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More about Ritual, Performance and Reality

September 28, 2011

Mulling over what Dave posted about ritual and performance, I have to agree about how it’s possible to connect to art by creating ritual. The ritual of public performance brings a work to life — in this case, off of the inanimate page and out to the buzzing, bustling reality of the city streets.

That first public reading Dave orchestrated back in 2009, I found myself connecting to Perfect Lives in a way I’d never done before — through the specifics of the text. Especially when I listened to the Private Parts recording in high school, I’d never concentrated on semantic meaning. That initial performance was freeing. I remember feeling like I was preaching the word in Park Slope as we stood in front of the Key Foods on 5th ave. We were spreading gospel, and for the most part, passers-by in New York City did what people in New York City do when that happens — they ignored us, continued walking.

key foods

What was particularly compelling about the performance on June 7th, is that the connection went much deeper — to the point that I stopped being myself, and got mixed into the characters of Perfect Lives. June 7th was beautiful day early summer, just as it was in the opera. As we walked from the bank, to the church, to the bar, these places became the places. It was real. The opera was written about this performance, about Brooklyn, about this moment. I don’t know how else to put it.

The Backyard especially. There in Gelsey’s backyard, speaking the words, I felt I was Isolde. I was her, having her thoughts (or was she having mine?), standing in the backyard, counting the days. It was a celebration of the changing of the light. The audience were the planets, in the scheme of things. And as the piano drifted down from the window, the opera had turned to reality.

It’s a connection I haven’t been able to shake. In conversations with friends, I find myself responding by quoting Perfect Lives. Or reciting it to myself on the subway. My conception of reality has become a little fuzzy around the edges. I am still inside of the opera (“We are still obsessed. We are not relieved”).

And that’s why it’s been an incredible revelation as I’ve learned in the last few months how closely Perfect Lives is entwined with real events in Bob Ashley’s life. “It’s all true, you know,” Mimi Johnson said to me. I was shocked. The elopement, the wedding — these events actually happened. Many, if not most, the characters in the opera, to the best of my knowledge, are based on real people in Bob Ashley’s hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I knew of Bob’s life (the characters of “R” as Bob and “Buddy” as Blue Gene Tyranny are the clearest). But the other day, I learned that Ed and Gwyne really did elope…! Maybe I am being a little green around the edges here, but….wow. It’s a whole added layer.

So in creating a performance ritual of Perfect Lives, we’re actually performing real events. We’re creating a kind of loop from real people to text to real people again. It’s particularly poignant because the performance is staged back in reality. So from reality to text to reality. Or something like that. Maybe the divisions aren’t so clear. As someone who’s studied ethnographic interviews and oral history, I am even tempted to say Perfect Lives is a kind of oral history account of the American Midwest.

Who knows what kind of new connections with the work will be formed on November 6th. And while we’ll be still creating a celebration of the changing of the light in a way (November 6th is daylight savings), the setting will certainly be different — it’s gonna be pretty chilly in November. We’re also expecting more people to follow us around, which we’ve all agreed will change the dynamic of the performance, not sure how yet.

One last thought about ritual and performance: like church or a baseball game, in creating a performance ritual, we are also creating a community around the ritual. And as Dave and I met with art/music/literature-creators Mendi and Keith Obadike yesterday, who will be performing as Will and Ida, I realized how many people are coming together to celebrate Perfect Lives. It’s exciting to have formed community of creative minds who have formed around this event — a group of performers, composers, musicians and audience members who are connecting with this public ritual, be it through rhythm or text, arrangement or aesthetic, or any combination — each in their own way.

-Aliza

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