EmSpace Weathers the Weather in a New Dance Play

by Jean Schiffman

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart’s new work—a dance-theater hybrid—uses extreme weather as a metaphor for relationships.

EmSpace Dance’s Erin Mei-Ling Stuart calls her newest piece, “Whether to Weather,” a “dance play.” “It feels more like a play than anything I’ve done,” she says. With detour dance’s “Beckon,” it’s part of a double bill of premieres playing at NOHspace this month.

“Dance/theater,” as it’s commonly labeled, can mean different things in terms of how text is integrated into movement. In its many Bay Area permutations, it is generally conceived by a choreographer and produced by his or her dance company. Stuart, a choreographer, dancer, video-maker and actor who has worked with many local dance and theater companies, and who founded EmSpace in 1999, has long been interested in seeing what happens when actors dance and dancers talk on stage. But for “Whether to Weather” she wanted to separate the two types of performers. “The actors have a fair amount of movement integrated in,” she says, “but I wanted to see what would happen if I pried acting and dancing apart. Would it become one cohesive piece? Would the two storylines carry equal weight?”

In initially conceiving “Whether to Weather” Stuart found herself writing and thinking about extreme weather events as a metaphor for relationships. She’d been writing her own text for her dance pieces in recent years, peppering it throughout the work, sometimes in the form of voiceovers, sometimes spoken by the dancers. Conceiving “Weather,” she started by writing about two characters, in a relationship—and a weather—drought, who proceed through strange events, maybe even biblical ones, she thought, like toads falling from the sky, or an obliterating fog. But it wasn’t until she brought in poet/playwright Brian Thorstenson, who has a background in acting and dance, and has worked as an actor and playwright with such local companies as Alter Theater and Central Works, that things started to jell.

For his part, Thorstenson was delighted when Stuart approached him with what he describes as “a fairly articulated structure” for the actors’ scenes. They’d worked together with Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre, where he was resident playwright and Stuart danced.

“Weather” evolved into a series of vignettes: two separate gay male relationships interwoven, one traced through dance, the other through acting, each integrated with weather conditions. Dancers Kegan Marling and Chad Dawson depict a couple embarking upon a love affair and proceeding through the four seasons (set to selections from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” recomposed by Max Richter) but never managing to be in the same season simultaneously. In counterpoint, actors Soren Santos and Wiley Naman Strasser play longtime lovers in a downturn, enduring a series of extreme weather events—from drought to hurricane to a mysterious explosion of falling ash—that are analogous to their emotional states. Thorstenson’s script for the actors is poetic, funny and poignant, mixing everyday dialogue with magical realism—“real people with real emotions,” says Stuart. In one stormy scene, the two lovers, wrapped in plastic ponchos, sing a melancholy song (composed by Sam Barnum, lyrics by Barnum and Thorstenson) on a rooftop, with Strasser playing the accordion.

Stuart chose to work with two gay male couples after playing around with the idea of different gender pairings but deciding to focus on one specific type of relationship. To a certain extent, she built the piece around Marling. “He has a vulnerability that informs the character that I think is very beautiful,” she says, adding, “It’s nice to work with a performer who can be himself, a gay dancer in a gay relationship instead of having to play straight.”

In a rehearsal for the two dancers, Marling, who has reddish hair and beard, is working on the first dance section, “Autumn”; he seems to be reveling in the season—or perhaps reveling in falling in love. In “Winter,” he’s in a coat, walking as though on snow or ice, sticking out his tongue to catch snowflakes, while Dawson—who’s smaller, more muscular, dark-haired with a black beard—enters in a shirt, sexy, buff, posing. It’s a dance of attraction.

