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July 28, 2008

Long Limb, Upper Palate Inform Crashing Home

This summer the Dresser skirted the Capital Fringe Festival 08. That is, she was on the edge of the edgy goings on, being preoccupied with judging several poetry contests, writing her paper on Gertrude Stein--medievalist, futurist, or both, and collaborating on an Exquisite Corpse poem for an art show. Nevertheless, she was still interested and had the opportunity to conduct this interview with Diana Tokaji, who was the principal creator choreographer and poet of Crashing Home.

How did the sequence of Crashing Home and its four parts come about?CrashingHome_WeerdSisters_Image4.jpg

Crashing Home is partly a show featuring Annie Johnstone, singer, who is essentially coming out into the public with her beautiful voice for the first time. She was featured very briefly in my show last year, but these songs are her own, and coming onto the stage is new for her. So that was one focal point, and this is why you see several of her songs on the program.

Is there an overriding theme or mood between the four parts that was particularly important for the audience to leave with?

The audience gets to leave with whatever is appropriate for them at that viewing...perhaps they leave delighted by the funny bits, or thrilled by the singing. Perhaps they leave in tears. Although I avoid any pretense that I should be telling other people what to leave with, when I look at the overriding or undercurrent theme of the show, it's reflected in the title, Crashing Home. Coming home, finding your right way in the world is not necessarily a gentle path...even if it's aligned. The last words of "Poem of Trust. Poem of Fearless." say it one way...."small boat, breast wide, enters open sea." It's huge out there. Taking our fears in stride and moving out anyway, takes balls.

And the few words of "The Letting" says it: "...this hard bark, that is warm." The piece speaks about an epiphany that occurs while leaning into a tree, the hard bark "digging without apology" into her back. Learning "how to learn, how to ask, how to focus" when life stabs us where it most hurts. How can we at that moment, feel, breath, and realize that we are learning - even then - how to love. So if I had to offer a sound bite for my theme I would say it is, "Find a path of love for the world and the self. But don't expect pretty."

As a dancer, who are the dancers you take your inspiration from? Does the dance style in Crashing Home represent the style of your overall choreography or were you working within a particular timeframe?

My early inspiration was Judith Jamison, of Alvin Ailey's Dance Company. I saw her perform in San Francisco during my gangly teens, and was encouraged: If she, with her tall body and unusually long limbs, could integrate her movements that beautifully, perhaps there was hope for me. Meeting Josephine Nicholson much later in life, (my original Weerd Sister and co-founder), was equally encouraging, as her limbs are perhaps even a touch longer than mine. When I saw her move, I thought, 'oh that's why it takes so much to organize my body...it's long like that amazing creature!' Currently, all art forms and rhythms inspire and inform my choreography...it can be looking at water or a squirrel, that inspires the movement for my piece, as easily and likely as it can be some style of dance.

The "style" of choreography I select for any particular work is not conscious. My first training was in Afro-Caribbean dance, and folkdance. Then I studied jazz, modern, and classical ballet. I performed professionally in musical theatre, and in operas with Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, and I toured nationally dancing the roles of five women throughout five centuries of social dance. As for comedy, I think that was a survival technique, naturally learned and developed in the family kitchen.

Words inform my choreography as well, because I hear them physically. I began combining and performing text, dance, and odd combos of recorded music in my teens at Berkeley High School, back in the days when we had to splice a reel to reel tape, if we wanted to edit, as I did, Santana with Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. My writing was a secret most of my childhood, stuffed behind bookshelves where no one could see it. I came out as a writer in my twenties, and just after I declared my major to be writing upon returning to college, that same week, I discovered in a trunk of my mother's belongings that she had been a writer, that was her profession. My writing teaches me how to choreograph, because if I listen to it honestly, I pull gesture from "out of the box," accommodating but not dancing to, those words.

As a performer. what do you hope to achieve by blending dance, movement, dramatic and comic action, and poetry?

I don't go about this complex blend because I hope to achieve anything, but because these different art forms satisfy what is required by a particular piece, a particular expression that I'm feeling must be delivered. As humans, we seem to think that we should be identifying what we are by a single title: I am a poet; I am a dancer; I am full of music; I am ridiculous; I am dramatic, serious. But look, it wasn't until I understood how to focus on my upper palate in voice lessons that I finally began to understand how to focus in yoga poses. And when I started ballet late in life, in order to fake my way across the floor doing 'brise', I depended on a combination of musical timing and a background in folkdance. Or this: if you understand how to waltz, you might hear ¾ time in Shakespeare's sonnets, or you might see trees in the wind and perceive the leaves as waltzing. It is we who feel more comfortable compartmentalizing, but if we look back in time to people dancing and chanting around a fire, dressed up, made up, playing instruments, and perhaps telling serious or funny stories, we realize the blend and overlap of art forms is in our nature.

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