In the Mirror
Perhaps we turn to music, dance, art or film, because we, too, are looking. My short list of most memorable performances or exhibits is short because only the ones that show me something for which I am--consciously or unconciously--looking make the cut. When I find something familiar but that is altogether new, something recognizable against the grain of "an other" (the composer, choreographer, filmmaker or artist), then [cheering] I am satisfied or inspired or moved. But what is it? What exactly feels "known" to me? I have wondered this again and again.
I should have asked not "what" but "whom," for the answer is: a little piece of myself. I say this, not steeped in narcissism, but just simply so. I look at a piece of art (music, performance, dance) as I look in a mirror, knowing that it will not literally be my reflection but longing anyway for a certain resonance, that sureness, that comes from glimpsing oneself in the glass. Seeing--however tiny, however distorted--a reflection of me in a completely foreign landscape (the stage, the page, the canvas) is kind of magical, and it must be what transports me from opining, "it's ok," to ripping my corset off and telling everyone I know that I just saw the best show of my life. That's just how it...works. For me.
Looking makes life fun. It makes experiencing art an active engagement. Finding yourself in surprising places, around that least expected corner...yes, this is why we live, I think.
This past weekend I found me. All of me. The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) is a Spanish film from the 1970s, and it is me. It sounds like me (the out of tune piano, the pocketwatch that plays like a carillon, an operatic wind, a reedy Hammond organ), it smells like me (the fallow Spanish fields, smoke, bees' honey), and it feels like me (girls jumping through a fire, a fidgety haircombing). But it is not necessarily me at all.
Ana, a little girl haunted by a screening of Frankenstein, is the focus of the film. Set in the contexts of school, play, home and, especially, family (a beekeeper/writer father, a mother seemingly plagued by ennui, a stern and sassy older-than-you-by-a-year sister), we watch Ana translate the fiction and the monster into her everyday reality. Her imagination allows her to be at once completely vulnerable and boldly independent. The style of the film and the way it tells a story is similarly evocative: it is a narrative that just opens and circles round and folds back up, and it presents a way of thinking that I imagine most adults have packed away with their sturdy old lunchboxes and dried-out first lipsticks. Ana is a child but she speaks to and for the adult, whether the year is 1940, 1974 or 2007.
Thus, the film succeeds in tapping into personal and universal truths, and that is a quality about art that makes me want to run screaming in the streets. It's about me! It's about the world! It's me...in the world! Ah hah!
You begin to see. You wonder if this, too, is a mirror...
This was all on my mind when I went to Zellerbach on Sunday to see Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan's Sacred Monsters. Guillem and Khan are dance superstars (she of Paris Opera Ballet fame, and he the hot modern choreographer with a thorough training in Indian classical dance), and I was prepared for a little bit of celebrity hype, but I was not prepared to so actively dislike how it was manifesting onstage. Sacred Monsters allows the audience "in" to the performer's life (choreographed dances are punctuated by moments of onstage informality) and it raises questions and makes statements about the artists' life in general, from practice to performance. The virtuoso pursues perfection but not without sacrifice and inner conflict. Once tradition is mastered, is it ok to experiment? Is it "ok" to ask questions? Is it "ok" to do what you love and love what you do? Is doing that--oh wonderful guilty pleasure--a worthy endeavor in the scope of ... things? I can relate. (Do I not write about such things?) Yet as their questions and perspectives were given meaning in movement, Sacred Monsters didn't seem to become anything more than Sylvie and Akram. I could not find a "universal." I saw no glimpse of myself in any mirror. I was just me, just a body, sitting in Zellerbach Hall, and onstage, dancing beautifully, were two wonderful superstars.
I particularly liked moments of true duet, when they clasped hands and refused to let go for example, and so under and over and around a series of arching arms their bodies twisted and moved as if one. And later, with Guillem's legs clasped about Khan's waist, their arms reflected each other as if separated by water. I found this quite poetic.
But overall [she opines]: "It's ok."
After the performance (it was an early show) I drove up to Grizzly Peak to watch the sunset. From Tilden one can see almost all the bay's bridges, and in the finest performance of the weekend (special kudos to the subtle and unwavering hand on the day's dimmer switch) the lights of the cities--from San Francisco and Marin to Berkeley and San Mateo--all began to sparkle a little more determinedly, and the urban nervous system, thus illuminated, began to hum. I finally felt that sense of recognition--artistic recognition--that I felt when I had watched The Spirit of the Beehive. Here, on Grizzly Peak, against a soundtrack of enthusiastic crickets, watching the hive of my environs simultaneously go to sleep and come to life, I got that "aha" of artistic satisfaction. The "piece"--this sunset--was a personal reflection, beautiful and humming and visceral and imperfect, but I also knew that a hundred other people could experience it and find satisfaction, too.
And so I add "Sunset May 6th, 2007" to the short list with Bill Viola (and a few secret others). And so I continue looking...for truths in a universal mirror.