Trading My Guises for Gifts in Tableau ~ 169

Old and new friends and acquaintances reunite, familiar music resounds, as Sarah Small and her brilliant cast and crew come together once more for another, more private tableau vivant. Set in the Bathhouse Studios in the East Village, this version has both a more intimate audience, set, and feel. The same challenges arise as each of the models hold their static poses, sing, and watch in our peripheral vision to catch the tempo, the changes in harmony by the stringed instruments, and the moments when Sarah Small might float in to signal our poses to come alive and interact.


Original Photo Copyright Cecilia De Bucourt
Original Photo Copyright Cecilia De Bucourt

Earlier in the day, after a few hours of rehearsal for the tableau, interviews, hair, and makeup, Sarah also floated about the set, this time in a Tim Burton-like white dress and half upswept hair. We took our places afresh, this time for a new video concept involving Sarah as an obsession rivaling social media’s love of Justin Bieber, as we literally fall lifeless at her feet. Upon the long-awaited final entrance of a baby in the final shoot, lifted up to the heavens, we all breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of a little rest and dinner before the performance.

Reminding me of my days of high school marching band, I felt a bit lightheaded but excited after our, “do it again, just one more time” (all lies!) kind of day. What could have possibly energized me so much after a truly exhausting day with little time to stop to eat or rest? With such a different venue from our DUMBO Arts Festival performance, a seemingly small change provided me the first and most profoundly personal inspiration from this tableau vivant.

Rather than enter through the crowd, the house opened to a space full of “sleeping” models, each of us frozen in static poses for twenty-five minutes until a Bulgarian wool-clad Kamala Sankaram powerfully sang “Caro nome” from Rigoletto to bring us to life. Amusingly, Kamala actually made the dynamic a bit louder than usual on her first phrase in case any of the models actually had fallen asleep, but having to hold a perfectly static pose for twenty-five minutes makes sleep fairly challenging. Although I have spent some time considering the prospect of life modeling (posing nude for artistic endeavors, usually classes) in the future, I never quite grasped the difficulty in maintaining even a seemingly comfortable but perfectly still position for twenty minutes or more.

Somewhere between odd but unresolvable back pain and moments of Zen where I actually almost dozed off despite the discomfort, my thoughts began to compare the sensation with the reality of living my life in a static pose of inactivity. Like many Americans, I struggle with the temptation to hide from the cold or the challenges of life in the comfort of my warm apartment, in front of the anesthetizing influence of the television, computer, or other media. Only after I stand up and attempt to participate in living do I perceive the alternating pain and sleepy haze into which my paralyzed state has thrown me.  Doubtless this observation provided the motivation to move slowly away from the television, one muscle at a time, and back to living my glorious life.

Although I’ve re-discovered a much fuller existence these past six days or so, since my first day of braving the hazy shade of winter relentlessly blanketing the city, I have yet to act on another gigantic impetus to change, once more inspired by my performance at Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant. Somewhere between each palpably quickened heartbeat before singing “C’est l’amour vainqueur” from The Tales of Hoffmann, a familiarly impish spirit of adventure washed over me as I decided to wait longer than I could seemingly bear in the silence before beginning my first note in the nude. Similarly, at the end of an ever-present and confidently sung aria with no clothes nor poorly-acted pretense, I enjoyed my final high note in suspended time, without fear or reservation, before coming back down to end the piece and tableau.

Afterwards, as we descended past the grateful audience down the frigid staircase to return to our fully-layered lives, I chuckled with an unusually cogent confidence upon the realization of a truly impressive feat. “Why,” I thought, “would I ever feel afraid or self-conscious at auditions when I know I can do something this amazing so expertly?” Those of you who have read my writing more than once or know me personally understand that while I must regularly promote myself as a performer, such self-assurance does not greet me readily when I rise each morning. For this I have to work so hard, such that I failed to attempt a single audition last month, even after agreeing with colleagues to apply for at least five monthly.

Yet somehow, performing with a roomful of dedicated and similarly vulnerable humans, without a single pretense or guise of fabric to call my own, the Tableau Vivant gives me the strength and faith to perform honestly and without apology, as the very best version of myself. In my life, I believe I have never received a greater gift; however, the offering each performer and creator lays out at the feet of their audience materializes into a much more profound treasure of creation. About this community at large, the performers within, and the message Sarah Small’s Tableau speaks to humanity, I have far more to say over the next few days. My thanks to those of you who have decided to join us.

