by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photo credit Maria Baranova
Local audiences had the opportunity to see the David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group in I Understand Everything Better at Bryn Mawr College this past weekend. Neumann is the recipient of the 2015 New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award for Outstanding Production for this multidisciplinary work that draws on influences from traditional Japanese theater.
According to the program notes, Neumann’s parents died on either side of Hurricane Sandy, and the piece is an artistic response to those profound events. His parents, Honora Fergusson and Frederick Neumann, were members of the renowned experimental theater group Mabou Mines. Neumann surely had a unique childhood, and the seeds of his early exposure to collaborative, exploratory theater come to fruition in the marvelous I Understand Everything Better.
Air-filled plastic bags suspended overhead like clouds, a jetty-like pile under a plastic tarp, and shelves cluttered with homey items like coffee cups and books all contribute to the DIY aesthetic of Mimi Lien’s set design. Neumann alternatively plays the roles of his disoriented, garrulous father, a hilarious weather reporter, and sometimes himself, stepping outside the drama to comment on it. Performers John Gasper and Jennifer Kidwell humor the dying man’s flights into other realities while dealing with down-to-earth care-giving tasks. Performer/sound designer Tei Blow generates an uncanny soundscape from his perch behind the shelves.
All four cast members come together periodically to dance as a tightly synchronized quartet. Although their manner is relaxed, their movement is formal and their geometric spacing is rigidly maintained. Even as life is falling apart, this structure seems to hold things together.
Layers of text (by Sibyl Kempson with Neumann), video (by Christine Shallenberg), music and dance weave in and out through the production. It’s like watching the pieces of a puzzle coming into place. Neumann disappears for a while and the rest of the group takes a coffee break. They sit and wait. There doesn’t seem to be a script dictating what will happen next.
Yet the weatherman has been warning that a storm is on its way, and when the hurricane hits, we feel the full force of the dreaded event. Neumann stands atop the jetty, resplendent in Kabuki headdress, bravely weathering the gale force winds. Rock music blares, plastic tarps blow wildly, and lightning flashes. There is an ecstasy in the moment.
I Understand Everything Better dramatizes the experience of slipping away from consciousness while dying. A dear person, mentally scattered, is leaving this world. It’s Neumann’s deeply personal, loving, and even funny farewell to his parents. Neumann ends with a contemplative dance in silence. With great formality, he proceeds offstage.
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