FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Khecari

Khecari: as though your body were right

January 19-29, 2023

The Fine Arts Building

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: ArtsTour

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Scholarship and Resources

Choreographing Cellular Consciousness: Review of as though your body were right

An Essay by Paulette Richards

A handful of people cluster around a wooden box about seven feet long and three or four feet high. It looks like a puppet stage, but most of the time there is a live human dancer inside the box. The seats for the audience are placed right up against the stage. The dancer is completely nude.

The night I saw the show, Julia Rae Antonick, codirector of Khecari, was filming the performance. I sat next to her and occasionally peeped at how she was framing the movement with the camera. Internet pornography has made an unlimited panoply of erotic spectacles readily available, but rarely do we have the opportunity to look at another human body with such emotional intimacy. Antonick’s shots simultaneously enhanced the abstraction of the forms the dance created and the intimacy it evoked.

In all my years of dance training, I perfected techniques for casting oblique glances into dressing room mirrors in order to satisfy my curiosity about bodies: “Wow! She has more armpit hair than I do,” or “Gee, I have a mole there, too. Maybe I’m not such a mutant after all.” This kind of “voyeurism” was reassuring but it had to be done furtively, so I appreciated being able to look for as long as I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. Jonathan Meyer’s choreography seeks to highlight “the vulnerability of being a body and of the power of being a body” (Khecari website), and I found very positive affirmation in the experience.

Male and female principals switch off dancing this challenging role. The performance I saw was with a female dancer, Amanda Maraist. For more than ten minutes, Maraist kept her back to the audience. Much of the time she was curled on one side in a fetal ball. There were almost no gross motor movements, and yet I could see all kinds of technique at work. My dance teachers always admonished us to dance with our backs. Maraist expertly demonstrated what this means, holding the audience spellbound just with the flow of breath through her body. I could see the subtle engagement of her pelvis and how it sent ripples of energy through the rest of her spine out into her limbs. Waves of emotion crested and lifted her through vertical postures before she sank back down to the floor of the box. Suspense built as I wondered whether the choreography would eventually reveal the front side of her body. The ebb and flow of kinetic and emotional energy lifted her up, dropped her down into classic Graham back falls, and sent her spiraling around her spine within the tight confines of the box. While the full-frontal revelation is a moment of deep vulnerability for both the dancer and the audience, there is a bell that audience members can ring if they become too overwhelmed during the performance. I didn’t ask if anyone had ever used it, but I could understand why some people might find such stark nakedness uncomfortable, even though it is not sexual at all.

Tom Lee collaborated with Khecari and built puppets for the show. As the dance unfolds, we see that it represents a symbiotic mating cycle. Metal objects ornamented the back wall of the stage. They suggested female and male genitalia, with some resembling pitcher plants, while others looked like dangling switches. From time to time these objects became animated, and the clattering sounds they made added to the dramatic intensity of these moments. After a period of intense agitation, the dancer coughed up a rounded object that looked like an egg. The puppeteer then skewered it with a metal rod and lifted it up out of the box. Next, a small, caterpillar-like puppet crawled over the dancer’s body as if it were a landscape of hills and valleys. Later, a larger insect puppet replaced the caterpillar. It crawled over the dancer’s body as well, until she brushed it away with a flick of her foot. At the end of the show, the cycle began anew. The insect puppet crawled over the dancer’s body and deposited a new egg in her mouth.

The puppeteer operates the insect puppets from above, but sometimes a hand is deliberately visible inside the frame of the box. Sometimes the puppeteer also uses thin metal rods to manipulate the dancer’s body. This requires well-rehearsed coordination between the dancer and the puppeteer, but the way Maraist held her weight made it look like she was suspended from the rods and moving at the direction of the puppeteer. A moment where she clasps hands with the puppeteer through a window at the back of the stage highlights Meyer’s understanding of the self as a plurality. As he explained during the festival’s Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium “…the ego, the singular sense of self is a functional convenience, necessary perhaps but also hiding a legion of selves, aspects of the self, splinters of the id, the ongoing infant, the animal that underlies the socially vested self.”

