even if we can barely understand each other. We give Maricarmen a DVD of Mixed Tape for a Bad Year, which she says is incredibly refreshing for her to see. She especially praises the intimacy of the work and the subtlety of character, which, she says, is much-needed in the D.R. (as evidenced by the Sisters Mirabar piece).

We have lunch at the home of Chiqui Viciosi, a famous playwright and dramaturg here. We briefly meet her husband, who was a huge figure in the democratic revolution and much revered. The lunch was arranged by Pedro Allejandro, who heads the Dance Dept. at Wesleyan, and is the reason we are here in the D.R. He has brought his spiritual guide, a plump dark woman named Brigida, who is mostly quiet, but brings a nice energy to the room. I think she is some kind of shaman/priestess. Also joining us is Polibio Diaz, a photographer and conceptual artist who shows his work internationally. He is an especially fun person to talk with, as his artistic ideas are very parallel to ours. After seeing the piece, he tells Jeb: “your work is good art – it dismantles the walls of the classical tradition and builds new walls in its place”. He tells me that he loves the “ruptures” of Hippie Elegy, from the body types and costuming, to the every day actions on stage. Over rice with corn, chicken, salad, and coconut macaroons, Mundo talks about how important the cultural exchange is (this is finally starting to dawn on me), and tells us that we are the first international dance companies to come the D.R. So this is a truly historical event, and one that will probably have huge and long-lasting effects here. What an honor and a gift.

Later in the afternoon, Anna teaches a ballet class (thank god again for the multi-talented Anna) and I teach a “contemporary dance” class to teenage girls. They are very focused and sweet. I give them a floor warm up with X rolls and leg swings, and teach them the Headlong Slide, which they enjoy. Then we do some basic contact and they make short partnering duets. Very fun and totally brand new for them.

Opening night is a huge success. The audience is enormous and includes many big-wigs, which makes Mundo really happy. The Interior Minister is there, and there are lots of speeches and congratulations. The audience really gets “Hippie Elegy”. I hear laughter right away, and feel the attention from the audience later in the piece when it gets sad. (More on audience responses later.)

One funny and indicative moment comes during the curtain calls. There is a lot of fussy, ballet-type hierarchical bowing for the Sisters piece, and then the rest of us bow, but the choreographers get their own bow, which I don’t participate in. I think of Jeb as being such an integral part of the making of the work, that it feels weird to take more credit than him. It’s bad enough that they don’t put dancer bios in the program (only choreographers). Alas, old habits die hard in the dance world.

After the show we all go out to a restaurant on the Malecon and eat and drink into the wee hours. Guillermo brings his friends Jean, a handsome, fedora-wearing Haitian, and Renato, a painter. They love “Hippie Elegy” and express deep satisfaction in the rule-breaking the piece implies. Renato describes the contorted gestures in “Woodstock” as “broken doll”, or “broken classical”. In broken English and Spanglish. What fun.

Saturday, May 27

Unfortunately, another early morning. Another cheese and bread breakfast. At least this time I know how to order the orange juice that doesn’t have added sugar. But the reason we go to the theater early is a beautiful one – teaching a workshop for professional (or at least college-age) actors and dancers. This is where the real knowledge and aesthetic passing on will happen, and I really feel a pressure to bring new ideas to this tiny burgeoning artistic movement.

There are about 12 people in the class, including Wendy, who translates for me. I think there are about half actors and half dancers, but several of them, I can’t tell what their background is. I split the time into three parts:

Physical Response: we start with Skinner releasing lines of energy and go into walking and gentle moving with the partner giving lines. Then the partner starts more assertively giving manipulations to the mover, and they make some beautiful improvisational duets. Half the group watches the other half for a while once we get into it. Then we switch roles. I talk briefly about how they could go forward with manipulation and response (changing up body parts, the quality of touch, using it as a tool for setting movement material, doing a Stephanie Skura lines-of-force responding without touch, etc.)

Contact Improvisation: we go over basic contact skills (lean, counterbalance, surfing, etc.), then dance openly for a while. Again half the group watching after a while. They watch very attentively and learn a lot from watching. I’m glad Jeb is there so I can show certain skills and how they can go further with contact. I even describe how a Jam works, and later one of the dancers tells me that she and another student want to start a monthly Jam.

Talking Improvisation: Jeb and I show a mini-version of “Permit” and teach the basics of the structure. Then two pairs dance the piece for everyone else. Both versions are funny, touching, and beautifully danced. Even not knowing Spanish, I can catch the drift of the questions, or sometimes get the wonderful surprise of not knowing what the question was about and just seeing the action it referred to.

At the end of the workshop we talk a lot about being real and being human on stage and how appealing that is for the audience. A lot of discussion about the relationship between audience and performer being intimate and two-way. They really get it in a way that makes me so happy for the future. One young woman asks “is it wrong that my teacher says when you are on stage you should think of a blank wall instead of the audience?” My response: There are some forms, usually more classical ones, where that idea of the audience could be helpful. But for this kind of work we want to see the audience, and invite being seen in all our shared humanness. That giving up the idea of super-human performers can lead to a much more satisfying experience on both sides.

The political implications of Headlong and “Hippie Elegy” are really profound in this culture. There is a serious tension between the laid-back, go-with-the flow attitude of the larger culture of the D.R., and the dictatorial, hierarchical nature of most of the dance culture here. Mundo is very sensitive to this idea, and is so happy that we can share new ideas with the young generation of dancers and choreographers. He’s been working on it for 20 years, but inside a school and dance culture that is very classical and traditional. He hopes that Headlong confirming his value system will help push the point. And push the form(s) into new directions. I really want to do this for him as best I can.

