Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Adventures of the Bird Spirit

Last week I traveled to Hamilton, NY, home of Colgate University's Ho Tung Visualization Laboratory, a planetarium (see below), to perform Anna Lindemann's Theory of Flight. Anna is one of my friends from Yale and also one of the most inspiring and creative people that I know. She was in my residential college and a year or two ahead of me in school. We sang together in the Yale Glee Club my freshman year and collaborated on another project, Bird Brain.
Here is the Dalai Lama visiting the planetarium! I'm not sure what the date of the photo is, but I think it's a few years back though relatively recently.

Perhaps you have heard me talk about this piece before; I performed in the premier last year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (see the photo I stole from the internet):

The story of Theory of Flight can be found on Anna's website (along with a video of our original performance and many photographs), but I'll try to sum it up here too.
First of all, the question of genre: What is it?
I'm not sure how to answer that question, still--though I think this is a good thing. Theory of Flight has two characters, a scientist named Alida and a Bird Spirit. The scientist (played by Anna) only speaks; the Bird Spirit (played by yours truly) only sings. It is a staged work. In addition, there are two sets of animations: one which serves the purpose of a chalkboard (albeit the most beautifully-designed chalkboard you've ever seen) and another which serves as both focal point and backdrop in the scenes featuring the Bird Spirit. The animations were made using both stop-motion and computer programs. The accompaniment to my singing is all electronic and is executed with Synful, a synthesizer (I think that's what you'd call it, anyway). Anna wrote and created and made all of these things, plus collaborated with her cousin Ky on the costumes.
Now that we've straightened that out, What happens?
Again, perhaps a little difficult to say. Essentially, the scientist Alida becomes obsessed with achieving flight in non-avian species (namely herself). Over the course of the drama, she falls deeper and deeper into this obsession, eventually amputating her arms and--through the help of science--growing wings. All of this is presented under the guise of a lecture series; we see Alida at three different points along this trajectory. Interrupting all of these lectures are appearances by the Bird Spirit, who sings arias which are related to material from the lectures. Alida is able to grow wings from her amputated arms but these are not powerful enough to let her fly, and it is only through intervention by the Bird Spirit that she is able to achieve her goal.
In the first production, the space at RPI (shown below) featured a rigging system.

At the end, Anna was literally able to fly, making smaller arcing leaps and finally a long flight across the stage while I was singing a final aria. The new location being a planetarium, it did not feature any rigging. So, a lot of this past week was spent thinking about the meaning of the ending. Would Alida really fly? How does the Bird Spirit feel about this? How much of this is in Alida's mind? And vice versa?

A photo from the first performance. Alida is attached to the rigging and wearing the wings given to her by the Bird Spirit.

Eventually it became clear that the best way to be a convincing Bird Spirit was to have a separate storyline from Anna/Alida. In my Bird Spirit mind, I was a scientist of some sort myself. Alida was my subject in an experiment and the intercalary arias (sung in English) were therefore not Alida's dreams but the Bird Spirit's way of influencing my test subject. Planting the idea of using an axolotl blastema as a means to introduce embryonic avian genes was not so much divine intervention (as Alida might think) as a further step in the experimental process. Eventually the Bird Spirit realizes--partially from wisdom and partially from jealousy--that her experiment has gone awry. Perhaps the Bird Spirit was hoping for company in her lonely life, but eventually found the introduction of another powerful figure into bird-dom too threatening. Perhaps Alida actually does represent a far greater danger to birds in her new half-bird state. If we are to ascribe human emotions to the Bird Spirit, it is most likely the former masquerading as the latter. Regardless of the reason, the Bird Spirit decides to ostracize Alida. In this iteration, the final aria (sung in bird speak) is not a celebration of Alida's successes but an affirmation of the Bird Spirit's bird-ness and also a cautionary tale: did you learn so little from Icarus' attempts? Beware lest you too fall from great heights.

The three performances went quite well (and were very well-attended), but Anna and I were a little flummoxed by the audience's somewhat bemused receptions to the first two shows. There are parts of Theory of Flight that are funny, but the first two audiences were very subdued. The third performance was our best despite some technological glitches, largely because there was so much positive energy coming from the other side of the room! At first we were worried that the community of Hamilton wasn't used to something so different, but in the end it seemed that it was a combination of factors: a large number of younger children in the audience (who tolerated the show quite well but probably didn't get much of the science) and also the afternoon performance times. The last performance was on Saturday evening and was followed by a Flying Feast, an edible, bird-themed reception designed and concocted by Ellie Markovitch and Rose Mitchell. Thanks to the appreciative audience, the Saturday night show felt more spontaneous than any of the others. At the Flying Feast we were able to talk to some of the attendees, many of whom seemed so excited by the mix of media and disciplines. Several of the professors expressed either delight at seeing scientists talk to artists (an art professor) or were impressed by the ability of artists to discuss important scientific processes (a science professor). It's always gratifying when you have a performance that seems as if it will stick in someone's mind for a while.

Anna was able to get a grant from Colgate to put on three performances of Theory of Flight along with a Flying Feast and to pay for the sundries of transportation, lodging, food, and fee for all involved (including the tech crew, made of Colgate students, operating all of the confusing computers and lights). One of Anna's friends, a luminous person named Emma who often wears amazing pants and is talented in so many ways that perhaps it is enough to say that she is luminous, was the director of the RPI show, but she could not come to this performance. So, we were joined by a friend of Emma and Anna's and another Yalie, yet another luminous individual who is also playwright and actor but is named Alex. I think Anna has a knack for meeting interesting people. Anyway, Alex and I stayed at Holcomb's Bed and Breakfast, a friendly establishment run by the loquacious and gracious Karen. It was such a luxury to have the opportunity to drop my daily cares and to be able to focus on the task at hand. I had been worried about taking the gig because I only had this one week off from school this semester and thought I might need the chance to recuperate. In the end, I think that this trip was both more rejuvenating and relaxing than a week at home could have been. Instead of sitting by myself in a practice room, I was working on character development for the Bird Spirit and thinking about how it might apply to Calisto. Instead of just worrying about my ribs and support while staring at a mirror and poking my sides (which I also did at the B&B), Alex gave us warm-up acting exercises that quite often dealt with some of the same issues we constantly ponder as singers. It was also wonderful to be in a little town with bright stars and deer and quiet nights. And, as always, it was a gift to get to work with Anna and, for the first time, Alex, and to meet new, friendly faces in a new place. It's stuff like this that makes me miss Yale.

And now back to work. I returned on Sunday, continued to brush up on Calisto on Monday, and started our week of intensive staging rehearsals today. Also, as a postlude to my bike saga: today I brought it in to a bike store near my house, Sweet Pete's, where it was fixed by an affable and competent mechanic, for free, in a few minutes.

But I shall close with a few photographs:

A ladybug found in my room one snowy morning. I put it in a plant inside because I thought it might be too cold outside.

The farm literally next door (fresh eggs for breakfast!)

Some plants in the field across/up the street/creek.

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