"This is how she writes."
These words of Heather McDonald describe Susan Shields, a professor at GMU's School of Dance, and illuminated a collaboration between McDonald, a playwright and director and Shields, a choreographer.
The performance is called STAY, a curious title for a work that explores impermanence, shifting relationships and interdisciplinary communication. Nothing in the piece stays constant for long and this makes it both idiosyncratic and brilliant. I feel lucky to have attended the June 12 showing of an excerpt during the 10th Annual First Light Discovery Program at George Mason University. I think I witnessed a gem in the making.
The piece dissolves borders between text, movement and images. There are four dancers, four actors, and projections of SLAM Animation by Greg Crane showing photographs layered at different speeds to create a film-like sequence. The dialogue shifts from humor to poignancy to strife while the images in Crane’s creations collapse into poetic and dramatic sequences. I admired the way each of the elements retains its own unique qualities while mixing with the other ways of communicating.
During the post-performance discussion there was a question about the projections and their relevance and I found these to be a powerful part of the piece. Even if they have not yet been fully integrated, they are composed in a stunning way – the collage-ing of still photos that reinforce the subjectivity of memory – the way we hold onto particular moments and assemble them in a selective way. They connect eloquently with the development of characters and images in the text, especially the idea that facades can be misleading. External appearances can contrast with inner persona and desires.
I appreciated the way the characters and interactions are triggers and springboards for associations rather than literal or completed roles. Their fragility and ambiguity intrigue me. In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura writes: "In art the importance of the principle [of vacuum] is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion."
In both its content and form STAY opens an inviting space for the audience to enter. Relationships are developed so the observer can bring their own interpretations and explanations to the scenes. Subtlety and nuance are prized over finality and closure. Duets between the dancers offer glimpses of passion, attraction, anger and grief. In many ways they exemplify the inadequacy of words. Shields' choreography is gorgeous and the dancers' execution is full-bodied and generous. Kalynn Frome in particular is stunning.
The piece speaks beautifully to the way we develop links with events and people and these links are often influenced by our own past and expectations. I found the coherence of the actors and dancers phenomenal.
STAY is both resonant and relevant. The flexible structure, open form, and interdisciplinary approach come together not only to introduce a new genre of theater/performance but also speak to us as human beings in a deeper way. We live in a moment when interactions take multiple forms constantly – visual, acoustic, kinetic, virtual. To create a piece that captures this simultaneity – and impermanence – of our exchanges and relationships is brilliant. I admire both the creativity and resolve of McDonald and Shields who have made something that speaks so honestly: no imposed narrative or forced structure but a moment that is deeply human, fleeting, emotional, and resounding.