A certified practitioner of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering approach, Meyer is interested in exploring what it would mean to choreograph the cells’ movement rather than the body’s. He feels the symbiosis between the puppeteer and the puppet, and the puppeteer and the dancer, as well as the symbiosis in the audience’s relationship to the work, which presents the experience of cellular consciousness more immediately than words. “At the micro-level,” he goes on to explain, “we are the product of a symbiosis between cells that live in and on us, that genetically perhaps are not us but arguably are in fact us.” At the super organismic level, he notes, consciousness can expand to experience a return to the source of all being. In as though your body were right, the dancer, the puppeteer, the puppets, and the audience work together like cells at the micro-level to strip away the cloak of illusions that define the individual ego and open us to a super organismic level of awareness.

Sources

Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. “Maya the Uses of Illusion at the Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium on Saturday 28 January 2023.” Available at:
https://youtu.be/oosy-i5oAwo. Accessed July 31, 2023.

Khecari. “as though your body were right” [web page]. Available at: https://www.khecari.org/as-though/. Accessed July 31, 2023.

Play Video

View Jonathan’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Jonathan Meyer at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 28, 2023, Jonathan Meyer was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Maya: The Uses of Illusion.” 

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Jonathan's Presentation

Well, thanks so much. Thanks to everybody for being here today. I'm actually gonna start with, if we can cue video cue. This is from "As Though Your Body Were Right," the work that's being presented here at the festival. And just to say, this is actually our first, as you heard, we're a dance company, Khecari, this is our first foray into the world of puppetry.

I’m just gonna let this roll, it’s less than four minutes. So Janni spoke really wonderfully about this, I think, pretty well trafficked idea that that we find in the art world and philosophy and many other places that the ego, the singular sense of self is in some ways at least elusory. It’s a functional convenience, necessary perhaps, but also hiding a legion of selves, aspects of the self, splinters of the Id, the ongoing infant. The underlying, the animal that underlies the socially vested self. A lot of things maybe tucked away. As emergence theory found its way into popular thought, I got particularly fascinated with this idea that the person that we as individuals, that we’re an emergent phenomenon of the blinkered lives of trillions of largely independent cells, as if we were better thought of as a, like, an ant colony, than a single organism. How can we witness the lives of cells, and how can we choreograph that life? As I started thinking about this piece, I first just wanted the audience that close that we could see that kind of infinitesimal, the cellular. And originally, I brought in puppets as a framing device. If the actor is this big, then the body of the dancer becomes something like terrain or environment. And because I knew nothing about the puppetry world, I was familiar with Blair’s work and reached out to him and he connected me with Tom Lee who designed all the puppets and was a really integral part of helping develop the material of the piece and training the puppeteers who actually in this case were from the dance world as well. And this was their first time in puppetry. For me, one of the many delights of being an artist is that kind of repartee between one’s vision. The word vision. I guess I want to use an artist’s vision to include questions, doubts, passions, conflicts. I feel like the word’s vision is a bit, it’s easy, but a bit problematic in a way. But whatever it is that’s driving the artist in the creation, but the repartee between that and the increasing life of the work, the momentum that the work itself gains and starts to self-direct and talk back and all that. So at some point for me, it became perhaps less about bodily vulnerability and bodily power, though I feel that that’s still there. But maybe at some point it started to gain more of a life that was about relationship and symbiosis, specifically. And from originally just a framing device, I think that the puppets and the puppeteer moved to be much more central players. And I think originally I had considered it a solo work, but it became very clearly a duet or even at a certain point, a trio between puppet, puppeteer and dancer. So it’s still relevant for me to talk about my interest in choreographing or viewing cellular life. But as the work developed, and I think particularly in the context of this symposium, it became just as interesting for me to start to ask, so why? Why view cellular life? Why do you care? Why is it interesting? My studies in Body-Mind Centering offered tools to build the capacity to experience cellular consciousness. The fruits of this are better expressed, I feel through performed work than any language I can offer here, which is I guess another way of saying come see the work. But the ills of society are the things that we bemoan. I do feel sometimes we maybe speak about them in a particularly individual, moral kind of way. Like, why would somebody do that? Why do people behave this way? When arguably, perhaps it’s the result of a higher emergent level, the behavior of the superorganism. We’re not bad people, we feel, however blind we may be to choices that we make, that cause the unnecessary suffering or even death of individual cells in our body, even whole communities of tissues or organs. If we can experience the cellular in an immediate visceral kind of way, can we experience the superorganism?

