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Dancing on Bones at the Ilkhom Theatre

May 26, 2014

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One month ago today, (exactly one month ago down to this minute) Rebecca and I drove from Baltimore to Dulles International Airport, boarded a plane for Istanbul, transferred to a plane to Tashkent, and arrived there in the wee hours of April 27th.  In many ways, our journey was all leading up to the evening of May 1st, when the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil and The Seagull Project would present their collaboration, an improvisation around my new script Dance On Bones.  As you may remember, Dance on Bones was initially supported by the Likhachev Foundation with a cultural fellowship in St. Petersburg (see blog posts from May 2013), and was in an early draft when selected by The Seagull Project and the Ilkhom so I had arrived not knowing exactly what forces we were mingling with in this script.

Dance on Bones is 37 interlocking poems inspired by the jazz scene in St. Petersburg, Russia (see my Dance on Bones research page as well as numerous posts from May/June 2013), but set in a world in which cities have disappeared: are we in St. Petersburg or New Orleans or St. New PeterOrleansBurg?

An early draft of Dance on Bones was prepared for the Festival of American Culture at the Ilkhom Theater of Mark Weil, Tashkent, Uzbekistan in April/May 2014.

Cast of Characters:
1 – 4 actors; 1 – 4 musicians; Shadows, puppets, and advertisements
Notes:
The pages of the script are the template for performance.
Some can be performed as monologues.  Some can be performed as dialogue with indentation indicating changes of voice…Some of the pages may be stage directions. Some of the pages may be told through images, movement, or puppetry.

The pages included after this point can be rearranged or shuffled into a random order or performed in a different order each time or arranged to articulate different ideas.
or
Read around a campfire.  (from blogpost dated May 12, 2014)

The Ilkhom Theatre paired the four actors and co-directors from The Seagull Project with four Uzbek musicians who were well versed in jazz idioms.  Watching these ten artists, plus lighting designers and costumers, dive into Dance On Bones, was an invigorating experience.  Tyler, with his insights from living in Uzbekistan, chose to underscore the piece with specific references to Soviet history, while Gavin worked with the actors to connect the numerous dots that the script presented.  The set was a group of staggered, stacked, square platforms, and X-rays spun in the air above the platforms, an homage to the origins of Dance on Bones

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Speaking about my own work is a challenging prospect.  Naturally having one’s work brought to life by interested and interesting artists who dig deep is a humbling experience while also being a moment of tremendous pride.  Rather than reflecting or waxing poetic (or simply waxing my own ego), here is what I learned from this experience:

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  • Music is a character in this play.  Music shapes the structure and themes of the play.  I can imagine a version in which a Superman-esque theme is played under the Adverts rather than a Stalin-esque theme; they are, after all, both Men of Steel.

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  • The connections between many of the poems in very clear, some connections really opened up my eyes to possibilities: such as the pairing of “Gavri’s Losing Voice” with “The Invention of Jazz,” making that her story.  But there are whole arcs that remain muddied, that I can work to strengthen the connection now that I’ve seen where the gaps are and how clear connections provide the network by which artists and audiences navigate this piece.

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  • This is a funny play and a sad play.  I knew it was dystopian and political, but I didn’t know how funny it would be, or how the totalitarian aspects of the script would draw sadness from the actors.


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There are many more ideas, but it is with these ideas that I now head back into work on this script.  So here are three segments from the Improvisation of Dance On Bones at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; a glimpse of the live experience via the reductionist form of video.  The video contains three excerpts: “The Man With the Ham Part 1,” “The Floods, Part 1,” and “The Man of Steel.”  This video was recorded and produced by the Ilkhom Theatre.

Directors:  Tyler Polumsky and Gavin Reub

Actors:  John Abramson, CT Doescher, David Quicksall, and Alex Tavares

Musicians:  Sanjar Nafikov (piano), Saidmurat Muratov (sax), Andrey Prosvirnov (bass), Alibek Kabdurakhmanov (drums)

From the Program note (which I did not write):   Dance on Bones is a fragmented glance at a dystopian world, where authoritarian control reigns supreme, the world fights back against the loss of culture and memory, and jazz remains the soul and saving grace of the people.  Inspired equally by George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, American Poetry, and Miles Davis; Dance on Bones is a unique look at the importance of humanity in a world of lost souls.

Special Thanks to the Ilkhom Theatre’s tech and design staff whose quick work and acrobatics helped everything come together quickly, and especially to Boris Gafurov and Irina Bharat for opening up the Ilkhom Theatre to Dance on Bones.

After the presentation of Dance on Bones there was a talkback with Tyler, Gavin, John, CT, David, Alex, and me.  Here’s a few highlights:

  • An audience member compared the work to that of Ken Kesey, esp Cookoo’s Nest world populated by the inmates.
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Dance On Bones audience member asking a question.

  • Another audience member asked why jazz music and I discussed the connections of New Orleans and St. Petersburg (built in swamps, the heart of jazz in their respective countries, cities of cultural amalgamation and European roots)
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Dance on Bones actors, directors, and playwright take questions from the audience.

  • Someone asked if I wrote this piece about Uzbekistan, because they have their own stories of the Man of Steel and Trees and Jazz.
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Dance on Bones audience member asking a question.

  • The actors spoke about their work on the piece: a journey from disorientation to connection.

Then we journeyed down the street to Chez Aziz where we used every table and ordered so much beer they ran out of mugs (new mugs were there the next day).

Sanjar Nafikov and Jazzirama

Sanjar Nafikov on left, and me at Ilkhom Theatre.

Sanjar Nafikov was the musical director for Dance on Bones and was working with the team from my first rehearsal.  He is a versatile musician who in a member of a quartet that blends jazz ideas with Uzbek instruments and tones.  Below is a video from their concert at the Ilkhom Theatre celebrating the release of their eponymous CD.

 

Travel Tip

The day after we the presentation of Dance on Bones, Rebecca and I joined The Seagull Project folks for a trip to Samarkand, a mystical city filled with magical architechture.  We managed to get the high speed train there which arrived in 2 hours.  On the way home we took the regular train (3.5 hours), which was enough time for a remarkable conversation.  The train cost round trip was $40 and the tour of Samarkand with a guide and bus was $55/person.  But that trip will have to wait until the next post.

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