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November 15, 2008

Stark dramatic immersion - 10/26/08

The night is cold and the crisp smell of autumn wafts through the air. I find that my three companions and I are walking to a building I have never noticed before; a building, which I am told, is slated for demolition. That’s why we’re here. That’s why this whole event is happening. That is why I am standing outside at nine o’clock at night in front of a school building instead of lying on the couch with the idea of sleep in the near future. I am here, in front of Norris Hall on the University of Minnesota’s east bank, to see my first experimental theater show.

“The Woyzeck Project,? is based off Georg Büchner’s unfinished play “Woyzeck.? It remains incomplete because Büchner died during the writing process. The show began as a five-week class exploring the text and researching Büchner himself. Apparently the only good to have come out of the class was that it informed the directors of what they didn’t want the show to be. Luverne Seifert, one of the department of Theatre Arts and Dance faculty members directing the project, and the other directors did not want to base the production on the Büchner’s text. Instead they decided to let the student actors explore the themes of the play, in which Woyzeck murders his lover, the prostitute named Marie, and create vignettes. After much editing, the directors and actors successfully wove the vignettes together thus creating the finalized, fragmented, hour-long show. The directors believe because the original play was unfinished, it lent itself to the fragmented version of their particular presentation.

Now, I am not new to the idea of “experimental? theater. I am modern dancer, after all. Seeing “crazy? and “abstract? ideas presented onstage is a regular occurrence for me. But that’s motion…movement. And it’s onstage. It’s not in an old gym where the performers are most definitely popping your personal bubble. Dazed disturbed random taskmasters dressed in clear plastic garbage bags are in your face, forcing you to sing and sway and they yell at you if you don’t do what they say. I’m a little out of my comfort zone and this is only part of the pre-show.

I’m tickled as I walk inside; this is the building where the university’s dance program used to reside – this is where my teachers used to dance when they were undergrads. I’m sure it looks very different now. In those days dancers in bright colored leotards and yoga pants would bounce down the hallways. Nowadays, the building is usually deserted, the halls dark with mice and other creatures of the night skittering around. However, tonight, the Hall is once again filled with students.

Small yellow lights are scattered here there and everywhere. Lockers with people in them line the walls. Hollow drum beats echo through the hallway. Is that guy peeing in a bucket? Yes, he is.

The taskmasters from outside stop the few dozen of us audience members in the middle of a dimly lit hallway. There is a public restroom to our left. The door is open and a guard is blocking its entrance. The taskmasters direct us to a crude yet slightly nostalgic puppet show box. Suddenly, two puppets reveal themselves. Apparently these beings-on-a-stick represent the play’s two characters, Woyzeck and Marie. They begin to act out the plot of the play. It was sort of strange to watch. Typically audiences do not see the entire plot acted out before the actual show begins. However, I later realized that by seeing this pre-show, I understood the more abstracted, “out there? vignettes. Without the puppet show, I’m pretty sure I would have walked around the Norris Hall gym with a “What the hell!?!? expression on my face. Although, I will say that seeing a puppet have sex and then kill his lover is kind of a disturbing sight, especially when they have an uncanny resemblance to the puppets on “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.?

After the pre-show, the other audience members and I shuffle our way past a short line of lockers. There are people in them. They try to scare us. It is like the “Evil Dead 2? of theater. From there, we enter a twisting labyrinth. Photographs line each wall and each wall leads to a compartment with actors acting out a seemingly random scene. In one such compartment two people – Woyzeck and Marie – are sitting in a chair, staring at each other. Woyzeck is hiding a knife behind his back. In another, Woyzeck is eating a bowl of green mushy mashed peas.

After a good ten minutes of wandering around this strange world, a voice booms. It is yet another Woyzeck. He directs us to the far end of the gym where a wired caged the size of a living room stands. It is empty save for two lights. He speaks at length in jumbled sentences – sentences that seem to have been strung together because they to not relate to one another. Woyzeck takes a moment of pause. There are footsteps in the distance. They’re growing louder. Louder. Louder. A storm of Rocky wannabes run into the cage, jumping on its wired walls, their feet inches from your face. The caged mass begins to dance and thrash about but I am thoroughly confused as to what their vignette has to do with the rest of the show. “It’s supposed to represent the feeling of the play,? I was later told by a performer, however, I am unconvinced. Because I know the choreographer and have taken many a modern dance class with him, part of me thinks he just wanted to make the dancers throw themselves around for fun. He likes that kind of movement; that kind of “throw yourself around for the hell of it? movement that I appreciate on a physical side.

The dancing in “The Woyzeck Project? is what I expect from Carl, and I love watching that raw energy…but…I failed to see the continuity between it and the rest of the story. Ultimately was left wanting more because the dancing ended as suddenly as it began. The dancers and actors are running outside the building.

Fire dancers and death await the audience in the grass. Marie saunters over to Woyzeck. He is crazed. His mind plagued by jealousy and the need to control Marie overcomes him. He does not want anyone else to touch Marie. She can only be with him. She goes in for an embrace and receives death. Woyzeck picks up her corpse and runs away into the night. And like the unfinished play, “The Woyzeck Project? abruptly ends.

My moment before

October 7, 2008

“What is this a moment before? A moment before…what?�? I sat in the corner of studio 200 in the Barbara Barker Center for Dance as Kelly Drummond Cawthon spoke to the University Dance Theater cast of the Shapiro & Smith Dance piece “A moment before.�? Winter break. ACDFA. Graduation. The rest of my life. This apprenticeship is my moment before - a moment before my career reveals itself.

This project marks the end of my college career. I am a graduating senior from the University of Minnesota and I am earning a BFA in dance and a minor in mass communications. My senior project is apprenticing with Shapiro & Smith Dance (S&S).

I arrived on the university’s campus a little over three years ago. I was fresh out of high school and I wanted to take every performance opportunity the school could offer. I auditioned and was cast in Joe Chvala’s “Berserks�? which was one of the six dances involved in that year’s University Dance Theater’s (UDT) production. Shapiro & Smith Dance’s “To Have And To Hold�? was also part of that lineup. Since then, I have been infatuated with the work Shapiro & Smith produce.

The idea for my project sprouted in the spring of last year. My friend and fellow dancer, Tawny Hyster, essentially apprenticed with S&S that year and got to know the company very well. I also wanted to get to know them but beyond that, I wanted to someday become part of the company. The physicality and the choreography of S&S’s dances are beautiful, striking and most importantly fun.

I talked with Joanie Smith, the artistic director of S&S, and asked if I could apprentice with the company for my senior project. She of course said yes with a brilliant smile across her face. We decided – even before the fall semester started – that I would come to rehearsals, learn the repertoire, step in if one of the company members is absent, and help backstage during their April show at the Southern Theater.

Everything was falling into place…and then, when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the dance program announced that Shapiro & Smith Dance was going to provide a dance, “A Moment Before,�? for the 2008-2009 UDT show.

It has been three years since Shapiro & Smith had a dance in the UDT show. I had hoped to be cast in this piece but unfortunately that is not what happened. This blew my ego a little because I thought I had a very strong chance of getting into the piece.

Even though I was not cast, Joanie asked if I would “please join the cast during the first week of UDT rehearsals.�? Company member Kelly Cathorn was coming up from Florida for a week to set “A Moment Before�? on the cast; Joanie thought I would benefit from hearing what Kelly had to offer.