You knew Olympia Dukakis was an Oscar- and Obie-winning actor. You saw her in Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias and in many other films. So what's she doing acting as creative consultant to a San Francisco dance troupe that's making a new work here in Phoenix? No scripts in the offing? Couldn't be further from the truth. She's so much in demand, she couldn't be pried away from studying lines for a new production for a brief interview.
But she will make time to come to Arizona State University West to host a scholarship benefit dinner there on Monday, February 22. Because the dance troupe isn't just any dance troupe--it's the highly regarded, quarter-century old Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and Jenkins, a Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts fellow, set her new dance/theater work, Breathe Normally, on a family story told to her by Dukakis.
"The narrative springboard for this work is a story that Olympia told us," says Jenkins by phone from San Francisco, "a transformative event in her mother's family that affected everyone's life from that point on."
For an artwork, Dukakis' story is too catastrophic to tell in a linear way. Briefly, before she was born, eight members of her mother's family died in an auto accident. Only two of the 10 in the car survived. Dukakis' mother was one of them.
Jenkins is dancing again after a seven-year absence from the stage.
"In the early stages of the work with Olympia, I began to explore what it might mean to perform again as an older person, with a different kind of physical gesture, a renewed curiosity about my relationship to my body," Jenkins says.
Jenkins is a striking, well-built woman who moves with an unconscious grace.
"I am interested in the wisdom the body carries as it ages," she says. "My wanting to perform again grew out of the subject matter."
She credits Dukakis' incredible curiosity and appetite for life and change as the initial impulse that refired her own energy.
"The performers, and Ellie Klopp--who both performs and directs, and with whom I have had a partnership for over 13 years--rekindled my spirit and willingness to risk further investigation of myself and the subject."
Fragments of the story are heard throughout Jay Cloidt's sound score, which includes a composed lullaby and environmental sounds. For instance, Dukakis quotes her mother saying: "I'll never forget his eyes"--a reference to her brother, who had been driving, and the moment before the crash.
Cloidt, who collaborates with the Paul Dresher Ensemble and has received three commissions from the Kronos Quartet, weaves the line into the fabric of his haunting sounds.
The text is by writer/composer Rinde Eckert, also known for his profound performances on the contemporary opera stage. Valley audiences may remember his intriguing solo performance in The Idiot Variations at Gammage a couple of years ago.
Dukakis' story led members of the company to talk about events that changed their lives and the nature of that moment when everything is altered. Jenkins describes it as "the moment between when the glass starts to fall and when it hits the ground, the gasp, the breath, the inhalation--is where the work is located--hopefully in that mysterious place before the impact, both metaphorically and actually."
The company went from a repertory to a project-oriented collaborative team in 1993, with its first evening-length work, The Gates, (Far Away Near).
"This piece," Jenkins says with fond regard for her collaborators, "is enriched with a lavish blend of life experiences by its diverse group of performing artists."
Ranging in age from 32 to the 72-year-old Gerald Hiken, "the performers assemble in a quirky familial group of movers and speakers whose interactions and intersections comprise the scenes and events," says Jenkins.
Hiken, a veteran stage actor, told a story about his grandfather that is also included in the production. Eckert spliced both stories into his text. At some point along the way, the hidden impact of the stories will become clear. But their implication drives the investigation through the movement and the narrative.
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Breathe Normally focuses on the fragmentary nature of memory, as it exists in word, image, sound and motion. During one rehearsal, Klopp, Paul Benney, Janice Garrett, and Sue Roginski twist and turn Hiken, a barrel-chested, vigorous man, hand-to-hand. Twice he breaks away from the cluster. The gesture doesn't say he can't hold on. It says, with regret, that he doesn't want to hold on. When his companions intuit that, they include him back into their cluster again, to keep him and console him.
The production design for Breathe Normally, a mobile, architectural landscape, serves as projection surfaces for the images, and provides an ever-changing visual environment of what is growing into a witty and moving dance/theater work.
After Monday's dinner, Dukakis will read from her own writing, as will a number of other writers. When she introduces a sneak preview of Breathe Normally, Dukakis will talk about her role as creative consultant. Breathe Normally is funded in part by ASU and universities and art centers in other cities where it will travel after its April 24 premiere at Gammage Auditorium. Proceeds from Monday's dinner with Dukakis will fund ASU West scholarships.
Tickets for the 6 p.m. fund-raising dinner at ASU West on Monday, February 22, are available by calling 543-5212. An 8 p.m. excerpt dance performance on the same day is free, but reservations are required; call 543-7787.