« Love's Comedy--An Opera with Strings Attached | Main | The Highs and Lows of Pearl Fishing »

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.

All this said, it means a lot to me when I read people's comments after a show and realize that the blend has worked on a sensory level: "The elements of life - music, fascinating props, the voices, poetry, song, the dance - take the audience down uncharted paths." Or put straight by an audience member who is in the military, who signed his name Mike: "Great show, better than anticipated. Loved the music, voice, dance & intertwining."

If we do it right, the result is that the show provides, as one audience member wrote, "a visionary creation - funny, disturbing, engaging" that is a reflection of life. "It touched the most tender - opened the mysterious, celebrated the sometimes awkward - wonderfulness of being human," wrote a woman named Maria. That is definitely what I hope to achieve.

But perhaps more than anything, what I hope is to dissolve the performer façade. We are all creative. We are all gifted. So, I've really achieved what I've hoped for when I read, "It made me feel like singing & dancing with you!", wrote someone named Inday; and "Inspiring! I am a butoh dancer who hasn't performed since last year. I wanted to come up on stage with you! Thanks, Bob."

What part does the video play in how you and the other performers interact?

The video was created and timed to interact with us on stage, as a deepened, telephoto lens view of each person and of the art form; for example, the throat of the singer, the bow on the bass player's strings. Also, the filmmaker, Chris Andersen, understood an aspect of "The Letting" to be this quality of being ecstatically/emotionally soaked, hence created footage of us doing our same actions as on stage, but close-up and rain-drenched.

How does this year's performance of this work in the Fringe program differ from last year's?

Every year is different, but every show inevitably contains humor, music, song, dance, poetry, and touches down deep. IMG_1560.jpg The cast is an extraordinary gathering of highly focused artists. This year's "The Letting" project was a unique grounding for the show, a once-in-a-lifetime creation, layers and layers of work to a devotional degree perhaps even more committed than last year. It was a hugely dense undertaking with so many art forms leading the way at once: Was the poem the mainstay? Or the song? Or the bass player? Or the drums, or the film, or the storyteller, or the dance? In this work, the eye and the ears are infused with so many art forms - sometimes taking turns, sometimes all at once - even the audience joins in during one sound "storm." It is a work that borderlines on almost too much sensory, almost "too drenched" like the film in the background; it invites more than one viewing.

If there is one thing you could change about this year's performance of Crashing Home what would that be?

I'd have a full technical run-through and a dress rehearsal before opening night. We didn't get that, and that was tough. We have a wonderful cast and crew (please see listing below) but we needed time to do one of two things: either the venue and the technical limitations needed to be adjusted for this production, or we needed time to adjust our show to the limitations. Deep sigh: that's showbiz.

CRASHING HOME: Christopher Andersen, film; Chinwe Enu, soprano; Ariel Francis, guitar; David Jernigan, bass; Annie Johnstone, song; Diann Marshall, story; Margaret Riddle, dance; Mattias Rucht, drums; Diana Tokaji, text/movement.

Here is an excerpt from one of Tokaji's poems presented in the show.


It was by the tree, leaning, that I understood...

Phenomenal. That was the self being with self. Speaking with self of another. Speaking to air, asking air to carry from self to self. Without delay or the flash of second guess.

Then the sobbing would be a forest only. So many trees so many trees calling out random desires; crying for them - and cheering, cheering on and cheering for, every wish come true, every little effortful wanting that comes through, that is true, and so comes

through the trees and the air and the pine needles to the farthest hardest core and to the lightest, immeasurable swirl and sway ... this is where truth travels and traveled that late day.

by Diana Tokaji
from Crashing Home

Copyright © 2008 by Diana Tokaji


Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 28, 2008 11:33 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Love's Comedy--An Opera with Strings Attached.

The next post in this blog is The Highs and Lows of Pearl Fishing.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.