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

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

A First Lesson in Bearing All, Day 121

Photo by David Michael

“You shouldn’t have sung opera to me.  Now I want to see you nude.”

Many months ago, a friend read my post on Sally Golan’s Naked Painting Party and passed along a harmless link to Spencer Tunick‘s website, offering me yet another potential prospect for my newly redesigned, open-minded life. A project involving a sea of bodies might make for a profoundly interesting but somewhat anonymous experience. Hoping to learn another lesson, I signed up to receive updates for future dates in the area and opened an unexpected window overlooking a beautifully unique landscape of expression.

Enter Sarah Small.  A master of fusing unexpected combinations of subjects and emotions into her art, she breathes thought and vitality into an incredibly unusual exploration of life.  Thankfully, Spencer Tunick’s email list informed me of her need for models, musicians, artists, and actors for an upcoming project appropriately named Tableau Vivant.  While at Bard this summer, I sent in the application form to participate as a clothed singer in this mixed concept involving nudity. I rode my bike downtown to the audition, not at all knowing what to expect last Friday afternoon.

What I discovered surprised me in more ways than I can articulate. Sarah’s assistant immediately put me at ease as I awaited my turn to interview and audition. Somehow I hadn’t thought to prepare a song to sing and allowed my thoughts to find a quick solution to my a cappella interview dilemma, resting upon a fairly obscure but wide-ranged song that unfortunately didn’t work so well when started in the wrong key. Hopefully Sarah and her director Adam J. Thompson forgave that awkward-at-best choice and enjoyed the remainder of my tryout.

Interviewing with a talented male model, I had a chance to pose with him clothed while he contorted himself in the nude. We made faces, stretching them into shocked expressions for the camera and thrashed about the room. I sang at him angrily (definitely not a standard audition request) while I repeatedly lost character in my amusement and astonishment from the experience as a whole. My partner dressed, and we continued to interview as Sarah and Adam discovered some extra time for our process. I repeated a Hungarian folk melody in mostly chest voice and then sang an entire Bach recitative and  aria with no accompaniment.

“You shouldn’t have sung opera to me.  Now I want to see you nude,” mentioned Sarah, as I took a short second to decide that I would in fact participate nude for the sake of such a project in which I could believe and find purpose. Feeling a bit nervous as I removed my fabric barriers, I talked and laughed to compensate before standing before creator, director, and interviewee to sing the Habanera from Bizet‘s Carmen. I sang fairly well, and I have to say that this certainly trumps every audition I’ve ever given in terms of vulnerability; yet, the experience gave me a feeling of life and enjoyment that both awakened and stunned me simultaneously.

I don’t know if Sarah Small will use me for her mini tableau in two short weeks, her larger project in 2011, something else entirely, or nothing. In that overall vulnerability I experienced, I opened myself up to their judgment and possible acceptance or rejection (objectively, of course, they may or may not need me – decisions are rarely actually personal in nature). Physically, vocally, and dramatically, I displayed my flaws, mistakes, successes, and strengths together as they presented themselves with no apology. I can only hope they blended together for a successful audition and look forward to the hope of working with such open-minded artists in the future.

In life as in art, honesty hides nothing and can inspire joy, awe, disgust, and pain. What we decide to hide behind our clothing or in conversation frames our lives and the perceptions of strangers in the audience and our dearest friends next door.  As we interact within our society, covering everything next to another of life’s players who perhaps exposes too much, the unexpected will ultimately occur. Sometimes I err on the side of revealing myself inappropriately and must take a step back to judge my own motives.  Today, I awake grateful to the possibilities explored by Sarah Small, who combines the beauty of all extremes with human beings in a safe and somewhat controlled environment. May my study and potential participation only teach me how better to enact my role in the all-enveloping and expansive arena of existence.

You can witness Tableau Vivant live on September 25 at the DUMBO Arts Festival from 7:30pm-9:30pm at the Powerhouse Arena on 37 Main Street in Brooklyn.  Free admission.

