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…