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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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.

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