Skydiving with Pearls, Day 118

Signing My Life Away
Photo by Jeffrey Donenfeld

On a perfect, high visibility, low humidity day in August, a group of twelve skydivers sign injury and death disclaimers less than twenty minutes from the town in which my mother birthed me into life.  Taking turns reading aloud in front of a camera one by one before our jump, we joke, laugh, and meander about the trailer and grounds as we await our ascent into the sky.  Originally, the idea began at a movie theater in January with my to be jump partner, Sarah Giardina, the day after I decided to name my blog Skydiving for Pearls.  I thought it an incredibly clever name, combining an excuse-defying activity with searching for pearls of wisdom; that is, until Sarah looked at me with her lovely blue eyes and said, “So love, when are we going skydiving?”  Of course, the video of our skydiving day may have you believe otherwise.

Although I honestly cannot think of another human being with whom I’d rather jump out of a plane than this life-embracing friend from Australia, I never actually intended to do so in my lifetime.  Still, when I began the quest to eradicate excuses from my life, I also erased the word “never” from my useful lexicon.  I am so grateful I did.  Despite my lack of a driving desire to skydive, the winds of fate blew me in the direction of some unexpected companions with whom to take the plunge.  With a plethora of artistic friends in a rather unfortunate economy in general, most of my friends who had originally planned to join me canceled when the actual time arrived.  As Sarah, my friend Matt Hensrud, and I pondered postponing until October so that people could raise the funds, my fantastic friend Spanish Rob from the Obliterati bunch saved the day.

Our Skydiving Gang
Photo by Jeffrey Donenfeld

Brilliantly merging my small group with a much larger group of fantastically adventurous social media types, Rob connected me with his friend Mary Elise, and we grew from a small group of three to four people to a happily discounted group of twelve.  Skydiving costs money.  Ultimately, with the fantastic addition of girls carrying orange plastic guns, a brilliant photographer, a happy Brit with sequined pants and a Sparkle Pony t-shirt, and wonderful new friends, the discount falls to the bottom of my list of blessings from our August adventure.

As our group finally piled into the wall-to-wall and ceiling shag carpet van to meet up with the tandem instructors, I couldn’t quite determine whether the two to three hour wait (expected, on a gorgeous Saturday in the summer) made me feel more or less anxious or merely bored.  Boredom disappeared rather quickly when my tandem instructor Joe called my name, strapped me into my harness, and began filming my ninety-dollar DVD.  With a few quick instructions to arch my back while jumping out and hold onto my harness straps when tapped on the shoulder, Joe and Sarah’s instructor Yuri led us to a very small prop plane, complete with a middle aged operator and hoards of bumper stickers decorating its interior.

Ten thousand feet later, I thanked God that we flew over the strangely calming water before the wind rushed through the small door that awaited my inevitable exit.  Earlier in the week, I had given myself the permission to say no if I ultimately didn’t want to do it, and when you watch the video, you’ll see that I have a fairly comical little conversation with myself before jumping.  In fact, I provide quite a few entertaining moments:

  • 00:20 Sarah and I each blame the other for talking ourselves into skydiving.
  • 00:56 I have physically shrunken a little in fear but keep smiling.
  • 01:11 You can hear Yuri and Sarah making her video in the background.
  • 01:23 I have a two second conversation with myself as follows, “Oh my God! No! …Okay.”  Good view of the pearls.
  • 01:33 I place my foot on a small step above the wheel of the plane, and Joe and I jump.
  • 02:21 of Sarah’s video: You can see us exit the plane from behind – scary!
  • 01:42 A momentary look of surprise and pride appears as I realize I successfully jumped while breathing normally and had no more fear.  Excitement quickly replaces that expression as I celebrate a truly terrific freefall experience.  Truthfully?  I cannot describe it accurately except to say that the forty-five second fall felt more natural than falling and less dramatic than a roller coaster; although, nothing else I’ve experienced in life comes close to actually deciding to jump and relaxing into a joyous descent to earth.
  • 01:50 I tell you, “You should do this!” I kind of love that I ramble the entire time.  I must have thanked my tandem instructor a hundred times.
  • 03:15 We wave to Sarah.  We actually managed to get close enough to hear each other, and on her video at 04:14, Sarah has a clear view of us and waves back (with the words “Evil walks behind you” ironically playing in the background).
  • 03:28 I lovingly search for my birthplace.
  • 03:38 I show off my pearls and then spontaneously sing a note.  Who put this girl on camera?

