But to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come
LAST WEEK I had the great good fortune to secure a hard-to-come-by seat to I Understand Everything Better, a dance-theater work by David Neumann and his Advanced Beginner Group. Co-commissioned last year by Abrons Arts Center and the Chocolate Factory, it was reprised this month as part of P.S.122’s COIL festival.
Afterwards, my mind turned to Wallace Stevens’s gorgeous poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” with its evocation of major weather, the sort that will not be conjured. And I thought of Big Eater, a 2010 work by Neumann that tried so hard to conjure that place where the deeply personal meets a larger cultural consciousness, and how it seems to me that the attempt needed to happen, and then the next five years needed to happen, for the artist to be ready to make the delicate, finely wrought container that is I Understand Everything Better. The real will from its crude compoundings come.
Big Eater was in part about family—specifically about parents and children, and the complicated, violent ties of responsibility, love and grief that bind us. I Understand Everything Better is also about those ties—and what rips them asunder, in order to join them anew. In the intervening years between the two works came the deaths of Neumann’s parents, his mother going suddenly, just before Hurricane Sandy, and his father dying a few weeks’ after. Major, major weather.
“There are my mother’s hands, my father’s shoulders,” Neumann says toward the end, in one of the very few moments that seems an unadorned aside from artist to audience; the surrounding slipperiness creates space for its stark intensity: “Evidence of them on me, in me, composing me, even though they’re gone. I, however, can’t escape turning into them as I age. They’re still here. Still aging. Still dying.”
Both in the text, written in collaboration with the fine playwright Sibyl Kempson, and through a richly collaged sampler of movement styles that runs from modern American dance to classical Japanese theater, Neumann twins his winningly off-kilter humor with heavier forces. Aided by Erica Sweany’s layered costumes and crow’s nest crown, he embodies both a quixotic actor-searcher and a television weatherman, the hapless newsman’s green-screen held aloft by the same folks who help the aging artist embody his final role. (Neumann’s parents were both esteemed New York stage artists.) And of course these men are also one and the same man, just as the production is grounded equally in artifice and autobiography.
Neumann blows through the Chocolate Factory’s small theater (the production had its 2015 premiere at Abrons) in unwieldy gusts, steadied by his fine supporting cast: John Gasper, Jennifer Kidwell, and Tei Blow, who also designed the sound, and spends much of the performance creating that sound and offering dry asides from his perch amid a tangle of musical equipment, books, plants, and objects including a diorama, espresso maker, and other goodies that are deftly incorporated to enhance both the action and Christine Shallenberg’s video design. (Set design is by Mimi Lien.)
Blow, Gasper, and Kidwell periodically join Neumann for whimsical little dance numbers as they trail after his messy wake in an effort to both honor and (somewhat) contain it. And of course they muse about him when he barrels offstage, his out-of-view mischief hinted at by auditory signals both real and broadcast. Increasingly, they cannot follow him, nor barely pick up his trail.
Finally, he departs, a last, stately walk up the theater’s sloping entryway and out into the streets (the afterlife as a New York City sidewalk: perfect). All that cannot be contained is released. Fade to white.