Last April I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see The Song of the Wanderers, a dance piece created by a group from Okinawa based on Herman Hesse's Siddartha. In the pre-beginning darkness, we can hear what sounds like the siss! of moving water. A beam of light from near the top of the proscenium, stage right, quarters a fuzzy column of some falling material; a second beam lights a full half; a third adds another quarter. And finally we see what we have been hearing: a thin rain of golden rice pelleting the shaved head of a praying monk, who stands there, fingertips steepled together, eyes closed, perfectly and unflinchingly serene, looking, for all we know what Buddha may have looked like, exactly like we imagine Buddha to have looked.
The dancers appear, and for the next whatever number of minutes they tell the story of Hesse's searchers while gently, insistently, gildedly the stage deepens with rained-down golden rice -- and all the while that Buddha downstage right, a slow accumulating mound burying his feet exactly the way dirt mothers roots. By the end of the performance as the rice drops in great gussets and swaths and the dancers leap up their joy at crossing the river and sitting under the banyan tree of Buddha, all of us in the audience feel the same inebriating release that comes when what grabs us in life as serious and "real" lets go and we are as oceanic in our possibilities as we were the day the universe unveiled us.
The dancers and the Buddha come out to take their full cup of poured-out applause, and then ensues the usual coat-gathering, watch-checking, program-stuffing-in pockets, etc. -- in other words, "That was nice. What's next?" And what happens next is really the crux of this essay because what happens next is not listed in the program, is not pre-announced, is not expected and therefore not prepared-for -- which makes it in the nature of a gift that has no giver but the moment that gives it, no substance except the wing-making breath of those who remain to breathe together as they watch together.
At this point, there is (I read this later) close to four tons of glistering rice on the stage, well over ankle deep. A young man enters wearing nothing but a swath of cloth wrapped around his lower body and tied at the ankles, carrying a long-handled wooden rake, wide-toothed and unvarnished. Beginning in the center of the stage, he starts to carve a long, slow spiral, moving with such deliberate purpose that his every step falls distinct and planted. People shrugging on their coats stop; people bending over to unearth pocket books and backpacks straighten; goers-up-the-aisle pause, turn, and wander back to their ticketed seats. This one man, this one curling shape, this one meaningless act that held everyone's attention -- all of us, whatever is the full BAM capacity, stay and watch and wait for him to finish, which he does with as little ceremony as his entrance.
Why did we watch? The moment had no "drama" in our usual theatre-going sense, no conflict, no A wants what B will not give him, no secret revealed or dysfunction dissolved -- but nonetheless most of us watched until the end. Clearly, the spiraling attendant of that granular garden touched something else, or brought us to some state of being that was also a state of where nothing was required of us except that we simply breathe and breathe again simply. A place of rest, perhaps, or the possibility of unmolested wholeness, or the reminder that the "we" we narrate to ourselves is not just the unrelenting sum of our experimental parts but something beyond or outside of or not obligated to "reality." A reminder of redemption. A reminder of originals.
A little later I read The Cloister Walk by the poet Kathleen Norris, a married, Protestant poet who becomes an oblate in a Benedictine monastery and writes a detailed narrative of monastic life during several prolonged stays. In the book Norris describes her writing and the Benedictine practice of reading the New Testament and the psalms throughout the year as a common effort to complete the lifelong task, as Gregory of Nyssa stated it, of finding out "what part of the divine image God has chosen to reveal in us." "Ora et labora, pray and work, is a Benedictine motto," she states, "and...this perspective liberates prayer from God-talk; a well-tended garden, a well-made cabinet, a well-swept floor, can be a prayer." Or a spiral etched in rice. Or an audience watching a man etch the spiral.
Prayer, rest, harmony, breath -- what does any of this have to do with theatre, which at least in our culture believes that the art best expresses itself in works that employ raillery, unrest, disharmony, loss of breath? I'm not sure. We declare so strongly that theatre should disturb, that the artist is -- should be -- must be -- the burr under the saddle, the pebble in the shoe, the lance in our side. But for what end is all this shaking-up, this disturbing turbulence, this crafted purgatory? Do we leave the theatre any better equipped to make life bend toward understanding, or have we simply used our art to reinforce a kind of puritanism that sees life as pain and people as the painmakers non-pareil? But then there was the rice, the praying and the work, the absence of conflict, the momentary (and momentous) suspension of time and place, the refreshment of the waters..... I don't know.
I find myself at the moment in the place where I am not disturbed by works who purpose is to disturb, where I am unconvinced that darkness is the proper light to shine on human life. Yet I also do not want to create theatre where the impulse to heal is so strong that it dulls the serrations of life that cut us to the quick and betrays how the quick can be quickened by such cuts. I am trying to find a place where the rice can join the risk, where rise and fall is as much about breathing as it is about ambition and pride, where Jeremiah and Buddha can converse.
A Benedictine theatre -- how possible is that?