After the workshop we went back to the little pool at our hotel and had a nice afternoon with Pedro. Pedro’s scholarly work is about the movement differences between chimps and bonobos, and how our human brains are constantly switching between the two. The chimp is about aggression, regulation, militarism and direct movement. They move like football players, using their arms to locomote. The bonobos are more childlike and play-oriented, bisexual, with less social heirarchy. They locomote more with their pelvises and have round bow legs.

According to Pedro, many of the comments he heard from people after seeing the show were extremely complimentary to the playfulness and liberatory nature of “Hippie Elegy”. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if the Dominican audience would enjoy the piece, because so much of it is about American music, hippie culture, and history (Kent State, Woodstock, etc.) But what they responded to most powerfully was the nature of the movement and the delivery system, not the content. And they deeply understood the politics of individualism and egalitarianism that were part of the working process and were visible in the work.

Some people said we looked like animated dolls, not in terms of flatness of affect, but in terms of the playfulness of the piece. They mentioned my bowleggedness (the anti-ballerina legs) and African roundedness, which had to do with the low center of gravity and human shape my body makes. I could hear the audience specifically enjoying movement moments like when I spin Jeb around and dance around him in a circle with my butt wagging, or when I dance around with the muffins, as if alone in my living room or stoned in a night club.

People saw a respect for individuality and unity in the movement choices, in contrast to the unison, virtuosity-oriented, and uprightness of the ballet piece and Silverbrown’s work. Pedro also said the picnic scene in “Hippie” was poignant to the Dominicans because their lives are so infused with magic and ascribing magical powers to objects. They have a fruit drink down here called “to die dreaming”, which says it all….

Others said they loved the simplicity and elegance of the gestures, which was echoed by Maricarmen when she looked at our dvd of “Mixed Tape”. According to Pedro, the piece being about “the democratic body of liberation” in a dance world that is “under house arrest of classicism” was a gift to the audience. I was extremely touched to hear that. And it brought home again the significance of us being here. Not just the performance, but the teaching, the conversations, the connections large and small we are making here.

Saturday night the piece went very well again. At one moment the CD skipped — Jeb and I both said a silent prayer on stage, and in true vodun fashion, it miraculously stopped skipping.

Speaking of prayers, Mundo’s car has been named by us the “caro milagro”. He’s been driving all week without a clutch (!) in his ancient Russian (!) car. There’s a steep hill on the way to the theater, and every time we attempt ascent, we chant “caro milagro”, in hopes that we won’t have to get out and push. The traffic and driving style here is insane. Stop lights (which are few) and signs are more of a suggestion than a rule, and accidents and near-accidents are common.

After the show, Jeb, Anna and I go to the pedestrian walk, the Conde, to find a place to eat. While drinking our beer we run into Guillermo’s friend Jean, the Haitian actor. He sits with us for a while, convinces us that the food isn’t very good at our chosen place, and takes us to get falafel. Anna and I dig in like starving people, which we practically are, given the paucity of vegetarian options here. Later, Jean takes us to Park Duarte, where people hang out at night, drinking Presidente and chatting. We meet up again with Guillermo and his crazy painter friend Renato and have a great time. The only difficulty is that no one speaks English, so Jeb and I have to use our brains a lot to understand and communicate. Luckily both of us know French and another Latinate language (Jeb Italian, me Latin), so we have some basis for guessing the Spanish words, and a facility with picking up language.

Boy oh boy will I insist that both my kids get a working knowledge of Spanish.

Sunday, May 28

The day of the last performance. For the first time, we can sleep in and have the afternoon free. After a nice breakfast of mangu (mashed plantains) and eggs, we wander around the city. Anna takes some alone time, which unfortunately is undermined by the friendly and/or hustling Dominicans who keep talking to her everywhere she goes. Jeb and I check out a flea market and wander down the the Plaza Hispanidad, where we watch some skinny young boys playing baseball. Then we see a Butoh-esque performance by an armed guard at the vault where all the revolutionary heros are buried. He walks every-so-slowly down a red carpet, then stands at attention for about 10 minutes before being replaced by another guard.

The final show is the best one for us as performers. For some reason, in the rage at the end of the “Ohio” section, I felt so full of rage — it was like a faucet was turned on and my body just went crazy. Maybe the terrible injustice of the poverty here? Whenever I travel, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the United States. Though I love the spirit of the Dominican people, I miss the freedoms of choice I take for granted at home.

After the show a big bunch of us go out for food and drink. For the first time since we arrived, we hang out with the Silverbrown dancers, who are lovely and fun. Stylistically, the are quite the opposite of Headlong, rehearsing all day, a two-hour company class every morning, etc. By contrast, Jeb and I drink beer into the wee hours and do a little contact to warm-up before the show. Mundo is so pleased with how everything has gone — the audience reception, the artistic exchange, the personal connections made. Jeb and Anna and I wholeheartedly agree. It’ll be sad to leave this place.

After the group hang, we go over to Jean and Renato’s grungy apartment. Jeb and I buy paintings from Renato, who only paints clowns and cats. We hang out more with Polibio, who has a brillant artistic mind and a great sense of humor. I hope to stay in touch with him. He’s had pieces in the Venice Bienale and the Havana Bienale, so I tell him I’ll see him in New York.

Monday, May 29

Mundo has arranged for the Americans to have a day or two at the beach at Boca Chica, a resort town about 20 miles from Santo Domingo. The hotel that donated the rooms is an all-inclusive resort populated mostly by Americans. It’s nice to sit on the beach and swim in the water, and drink pina coladas with the other dancers. But there is something surreal and disheartening about the lack of connection with the local culture here. After the depth of connection we had in Santo Domingo, it feels selfish and shallow. But rest is good, and tomorrow we go home!