Who Is YOUR Dancer Alter Ego?

Her Kind play

Last night I went to see this very interesting play / modern dance performance called Her Kind, about the life and poetry of Anne Sexton, recommended by Winger contributor Tony Schultz. The actress and playwright was Hannah Wolfe, who alternated fluidly between three different characters: the poet herself; Sexton’s sad but sweet daughter, Linda; and a rather comically nervous young professor trying to teach Sexton to a college class. I was more familiar with Sexton’s poetry than her life, other than the fact that she killed herself, like her friend, Sylvia Plath. Through a combination of recitations of Sexton’s poetry, video projections of interviews with her friends, monologues by Linda recounting anecdotes of life with her mother, and one of those fourth-wall-breaking ‘dialogues’ where Wolfe’s college teacher lectured us, her students, on the import of Sexton’s work, the performance taught me a great deal about Sexton in only a little over one hour. But what I found most fascinatingly unique about the show was modern dancer Laurel Dugan’s role. She ‘played’ the part of Sexton’s alter ego, Elizabeth, who was both a multiple personality of Sexton’s (she was arguably mentally ill) and served as a muse, figuring strongly in her poems. But instead of speaking, Dugan mainly interpreted Sexton’s words through dance. I’d never really seen dance as a direct expression of literature before, and, in a way, I felt like I got more out of watching a dancer interpret the poetry, read by Sexton herself via a tape-recording, through her body, than by listening to the actress use her voice to do the same. The whole conception was really brilliant, and Dugan was stunning.

Anyway, I had kind of a weirdly funny experience afterward. I suffered a bit of “professional identity confusion” when I got into a little disagreement with the woman sitting next to me, who was, it turned out, a former English teacher of Wolfe’s, and a writer herself. The woman immediately expressed dissatisfaction with the piece overall, saying it didn’t really work for her, and she thought she’d give suggestions to Hannah for improving it, since she was a former teacher of hers and all. “Oh really?” I said. “Well what I really loved about it was the dancer; I’ve never seen that kind of thing before and I was surprised that it brought so much more to the play than words could.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “No, that was exactly what I didn’t like!”

We both laughed at our disagreement, the way friendly, unantagonistic women do, then she asked me if I knew Hannah. It was a very small theater, and it seemed everyone who was there knew someone involved in the production. “No,” I said, “I’m here because it was recommended on the Winger, a dance website.”

“Oh, you’re a dancer,” she said, sounding somewhat embarrassed. “I should have known. Well, no no, don’t let my interpretation sway you at all. I’m sure I just feel the way I do because I’m a writer. I take Sexton very personally,” she laughed again.

“Oh, I’m a writer too,” I exclaimed. “I was an English major and I like Anne Sexton too.”

“Really?” she said sounding a little confused. “What do you write?”

“Oh well, I mean, I, I have a novel, but it’s not published. I mean, I don’t have anything published. Yet. I mean besides law review articles.” With this, her eyebrows shot straight up. “I mean, I’m a lawyer, but I’m also trying to start a writing career. And, um, I dance too. I mean I try.” Her eyes widened. Clearly I had multiple personalities just like Anne. “I mean, I just meant I understand what you mean about taking a writer you love personally, and um, I guess because I like dance too, I um…” I sounded like the biggest bumbling fool in the world. She just stared at me, while I tried, in vain, to figure myself out.

We talked a bit more and found that we both agreed that Wolfe had played the role too Sylvia Plath, and not Sexton enough: she was too much of a sweet schoolgirl (faux sweet schoolgirl of course, turned faux happy housewife) instead of sexy and deriving power partly from her attraction, and attractiveness, to men. What I didn’t think of to say to the English professor, what I didn’t think of until I was walking back to the subway, was that, while Wolfe didn’t really play the role Sexton-y enough, Dugan did just that with her more sensuous dance interpretation. Perhaps that was what the play was trying to say anyway: Anne the writer and woman held back, but her alter ego responsible for her creative spirit was completely unconstrained. And what better means to express this unrestrained spirit than through dance?