By phone after rehearsal, Marling, who has performed with local ballet companies, starting with San Jose/Cleveland Ballet in 1987, and in works by such choreographers as Bill T. Jones, explains that Stuart looked to the dancers and actors to fill the structure of the piece with their own personal experiences as gay men. “For me it revolved around what I needed to do as a gay man to end the relationship but still be friends,” he says. He values Stuart’s commitment to collaboration—the fact that she hired a playwright and professional actors—and, in “Weather,” to representing gay relationships in an authentic way. “As a gay man you don’t often get to tackle gay relationships,” he remarks. “Most choreographers water down the relationship thing so they can feel this is a generic love story.” But Stuart brought in a gay playwright and some gay designers. “She’s keeping that aesthetic choice, which I think is wonderful—that somebody who’s not a gay male gives it a nice outside directorial sensibility.”

Unlike many dancers, Marling is likely to ask questions during the rehearsal process, and not just about technical matters. “Where are we going in this particular moment?” he might ask. He attributes his more proactive approach to working with choreographer Della Davidson for a decade early on in his career, where dancers and actors regularly shared the stage. Says Stuart, “Dancers [in general] are just ready to jump in, eager to please. They’ll dive in with whatever you need to fulfill your vision. Actors take ownership. They ask
a lot of questions. It feels like fear of diving in—‘I have to understand it with my brain first.’” She and the two dancers initially improvised, creating movement prior to an in-depth discussion of what was happening in the piece, whereas in rehearsing with the actors, along with Thorstenson (who attended rehearsals and was a big part of the process), it was about figuring things out early on, understanding character and relationship. “This is a broad generalization,” offers Thorstenson, “but actors ask why. Dancers, depending on the choreography, don’t necessarily have to ask those questions and sometimes don’t anyway.”

Thorstenson kept the script open as long as possible, bringing in multiple versions of the scenes. He saw Stuart working with the actors similarly to how she worked with the dancers: “She’d say, ‘Make a movement phrase,’ and she’d pick and choose and edit. The actors know how to integrate movement and language… and Erin has an incredibly fine eye and ear for movement and language and understands how they work together. She thinks a lot in terms of character.”

In a rehearsal for the two actors—Strasser, who has a magnetically wide-eyed, intense gaze, and Santos, who’s more delicate-looking and reserved, and wears eyeglasses—Stuart gives very precise directions on movement and encourages examination of the emotional states of the two lovers. Thorstenson madly scribbles on a yellow lined pad, and Barnum watches the dancers intently.

For Strasser, this is a chance to use both his physical and acting skills. He grew up dancing but has since worked mainly as an actor, especially in devised theater, appearing often with such adventurous local companies as Cutting Ball. (Both he and Stuart dance in detour dance’s “Beckon,” the other half of the double bill.) It’s also an opportunity to help bridge the gap between dance and theater; the two disciplines tend to
attract two entirely different audiences, dance/theater more likely bringing in dance lovers. “Is it interdisciplinary performance? What do we categorize ourselves exactly as?” he wonders aloud in a phone chat.

In rehearsal, Strasser finds that he works just as if he were in a play but with abstract movement on top of the normal actorly stage movement. Stuart has an eye for specifics, he says, that many theater directors do not—“gestures, timing, little physical things that we’d get notes on earlier than I might expect. It’s great, it’s exciting and just—different. It sets certain limitations early on, and that’s kind of freeing in a way. With them, you know the other ways you can play, which are still infinite.” He was particularly happy to have playwright Thorstenson at rehearsals: “He has our voices, our senses of humor and joy, and our timing in mind. It’s a gift.”

At the end of the acting rehearsal, Thorstenson, Stuart, the two actors and Barnum crouch on the floor, reworking a few lines in one particular scene. Everyone has an opinion and they ultimately agree. “I knew we were going to make changes! I told you so!” crows Thorstenson.

“Erin thinks of this as a play and I think of it as dance with text,” Thorstenson comments. For him, “Whether to Weather” occupies a space in between the two, a place
to which he brings the words, the dancers bring movement phrases, the actors bring their acting chops and so on. And Stuart, straddling the two genres, puts it all together.

EmSpace Dance’s “Weather to Whether”/detour dance’s “Beckon”

Dec. 4 → 13


2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco