Tandy Beal brings the poet's vision to Repertory Dance Theatre this month.
by Amy Brunvand
"For I dance and drink and sing
till some blind hand shall brush
-William Blake, "The Fly"
Think back to English 101 and you may remember reading some short poems by a man named William Blake who lived from 1757-1827. The verses may have seemed a bit simplistic, even childish, until the professor assigned you to critique them, and then they were not so easy grasp hold of, after all. If you were the kind of student who likes sitting in the front row you might have even looked up Blake in the "Oxford Companion to English Literature" where you would have learned that, "at Blake's death, general opinion held that he had been, if gifted, insane."
Besides being a poet, Blake was an artist and a radical in political, social and religious thought. He spoke out for the poor, considered institutional churches less than Christian, and advocated sexual love as a creative force. However, if he seemed insane to the people around him, it was probably because he continued to press forward with his extraordinary artistic vision despite mockery and a complete lack of social encouragement.
Blake's extreme artistic tenacity is what inspired choreographer Tandy Beal to create her piece "Outside Blake's Window" which will be performed by Repertory Dance Theatre April 12-14.
"You know, where I really jumped aboard were his life stories," says Beal. "There is a story about him at about age five and he saw a tree full of angels glittering. He came home and told his parents and his father smacked him and his mother went "Oh! Wait a minute! we have a very special being in our midst." Another story is that he died singing. He didn't sell a poem or a painting or get a book printed, but he kept going and he died singing. How could you?
"There were a couple of other stories; one was that in the middle of smoky industrial-revolution London he and his wife were out in their garden being Adam and Eve. Just standing there naked in their garden."
"Outside Blake's Window" is a modern dance performance, not a play, so there is no literal narrative, but the framework of Blake's life and art provide handholds for the audience to enter into the experience. "The facts are not really that important," says Beal, "except the fact of the artist going forward with a clarity of vision, with the fire of his imagination no matter what, so that in a way the artist becomes a metaphor for every person trying to follow their calling."
Of all people, Tandy Beal would empathize with a compelling artistic calling since she herself left school at age 16 to become a dancer. "I'd started dancing with Ernestine Stodelle at 14 and then I saw Nik [the Alwin Nikolais Dance Company], and I knew I was going to be on stage with him. I was a fast learner in school, and I graduated when I just barely turned 16 and I said, in my wisdom, I think I need to take a year out, and that year out turned into the rest of my life."
Her artistic pursuits are worthy of Blake. She teaches dance at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Utah and elsewhere; was longtime artistic director for the Pickle Family Circus, and did motion studies for the characters in Tim Burton's stop-motion film "The Nightmare Before Christmas," a project that she especially enjoyed when the director shyly suggested, "could you be just a bit crazier?"
Like Alwin Nikolais' pioneering multimedia works, "Outside Blake's Window" embraces showmanship-it includes fire juggling, an aerialist from Cirque du Soleil accompanied by Mozart sung live, and features numerous sets of identical twins who embody Blake's eternal themes of polarity, good and evil, innocence and experience. The circus tricks are partly just for fun, but even fun has a purpose. Beal explains: "At the deepest level, where all of my artistic adventures connect has to do with how do you bring about the experience of wonder to an adult. Because we're pretty jaded and how do you help? That's what I want an artistic experience to do for me. I want to be brought back to a state of wonder and get to that point where, as Blake says 'If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is.'"
A touchstone for the piece comes from Blake's proverb: "If the sun and moon should doubt, they'd immediately go out." Beal says, "I think that in these times, for us to find faith in a good future we can't lose faith, we cannot doubt. It seems so stupid that the sun and moon should doubt; well, they're not going to doubt, but you know what? It feels that way. It feels that powerful that we could start doubting at the deepest level."
Linda C. Smith, artistic director of Repertory Dance Theatre, heartily agrees that the times seem to cry out for Blake's vision of art as a primary force for political and spiritual transformation. She says it seemed like the right time to bring Beal's work to Salt Lake City since Blake dovetails with RDT's current theme of myths and heroes, but also because she hoped the poetry and stillness of the piece would be a gift to RDT's dancers. "I don't think society knows how hungry it is," says Smith, "but it is-or at least it's so depleted, it better realize a couple of things mighty fast or we're in trouble. It's so frightening to open the paper and see what's in it. When you get to the arts section you feel like there's still some sanity."
Tandy Beal adds, "One thing that interested me in doing this work on Blake was that it's difficult to talk in contemporary society about ideals, about truth and beauty, about a sense of the divine, without irony and to be taken seriously. Yet these are questions in all of us about values at the deepest levels." u
Outside Blake's Window
April 12-14, 8:00 pm
(pre-concert discussion 7:30)
Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (138 W. 300 S. SLC; Gallivan Center TRAX)
Teacher Development Workshop April 7, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center Free to Utah school teachers
Library of Congress Blake Archive: www.blakearchive.org/blake/
Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian at the University of Utah.
Blake Symposium April 5, 7pm
It goes without saying that even though "Outside Blake's Window" is Tandy Beal's artistic expression, William Blake is nevertheless present in spirit. RDT is always on the lookout for ways make dance more relevant to the broader community and they wanted to find a way to explore Blake so they called up Mark Matheson, a professor of English at the University of Utah, and asked him to help put together a pan-arts Blake symposium.
Matheson confesses he was a bit surprised to get the call. "I'm not really literate in dance," he says, "and I'm not actually a Blake scholar; I'm a devoted amateur of Blake."
Matheson is not surprised, however, that Blake inspired a dance piece. " I teach the poetry, but the poetry can't be filtered out from its place in the visual design in which Blake placed it," he says pointing to some Blake illustrations hanging by his desk. "Blake's representations of the human figure in motion have amazing energy and momentum. I don't think we've seen art before or since like this-it's just extraordinary. He's important as a voice for our time. He protested against all forms of political oppression and very pointedly against war. For us and the internal dilemma of our Iraq war, Blake is very timely. He said, 'War is energy enslaved.' He believed that the perversion of energy to war is something art can work against." Matheson says that his students usually pay attention when he teaches Blake in class and suggests that "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is a good place to start reading.
A highlight of the April 5 symposium at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is a display of 20 William Blake engravings from the "Book of Job" which the museum owns but has never shown. Panelists include Tandy Beal (dance), Nadja Durback (literary scholar), Andy Franta (art historian), Constance Clark (Episcopal chaplain), and Brooke Hopkins (professor of English).
Professor Matheson echoes the dancers' hope that Blake offers a way to rejuvenate an aesthetic sense that may be impoverished by day-to-day living. "This is a chance for people to listen to Blake, to read and look at art and to be inspired. There is a great deal of potential that people will find real power and spiritual renewal in these works."
William Blake Symposium. April 5, 7 pm, Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Dumke Auditorium (410 Campus Center Dr., South Campus TRAX). Free.