So maybe all writers, maybe all people, need dancer alter egos. Luis always used to tell me he thought I couldn’t let loose and do that crazy-ass mambo combo he choreographed for me because I was an upright (read: uptight) lawyer. So, he wanted me to think of myself as someone else while I was dancing. He suggested I even invent another name. Of course he came up with … Lolita. Luis!! Anyway, I have decided that I will take his advice. I just need a good name for her. Hmmm…

8 Comments

  1. I am my own alter ego 😉

    I perform in two different contexts. When I perform classic bellydance at local bellydance-community events (student showcases, art shows, etc) I dance under my real name, and I put forward the loves-to-be-the-center-of-attention part of my personality. I’m still not very dainty or girly, but I think I put on a fun show.

    I also occationally dance at local rock/goth/industrial/performance art shows, and for those I perform under a stage name, and I tap into a more intense, maybe even cynical or confronational part of my personality. It’s still me, but a darker side of me. (we all have one, right?)

    I definately think it’s really valuable for dancers to be able to tap into differing parts of their personality to create characters of personas from within themselves, since it definately makes you better able to communicate through dance, gesture and expression.

  2. I think this idea works really well. Maybe instead of being one personality every time, you should pick a role for each dance – like you were Lolita for the fringe pants dance (as I like to call it!) but you’re someone else for the Sinatra routine.

  3. Tonya. I am really glad you enjoyed the performance. Laurel will be excited to read your post. I just sent her the link. She has another performance in February that I will post when I get the details.

    Your ideas about alter egos are really interesting. Recently I have been playing with temporal dislocation when I am dancing. Rather than embodying a different personality I shift to a different time state, a future self with capacity to contract and dialate time. In “Martian Time Slip” Philip K Dick proposes this time variant conciousness as characteristic of a schizophrenic mind state. This seems to resonate with your mode of psychic dislocation. There is much more to me said about this. Unfortunately the culture is telling me to shop instead. Something to think about while I finish getting Christmas presents.

    Thanks for the ideas.

  4. Hi Tony — I’m very flattered you stopped by my blog! And thanks for telling Laurel — I really did enjoy her performance! Yes, please do post again on the Winger when she next performs. Your theories on temporal dislocation sound fascinating, and I’m definitely interested in hearing more. I had a friend in writing class who was obsessed with Philip K. Dick — I’m going to have to check him out. Thanks again for your comment :)

  5. Tonya

    I suggest the name “Dahlia” for your dance alter-ego because it kind of sounds like David Hallberg and because this single-in-the-city girl clearly has too much time on her hands.

    The name origin and meaning of Dahlia
    Name: Dahlia
    Gender: (Female)
    Origin: Hebrew
    Meaning: Long thin branch

    or

    Dahlia is a genus of bushy, summer- and autumn-flowering, tuberous perennials that are originally from Mexico, where they are the national flower. The Spanish discovered dahlias in the mountains of Mexico.

  6. Ha ha — thanks for the suggestion, Chimene! I do like that it has echoes of both David and a Latin flower :) :)

  7. Hi Tonya,

    Thank you for coming to see our show in December. I wish you could have seen our newest version of “HER KIND” at FringeNYC; I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Was the woman you talked to at Dixon Place in December by any chance Kathy Janowitz? (who was not a teacher of mine but was a writer). This blog has been brought up to me by a reporter in Louisiana (the power of the internet) but I had not read it so had no idea what he was talking about! I’d like to solve this mystery once and for all!

  8. Hi Hannah! I really enjoyed your play; I didn’t know you made changes for the new version! Is it still showing? (I had found out about the play originally from the Winger’s Tony Schultz, who is friends with Laurel.) That’s very funny that you heard about my blog from someone in Louisiana. Well, that woman I was speaking to — I wish I could remember or even recognize her name, but I’m positive she said she knew you from being a former teacher of yours. She was, I’d say, about 50; said she’s now a writer as well, but unless I really misunderstood her she said she had been your professor. When I left she was heading up to talk with you, so you must have spoken with her that night? Sorry I can’t be of more help!

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