Kafka on the Dance Floor


By Joseph Carman

Published October 08, 2004, issue of October 08, 2004.
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Paul Lazar and his wife, Annie-B Parson, never questioned whether the spoken text of live theater and the pure kinetics of dance could create a perfect marriage. Lazar, the actor, and Parson, the dancer and choreographer, formed Big Dance Theater in 1991 to mine and to combine the elements of both art forms into a unique formula. The latest example of their hybridism is titled “Plan B,” presented by Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan, N.Y., from September 23 through October 9.

“Plan B” evolved from two separate projects, stemming from the creators’ particular fascination with two highly dissimilar subjects. Lazar always had found a quirky fascination with Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, particularly in the dialogue between the disgraced president and his tape-erasing secretary, Rose Mary Woods. “I love the way they used language. They’re such lunatics,” Lazar said in an interview with the Forward. “There’s something pathetic, something poignant, something sinister — all those rich elements.”

Simultaneously, Parson began choreographing a solo, exploring the nature of solitude. Her base material was the story of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious 19th-century German youth who was discovered after being oddly secluded in a small chamber until the age of 16, his mind arrested at the maturity level of a toddler. (Hauser was murdered as an adult, perhaps because of rumors of his possible claim to royal lineage.)

So with such wildly disparate sources, what possibly could be the intersection point of these stories, separated by decades and cultural differences? With their propensity for assembling dreamlike, nonlinear theater works, the couple melded the material by making the Hauser phantom an unwitting conduit for the Nixon figure’s misdeeds — a cog in the wheel of the president’s ill-fated Plan B. “In the dialogues, the Nixon clan is desperately trying to brainstorm about finding a certain person who is malleable enough to execute certain illegal tasks, because they had gotten into a real bind. We saw how these two worlds could twine together,” Lazar explained.

The actor took the script a step further. Capitalizing on Nixon’s tendency (despite his vulgarisms) to speak of his turmoil with biblical grandeur, Lazar — who attends synagogue weekly and whose son is preparing for his bar mitzvah — added passages from Genesis, the Book of Job and Proverbs. “Nixon had this persecution complex and this notion that these unfair attacks emerged out of the ether, never connecting them to his own actions,” said Lazar, whose channeling of the Nixon character is spookily spot-on. And so he takes on Job’s words: “The thing which I dreaded has happened to me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet. I have no rest, for trouble comes.” In another section, he perversely quotes Proverbs 12:22: “Lying lips are an abomination, but those who deal in truth are His delight.”

Not unlike musical theater with its climactic songs, “Plan B” erupts into dancing at certain pinnacle moments. For example, when the secretary (played by Molly Hickok) spurs a despondent Nixon into fighting back, the action morphs into an elaborate Japanese court dance for the couple, adapted by Parson from traditional Kabuki choreography. And throughout the work, the Hauser figure becomes bribed into a dance of seduction with a bag of money.

The surreal, Kafkaesque quality of “Plan B” serves a purpose not always achievable in straightforward storytelling. “In the dream life, we obscure the literal discourse to allow for other kinds of connections. You give up the causal reality, but you gain an enhanced impressionistic connection,” Lazar said. In some cases the symbolism is striking: A vinyl cubicle imprisons Hauser in the beginning; at the end, the same structure envelops Nixon, engulfed in a mental and emotional cellblock.

Lazar is grounded enough to know that the words “dance” and “theater” used in conjunction can make some people flee in terror of the avant-garde unknown. He points out, though, that storytelling in the age of technology has become super-sophisticated, with rapid-fire, nonlinear imagery evident even in television commercials and in MTV videos. “‘Plan B’ is very much in the mix of what’s around. “I wouldn’t expect it to be hugely perplexing to a new audience member,” he said. Part of the appeal lies in the humor of the piece and part in that it’s just plain entertaining, despite its cerebral foundation. He claims that it’s analogous to taking in music. “When you’re listening to music, you not gunning for, ‘Where am I? What does this mean?’ You’re saying: ‘I’m digging this sound at this moment.’ There’s less expectation to know where we are in the story at every given moment. When we listen to music, we let go of that.”

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