What Do You Do When Someone Turns Out the Lights?: Engagement and Discomfort in Formidable Dreams, Expanded Cinema: A response by Kathleen Rooney

FORMIDABLE DREAMS by Sara Zalek and Eugene Sun Park

performed with Sara Zalek, Elaine Victoria, Hanna Brock, Here, Jason Soliday, and Jeff Schroeder

performed @ the Chicago Cultural Center June 26, 2016 and @ Silent Funny October 21st & 22nd 2016

image by: Kathleen Rooney

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People love stories because stories are easy to love: their through lines offer a soothing strand to follow, even in the midst of unsettling material, and the plot sequence supplies a reassuring guide, almost like the ball of magic yarn that Theseus unspools so as not to get lost in the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

Art that eschews a clear narrative denies its audience that spool to follow; thus, to engage with this type of work is to enter into a tougher love. The deliberate defamiliarization created by forms that do not necessarily prioritize narrative—such as lyric poetry, experimental film, immersive theater, Butoh and performance art—can create a sense of uncertainty in their recipients. If done in a way that’s overly aggressive or shocking, or self-satisfied and exclusionary, such art can insult, disappoint, and intimidate. But if done in a way that’s thoughtful, inviting, and gently disorienting, such art can energize, enchant, and awaken.

Happily, Sara Zalek, Eugene Sun Park, and their collaborators’ interactive, multi-media, opera and Butoh-based piece Formidable Dreams, Expanded Cinema presents non-linear, experiential work that falls—weirdly and exhilaratingly—into the latter category.

By their own description, this piece consists of a blend of “live performance, projections and soundscapes” and centers on “an androgynous trickster hero and their comrades, often out of time, who travel through watery environments where present, sudden memory, and dream states co-mingle.”

In terms of etymology, the word “trick” in the sense of “a cheat, a mean ruse” arises in the 15 th century, deriving from the Vulgar Latin triccare meaning “be evasive, shuffle” and relating to “trifles, nonsense, a tangle of difficulties.” Not long after, “trick” in the sense of “a roguish prank” shows up in the 1580s, followed closely by the sense of “deceive by trickery” in the 1590s, as well as by the sense of “the art of doing something” in around the 1610s.

In the 21st century, Formidable Dreams, Expanded Cinema, the audience receives the opportunity to experience artistic and intellectual trickery that is by turns beautiful, disconcerting, and uncomfortable.

In terms of myths and folklore, the archetypal trickster figure possesses a superior wisdom or secret knowledge, which they use to disobey convention and disrupt traditional behavior, crossing boundaries and breaking rules. Through their tricks, they unsettle normal life and in the aftermath of this interruption, new truths can be seen and a new order established.

This metamorphosis is part of Zalek and Park’s aim as well. They describe their work with their team of a filmmaker, a dancer, an opera singer, a performance artist and three musicians as “an excavation,” and believe that “as artists, we realize ourselves as disruptors, as transformers of culture.”

As the word excavation implies, this piece asks the audience to do some digging. In my experience of the show, the work expected of me became more demanding as the excavation went on, and had a great deal to do with the shift from full day-time sunlight into deep night-time darkness.

On Sunday, June 26, 2016 from noon to 5:00 pm, Zalek and company staged the first phase of their show under the tagline “If not now, when?” at the Washington Street entrance of the Chicago Cultural Center in the heart of the city’s downtown. For this Butoh Opera, the performers made the indoor and outdoor staircases of the public structure their stage, ascending and descending as they sang, danced, and played for a live audience as well as for the film crew documenting what would become the second half of the show later in the Fall. Free and open to the public, this performance afforded both the invited audience members and curious passers-by—tourists and citizens spending a brightly lit summer Sunday in the Loop—the chance to drop in and out and watch for as long as they desired.

I watched for about an hour outdoors on the sidewalk, as pedestrians strolled and gathered, as cars and bikes wheeled by on the street, as crew members and people from the Cultural Center warned spectators to be careful and not get run over. These warnings were necessary because the show itself felt mesmerizing.

In shreddy, plasticky trash-couture costumes evocative of the Pacific Garbage Patch, Elaine Victoria and Hanna Brock sang and played the violin while a mummy-wrapped performer named Here circled the scene warily. Decked out in sand and scales and rock-filled, sock-like wings, Zalek evoked a lizard-esque or amphibious being who seemed to be both more and less evolved than a human. All of them, evoking shape-shifting in gender, bodyform, and even species, conveyed the sensation—through expressions, vocalizations, and gestures—of being out of time in both senses of the phrase: urgent and also slipping through history and dimensions.

The weather that day—as every day—was a matter of pure luck. It happened to be warm, dry, pleasant and sunny, near 80 degrees. But it could as easily have been humid, sticky, and thunder-storming. Part of the pleasure of this phase of the piece was how such coincidences of environment and atmosphere affected both the performance and the audience’s reception thereof. The dancers’ climbs and crawls up, down, and around the stairs evoked an exuberant, joyful, and almost comic vibe, and the audience reacted with a sweet perplexity—laughs, smiles, and bemused conversations on what it all meant. My group of spectators felt that had something to do with the Anthropocene—the cataclysmic era in which we are currently living where human activity has come to affect the planet on a geologic scale: earthquakes from fracking, climate change, extinctions and other mass catastrophes.

Yet despite the grim subject matter, we felt happy and revitalized at the performance’s end, which for us was about an hour after we arrived, since we came at the conclusion of the show’s looping five-hour run.

