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The Inestimable Value of Vulnerability (A Tableau Vivant), Day 128

September 30, 2010

Powerhouse Arena

The Powerhouse Arena fills with people, their chatter and curious glances, and a subtle scent of wine and excitement amidst the still few but consistent camera flashes. On Saturday at the DUMBO Arts Festival, I make my final dash to the restroom in my green satin robe, take one last gulp of water, and join the line of clothed and nude models waiting to take our places. Leah, Morgan, and I excitedly wish each other luck, and as we descend the wide cement stairs to our places and static poses, I feel equally vulnerable without my water bottle as without my robe. Listening to Kamala Sankaran sing “Caro Nome,” I feel the defiant but calm confidence that comes from a performance that teeters on an edge with other talented and committed actors. My hands behind my head, resting on the column behind me with a frozen but intentional look of shock across my face with bit lip, I know Christina wraps elegantly around the column behind me, Liliana stretches her tattooed body back to a casual but beautifully dressed and supportive Donna, Des and Dragonfly kiss, Dashiell stands looking dapper in an early century suit, and CJ Boyd keeps me company to my right, as the only other disrobed musician, clothed only by his upright bass.

Kamala ends “Caro Nome” stunningly mid-aria after sensing the arrival of all of the other players and for a few minutes, we hold our charged but quiet poses to the din of flashes and growing whispers. Six plucked notes on the cello signal the singing of a Bulgarian folk quartet by members of Black Sea Hotel dressed in traditional wool attire, adorned with flowers in their hair. Half of their song about awaiting death and love ends as every model continues to carry the key to a single drowned pitch. The first pulsating and repetitive melody begins, one cycle of keys completes. The cello enters, another cycle finishes. My turn. Each group of models enters on their soli lines to add a layer to the now undulating round and at the height of our crescendo, our inspiration stands and enters the tableau to interact with hers.

Photographer and creator of this Tableau Vivant, Sarah Small ascends each cement stair and signals to various groups and individuals to activate their poses and more fully interact. Christina and I embrace and separate in a repetitive motion that somehow enhances our already connected singing until Sarah comes around once more to return us to our (connected) solitude and decrescendo the action and vocal dynamic.

As Sarah takes her position amidst us to sing her solo within the Bulgarian folk tune, I thank God that I remain as one of the few voices to support her in the background. I enjoy few things in life as much as supporting, literally and figuratively, an artist as talented and a human being as sensitive and creatively giving as she. Despite a week-long cold and directing rehearsal alongside Adam J. Thompson since 8:30 that morning, Sarah Small sings fully and with a clear, beautiful tone above the drone and few softer solo voices. As she fades away, the drone diminishes to nothing throughout the final section of the Bulgarian folk quartet who hauntingly and skillfully end the piece with the word “umre,” meaning death.

“Umre” resonates through the spacious arena as each model intones the word for death and passes it along to a neighbor while finding an audience member upon whom to rest his or her gaze. I sing the final “umre,” and we all relax our positions, standing straight toward the audience, with whom we interact for the first time as a group. For a heart-pounding minute and a half, we remain in silence this way as the noise-level amongst the non-performers in the room begins to rise. Unable to decide if waiting longer would make me more or less nervous, I end the standstill. “Vois sous l’archet frémissant…” I perform Massenet‘s passionate plea to the poet from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and the models and other singers begin to exit the stairs.

With the refrain and a final return of the chorus remaining as I stand alone on the top step, vulnerable, unclothed, and with only a bass player to my right and the cellist and violist (diversely talented and skilled music director Rima Fand) far to the left, everything stops in a moment of surreal suspension. In the span of one short second, I see a friend or two and strangers packed into the large space from each wall all the way to the door, watching, snapping photos, taking videos, and ordering wine. I remember the long rehearsal day of singing and interacting with incredible and emotionally available people, from the models to the musicians, to the makeup artist who donated her time and cosmetics in part to “glam me up” with big hair, hot pink lipstick, and pretty little flowers in my hair.

Considering the lyrics, I share a deeply held belief of mine with the audience of strangers and friends, that music and love do heal and console all of us. For one brief moment, I allow all of them to see all of me, as I share my voice in a way I have never done and transcend a lifetime of countless barriers in performance. This, and the interactions shared in time spent with the creative team and models, makes every second of preparation and performance worth my time, talent, energy, and heart.