Can our individual egos step aside for a moment and hear the cellular speak to the superorganismic? This is a question that I feel like has been driving the work that I don’t begin to have an answer to, but it still feels very potent as a question. And another one that’s become really central for me. What is it to see the body? We grow so familiar with the thing sometimes that we no longer see it. It’s part of the magic of perception that we come no longer to feel the cane, but to feel the ground through the cane, and the fork becomes merely an extension of fingers or even an extension of the grasp of the mouth, and the utility of all this is fabulous. It is magical and it’s necessary for how we function in the day-to-day. And I think morally, I would say that morality requires us to see a person when we see a human body. But what is it to live in a world where we never see a chair or a house or a plant, but only use them or to live in a world where we don’t hear the life of language, but only communicate ideas, data, meaning, or treat each other and ourselves solely as socially successful monolithic beings. Janni also said something that stuck with me, that’s to this point about the threat of certainty or to turn on its head, the value of doubt or the value of possibilities. So exiting the quotidian of just for a moment to be briefly a child again, overwhelmed by the maelstrom of shape, color, sound, the looming, the retreating. Also, since kind of being invited to this panel and reading some of Paulette’s words that she shared earlier, I’ve been chewing a bit on illusion. I was particularly struck by the language about the life and the agency of objects. On a literal level, I think that, you know, it presents itself to our current sensibilities, for the most part, as impossible. Yet the impossible is very fecund. We know as performers that there’s a magic in escaping ourselves to be someone or something else. And even if that stays with us as the impossible, there’s something very potent in that experience, ways of finding other aspects of ourself or selves, something like an authentic multiplicity, the animal, the child, the cellular, the thousand other people that we could have been or perhaps are. And then there’s also just the really incredibly simple things, the spending hours in rehearsal on technical aspects of timing of exactly how the performer raises a body part and timing with how a puppeteer manipulates a metal rod to create for the viewer this illusion that the body’s being magically or magnetically lifted by those rods. And on one level it’s very simple, even childish kind of delight, when that childlike, like playing pretend, we see through at the same time as we fully feel it. It’s a profound doorway into aspects of being that resonate with our lived experience of being moved, of the numinousness that somehow still persists in our world. This is one of the magical capacities of art that the simplistic, the obvious, the childish can be so profound. There’s symbiotic relationships that we have biologically, right, the things that live in and on us that genetically perhaps are not us, but arguably are in fact us. I think about the sort of symbiosis between the puppeteer and the puppet or the puppet and the dance from the context of a work like this, or the puppeteer and the dancer. But I like thinking about symbiosis too, in relationship to the audience’s relationship to the work. And I’m gonna end with a paraphrase here from Merleau-Ponty, phenomenologis, as a way of framing that audience, art, relationship. Hardness and softness. Moonlight and sunlight present themselves, not preeminently as sensory contents, but as a certain kind of symbiosis. Certain ways that the outside has of invading us and certain ways that we have of meeting this invasion. Thanks.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 19-29, 2023
The The Fine Arts Building
410 S. Michigan Ave.

An audience of seven in a room within a room. A micro-theater. A puppet theater. The performer’s body as landscape. Watching the cells of the body murmurate like starlings. A creature that would live on such a landscape. Crawling over it, flying over it. Calling it home. as though your body were right is an invitation to confront the bodiliness of being human –  a shared experience of the vulnerability of being a body, and of the power of being a body.

With special support from: ArtsTour, Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Past Performances and Further Reading

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