"Creating spare but incisive characters and relationships is something at which choreographer Mei-Ling Stuart has become masterful."
Our current project is a dance-theater show about primates and prayer. It will premiere September 13-22, 2013 at CounterPulse in San Francisco.
We've got a group of 6 multitalented performers (El Beh, Jennifer Chien, Kat Cole, Michael Mohammed, Rowena Richie, Christopher W. White) collaborating on the creation of the piece under the direction of EmSpace artistic director Erin Mei-Ling Stuart (a.k.a. "me"). And we have a production team that includes Erik Pearson, Allen Willner, Marilee Talkington, and Katy Adcox. Superstars all of them. We're making all sorts of things right now, some of which will end up in the final piece - the story of an encounter with a zoo gorilla, a prayer for a lost cat, dances where we play like chimps, a story about a girl who lost her tail, musings on the uniqueness of humans, and more...
But, why primates and prayer? It has something to do with the way we use both to understand being human. At least that is what I'm figuring out as we go along.
I didn't grow up in a religion, and now I think of myself as a bad Buddhist, which is actually an upgrade from my previous self-identification as a wannabe Buddhist. I meditate. Regularly sometimes. And I've been hanging around Zen Center long enough to get the feeling that Buddhism really is a religion and not just a philosophy or a practice, or whatever I thought it was in the beginning that allowed me to approach it in the first place. But even with all of this, I hadn't thought a whole lot about prayer specifically until a trip a couple of years ago to Germany, France, and England. Especially France. All of those big, grand churches designed to inspire awe. On one of many epic walking days, perhaps a little overwhemed, I climbed a big hill and walked into one of those big, grand churches - actually an abby built in the 14th century. I sat down, and it was quiet and peaceful (unlike, say, Notre Dame which is pretty much a madhouse.) It really felt like a sanctuary. So I thought I would meditate for a few minutes. Because, I thought, we're all pretty much doing the same thing. Meditating. Praying. Whatever.
But somehow the meditation wouldn't take.
And somehow I ended up with my elbows up on the back of the pew in front of me.
And my hands were clasped.
And my head was lowered.
And there I was neatly positioned in the shape of western Christian prayer, at least as I imagine it.
And I started wondering. Are we all doing the same thing? When I meditate is that prayer? What is prayer? What is it for?
And since then I have been asking different people about prayer. And I am learning some things. And it seems that one way of understanding prayer is that it is something we use to connect to something outside of ourselves, something bigger than ourselves, and maybe that is our community, or the earth, or the universe, or god. And that prayer is something we use to understand and realize our own divinity and what is best in us. Anne Lammott says it's a light that helps us see "what is way beyond us and deep inside". Yes.
The beginnings of the primate part of the piece are a little less personal. It started with a book. Robert Sapolsky's "A Primate's Memoir". Read it. You will enjoy it. It's about his time in Africa studying baboons in order to understand the effects of long term stress on the body and brain. (Apparently it's pretty stressful being a low-ranking baboon). He describes the baboons' distinctive personalities (he gives them names from the old testament) and the complex organization of their society. And when I first read the book many years ago, I thought, I need to make a piece about baboons. But I didn't. Until now.
This piece isn't just about baboons, of course. We're thinking also thinking about chimps, bonobos, gorillas, all of whom are significantly smarter than baboons and even more like us. And that's kind of what the primate thing is all about in this project: how they are so like us. How they are not like us. How we have tried to learn about who we are by studying them, and how we have treated them in the process. Science has studied non-human primates to understand how our bodies work, but also language, relationships, learning, violence, fairness, mental illness, love. Maybe we're continuing in that tradition. We're also reminding ourselves that we are animals.
I think there is some sort of state of grace to be found here, hovering between our animal bodies and our reaching out into the way beyond.