The memory of Zalek’s lizard-y trickster appeared unbidden in my mind’s eye more often than I could have predicted in the weeks and months that followed. This persistence testifies to the piece’s embodiment of what the creative writing teacher Fred Leebron once put forth in a lecture as the “transport and resonance model.” In short, he says that a good work of art—literary or otherwise—transports the audience to another place or frame of mind while they’re experiencing it, then resonates long after that direct experience has ended.

Four months later, on October 21 and 22, 2016, Zalek, Park, and company staged the second phase of Formidable Dreams—now subtitled “Hero’s Journey on the Threshold”—at a venue that could hardly be more different than the sun-drenched Cultural Center.

A self-described “living and breathing arts space and community hub” in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood, Silent Funny was as hard to get to as the Cultural Center was easy, and as DIY as the Cultural Center was official. The performances took place indoors and at night, after sunset, and the eerily warm weather, seasonally inappropriate for a typical Chicago Fall, inflected the ambiance.

The interior of Silent Funny—rough and unfinished—was perhaps even darker than the exterior, for outside there were streetlights. Inside, the light sources were few and far between, the brightest ones being the experimental films—mostly from the Cultural Center performance—that played around the warehouse-style space. The concrete floors and spare walls were punctuated with opportunities for attendees to interact—to creep inside a crudely made tent after taking off their shoes, for instance, or to peek through a knothole in a wooden door to see an animation.

In the room where the dance performance would be taking place, a huge and impressive installation was set up, reminiscent of a foggy swamp: branches and bracken and unseen beings. Lights and mirrors and drips created a primordial impression, and when the show itself began, so did the costumes of the dancers. Both Zalek and her co-performer, Jason Soliday, vanished completely beneath exoskeletons in the shape of jellyfish, tarped, translucent, and other-worldly. Not being able to see either dancers’ face or even body distanced the viewer from the entire proceeding. For what seemed like an eternity, these two creatures proceeded slowly around the space, offering the audience little to go on.

Were the creatures from the distant past? Single-celled organisms coming together in the ooze at the dawn of life itself on the planet as we know it? Or were they from the not-too- distant future? Starting over again in a post-human world, repopulating a newly vacant and ruined planet? Or were they something else completely? Aside from the shuffling of their feet and the leaf-like shifting of their costumes, the dancers were silent, accompanied only by the beeps and whines from the experimental electronic instruments they played as they moved. Was this meant to be sonar? Telepathy? A communication from critter to critter, or a message for the audience? Impossible to say.

What I can say is that I felt stunningly disengaged from the performance, and even a bit disappointed. The illuminated and illuminating show at the Cultural Center felt like a dream, and at first I had a hard time connecting this slow-motion and almost nightmare-ish show to its predecessor.

Yet, to return to Leebron’s transport and resonance model, whereas the Silent Funny half of Formidable Dreams left me cold in terms of transport, it ended up being strong on resonance. Although I never lost myself in the show or forgot that I was supposed to be paying attention to something that was hard to pay attention to, and although I was relieved when it ended and I was able to leave, the second half of the show pops up in my mind’s eye with equal frequency to the first.

As it does so, the pieces create a pleasing unity. The bright half and the dark combine, if it’s not too cheesy to say, like the halves of those BEST FRIEND necklaces popular in the 90s—the jagged pieces cool by themselves, but so much cooler and more satisfying when rejoined into a whole.

Neither the first half—sunny, inviting, absorbing—nor the second half—dark to the point of being practically unseeable, off-putting, effortful—would be as good by themselves as they are together. Which is pleasing unto itself in the sense that it’s rewarding to be in the presence of a unified and harmonious work of art. But this unity also presents an occasion to return to Leebron’s theory one last time.

My spouse, the writer Martin Seay, studied with Leebron. He told me that Leebron’s diagram of his transport resonance model looks like a lantern: the transport in brackets and the resonance emanatingin rays. This Leebron Lantern strikes me as useful for conveying the overall effect of Formidable Dreams. Taken as a whole, the show seems to make a powerful argument that if you let it, darkness can be just as illuminating as light.

I have a yoga teacher who says, “The moment you want to get out of the pose is when the pose begins.” She means that the real work starts when you become uncomfortable. The first half of Formidable Dreams was easy, but the second half was challenging. I had to work hard against my own boredom and fatigue. But if the show hadn’t made me work that way, then neither half would have held as much meaning.

Now, over a month later, thinking back to the dark, Silent Funny portion of the performance, I’m reminded of the fourth birthday party of my beloved niece, Rose. Rose is five years old now, and one of the strangest, most thoughtful people I know, not just for a kid, but for anybody. At this party on a sunny August day in 2014, we stood in the backyard of my sister’s house in Oak Park beneath a tree, about to have the kids smash a piñata. We lined them all up and did the usual routine: blindfold whoever’s turn it was, spin them around, hand them the stick and point them in the direction of the papier-mâché donkey. The second kid who went, though, got freaked out at the blindfold—too dark, he said. Not being sadists, we let him go without it. Each subsequent child demanded the same accommodation: no blindfold, it was too dark, and they wanted to be able to see. Rose went last, since it was her party. We offered her the option of the blindfold, as we had to everyone else, and she was the only one who said, “Yes, please! Blindfold me.”

No disrespect to the other little kids, but in that moment, Rose became the bravest and most curious individual in the backyard. There, under the leaves, under the sun, in the brightness of her August birthday, she chose to have an experience that would be weirder, darker, and more intentionally disorienting. Eyes closed, face first, and dizzy, she strode into distance and discomfort and ended up having arguably more fun than anyone else that day.

I see now that what Formidable Dreams’ two halves are offering is something like that chance: to start in the light and then to choose the blindfold—to get weird and to have a better time by walking without fear into indeterminacy.

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A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor with Eric Plattner of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in January 2017. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the writer Martin Seay.