Inarticulateness is of particular interest in the new show on which Parson and Paul Lazar are collaborating with playwright Sibyl Kempson, Ich, Kürbisgeist, which opens today at The Chocolate Factory (co-comissioned with PS 122). I stopped by at the tail-end of one of their rehearsals last week to talk to them about the show, whose dialogue is written in a language that Kempson invented and which no one in the world, except those involved in the production, speaks—or has any knowledge of.
Parson and Lazar have been making work together as the Artistic Directors of Big Dance Theater for over 20 years. They're also married. Big Dance Theater has gained an international reputation for creating thoughtful, surprising, and rigorous dance theater work that often brings together seemingly incompatible material, as they did in their 2004 work Plan B, which combined the secret recordings of Richard Nixon with an obscure figure in early-1800s German popular culture, among other things. Another commonality in their work, as seems to be the case in this new work, Ich, Kürbisgeist , is how they often seem to enjoy feeling like outsiders looking in on a culture or subject that they are not familiar with.
Parson touched on this idea in an interview with BOMB magazine in 2007, when discussing Big Dance Theater’s piece The Other Here: “We’re tourists in a sense to Chekhov, and to folk dance, and to Japan. We’ll always try to remain in this observing, learning stance; we like to bring that out.” In my own chat with them I asked both Parson and Lazar what that was about for them—that desire to observe and react to the unfamiliar. Lazar related an anecdote that the playwright Sibyl Kempson had told him, about being in a foreign country. “She really enjoyed letting the language wash over her—it liberated her from the verbal back and forth.” He went on to say that he enjoyed the unfamiliarity with the language in Ich, Kürbisgeist because it allowed him to “play this game where the odd surfaces of the language induce a more sharp and playful listening.”
Parson, a choreographer by training, spoke about a similar experience related to seeing dance: “As you watch a new dance piece, you amass a new movement vocabulary.” She and Lazar went on to walk more about the idea of being a “tourist” in a variety of settings, but what seemed to come across most clearly is that, for them, there was a value in the experience of having to acknowledge one’s own ignorance—that it freed them up to gain new information that may not fit with what they already knew or that may do something familiar in a totally different way.
Their responses represent the ways that artists can present or suggest alternate worldviews; they seem to literally say, here’s a different way to look at things. By entering into their performance, the viewer is given the chance to, like Kempson, enjoy their ignorance in a foreign land and to escape the back and forth—to listen and observe more closely because of that lack of familiarity. In some sense it seems that Parson and Lazar’s interest in being a kind of “tourist” to the subjects they explore in their work is precisely the stance that they invite audiences to take in approaching their work. And, as someone who often attends and writes about abstract or non-narrative work, that explanation, at least in part, explains my own excitement in experiencing this kind of work: it allows me to step outside myself for a bit, to enter a new world for a brief time, and look at the familiar as if it was strange. Abstraction or deconstruction are not necessary, by any means, but if you’re open to them, the new perspective they offer can be a big part of their value.
Both Big Dance Theater and Sibyl Kempson are quite good at this kind of work when it comes to performance, and they do it with humor and real talent, so it’s worth a try if you’re still new to it or feel less inclined toward it. And it’s not all unfamiliar. The work is set in the Middle Ages in a largely barren land that seems to produce nothing much except for copious pumpkins—a number of which get smashed during the performance. And what culture doesn’t love a little pumpkin bashing?
In case you can’t make it to the show, you can try to experience the foreignness on the page as well: the play is now available in print.