When I receive the video of Saturday evening’s Tableau Vivant of the Delirium Constructions: Part II, I will post the link here as well. Having learned so much about vulnerability and nudity, I have at least one more post to contribute on the subject from this experience. In the meantime, I can only say thank you. My most loving thanks to my dear friends Rima Fand, Charlene Jaszewski, John Rose, and Leat Klingman for your sincere and supportive presence on Saturday. Sarah, you inspire me to no end. Adam, thank you for your clear direction and kind friendship. I hope to work with both of you again soon and often. To all of the other performers, I feel so blessed to have met you and your beautiful spirits. May we all embrace the giving and vulnerable energy we shared on Saturday throughout our lives together and apart. Until our next meeting, all my love and gratefulness…

Stylist Melanie Randolph's Concept Rendering of Tableau Vivant

Stylist Melanie Randolph's Concept Rendering of Tableau Vivant

20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2010 10:55 am

    So true Abby, how profound an experience it was. AND, while I am usually so cynical as not to believe that anything is “meant to be,” we spent a lot of time together on Saturday, only to find out just before beginning the piece that you went to college across the street from my high school! Small world, no pun intended…you were (and are) stunning xoxoL

    • September 30, 2010 11:41 pm

      Thanks! I couldn’t have anticipated anything like it. Leah, I hope this means we get to see each other again very soon! So happy to be a part of this with both of you…

  2. September 30, 2010 9:25 pm

    What a beautiful night. Being the only one- nude and in shoes, I’m glad I got to travel this amazing journey with you! 😀

  3. anon permalink
    October 4, 2010 9:59 pm

    Look forward to the next post…

  4. Stefano permalink
    October 23, 2010 2:41 pm

    Wow, this is so well written. I so glad you wrote this up , as I just reference people to it, to explain what we did that night. Thank you 🙂

  5. Julian permalink
    December 13, 2010 12:41 pm

    I came across a video of the performance on Vimeo and from there found my way to your wonderful blog, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I’ve just started up a blog myself on the value of artistic stage nudity. I wrote a few words about the performance and also plugged your blog – hope you don’t mind. If you disapprove of anything, please let me know and I’ll change/drop it.

    • December 13, 2010 5:22 pm

      Julian, thank you! What a wonderful post you’ve written, as if you had participated yourself from across the Atlantic. Thank you for your kind words and observations – I’ll be sure to share this with the community from this performance before our next mini-tableau on January 24.

      • Julian permalink
        December 14, 2010 10:03 am

        Thanks very much, Abigail. After watching you, clothed opera just doesn’t cut it for me any more (actually I’m a big opera buff.) So you’re taking part in another Tableau? Great! Do you know what you’ll be doing yet? I’d be glad of any advance hints so I can plug it on the blog.

        PS, if you or your friends have any photos of #5 you’d like to share, I’d love to republish them and write a few comments. My email address is

        Good luck in all your ventures, clothed and nude.


  6. Julian permalink
    December 20, 2010 8:38 am

    Hi Abigail

    I was looking back over the piece I wrote and realized I hadn’t actually said anything about any of the individual poses, so I’ve added a couple of new paragraphs. If what I’ve written raises any uncomfortable blushes, I’d be happy to erase it. Good luck with your busy Christmas schedule.


  7. steve permalink
    December 20, 2010 9:32 am

    Well done, that was a fantastic performance. The concept of a painting brought to life is superb.
    I was interested in the fact that although there is a lot of nudity on stage, your pose appears to be one of displaying yourself, almost exhibitionism. It was a classic pose to exagerate your nudity… ie, hands behind the head, legs slightly apart. Was this your choice or a requirement of the role?
    I wondered if the pose one directed by Sarah or were you able to put yourself in that position?

    • December 20, 2010 3:01 pm

      Sarah did approve all and directed or changed some of the poses of each artist. I honestly was not thinking of the pose as particularly exhibitionist any more than any other would have been, nude in front of a huge audience. I personally was more comfortable because I was placed in front of a column and had to sing and keep my posture tall the whole time. Although I could have sung in any position, I felt most at ease having to hold that pose than any other for a long period of time. We’ll see what happens for the next one in January, I guess!

  8. steve permalink
    December 21, 2010 8:10 am

    I’m sure it was an exhilerating experience! It looked and sounded superb. I hope you bring the performance to London.

  9. Kim permalink
    January 16, 2011 3:46 pm

    Your performance was so beautiful. I consider you so brave. Especially since you and the girl in the center with her arms open seemed to be the most overtly exposed. Can you tell me the name of the model there in the center who came out first, she looks so familiar but I can’t place her with any of the names in the credits?

    Again your performance was so beautiful. Congratulations.

    • January 18, 2011 7:26 pm

      Hi Kim,
      Thanks so much for your sweet comments. I would have approved and replied sooner, but I wanted to check with the model of whom you speak before releasing her name, which is Kimberly Penharlow. Perhaps you’ll be able to make our larger performance in May – date TBA.

      • Kim permalink
        January 20, 2011 2:56 am

        Oh, absolutely, no problem on the delay, you were smart to check with her first, I didn’t even think of that. Where will the larger performance be? I would love to see it.

      • January 20, 2011 4:21 am

        Not sure, but I think it’s still in the works. I’ve heard some exciting rumors, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

  10. Kim permalink
    January 20, 2011 11:58 pm

    Thank you 🙂


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