See for yourself.

Many thanks to Joe and everyone at Long Island Skydiving Center for doing their jobs brilliantly and keeping us all safe and happy. Sarah and all of the friends who joined us that day, what a day to share!  Thank you!  Having watched the video myself at least fifty times in disbelief, I know this long-awaited but somehow brief moment has changed my life.  Gratefulness and pride well up in a pool of emotions as I remember how much fear I felt ascending in the plane and when I first felt the rush of wind from the open door. Pondering in amazement how I then decidedly and collectedly relinquished control and fell from that small plane, I know a small seed grows within, evolving my very self-perception.  All along, I thought I just didn’t want to skydive.  Now I know I suffered from a lack of faith in my own ability to face that fear and let go.  Well self, I can.  In fact, I did and will again in the future, and that changes everything.

Crepi lupo, Day 115

What drives the instinct to fight or flee? An overwhelming majority of us have felt it, that increased heartrate that begins with butterflies in one’s stomach and can accelerate to the point of wanting to jump out of one’s skin, especially with no option to escape the situation. Looking forward to two such experiences this week, today I perform my annual re-audition to maintain my position in the Associate Chorus at the Metropolitan Opera, and Saturday I skydive above Long Island.

When I once believed the Met would never hire me, I auditioned happily and with confidence. After I moved to the city to begin my unexpected employment, I grew to love my job and the people there, and the stakes magically increased. Unfortunately, so did the quality of my auditions.  I don’t find it necessary to elucidate upon the high [stakes] instinctively felt when jumping out of a plane. Even with the promise of taking my first plunge with a company with a perfect no injury record, I cannot slow my heart, which will inevitably race at my turn to jump, with logical facts.

Although I have strangely begun to look forward to skydiving on Saturday, I also welcome my morning audition as three and a half minutes to think about Juliet and not about jumping out of a plane (I exaggerate very little).  Also, this circumstance feels different.  For the first time since I began working in New York City, I’ve managed to make a niche for myself this year, expanding and diversifying both my career and life in a very satisfying way.  While I would still love more work and even a career in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, I also adore this existence in its current, more economically challenging yet exciting state.  Does that fact lower the stakes?  May be.  Perhaps it just makes me less desperate.

Either way, with only a half hour to depart, I have no choice but to don my dress and makeup, coiff my hair, and warmup my voice for whatever this morning holds.  Hopefully, my moment to skydive will advance with similar haste to keep me from losing my resolve.  In opera, one rarely tells a performer to have good luck or break a leg.  In my favorite way to send someone off for a good performance or audition, the well-wisher says, “In boca al lupo, (in the mouth of the wolf)” and the singer replies, “Crepi lupo (may the wolf drop dead)!”  In my mind’s eye, that wolf (with all respect to my puppet friend) represents fear.  So this morning, before losing too much valuable time, I say only, “Crepi lupo!”

Coveting an Olympian’s Mind, Day 24

Unlike Evan Lysacek, the newest male figure skating champion, I would make a lousy Olympian.  After the longest day in my week of sickness and recovery, having run countless errands, eased myself back into going to the gym, and practiced and prepared for tomorrow’s audition, I sat for a moment to watch a beautiful long program skated by Evan Lysacek.  Although I’ve watched The Cutting Edge many more times times than I’d like to admit, I truly cannot begin to imagine what kind of preparation goes into such smooth lines and well-executed jumps and spins.  Although a singer should only sing so many hours in a day healthily, one can spend a lot of  time quietly learning monologues, songs, operas, languages when not singing.  I often wonder what kind of career I might have if I stuck to an Olympic-worthy practice routine.

Even once one reaches that Olympic readiness, after a lifetime of preparation, how does she overcome the tension and pressure of competing at the Olympics while the world watches to see if she fails or succeeds?  When a skater, snowboarder, gymnast, or any competitor slips, falls, makes a mistake, I cringe, remembering the feeling of knowing I’ve forgotten a word or tensely locked myself into a bad technique that vocally keeps me from performing my best in an audition or competition.  I can practice an aria to complete current readiness, only to find that in the nervousness of the audition, I revert to old habits and muscle memories built years ago when I first learned it.  Singers and other athletes (yes, I believe singing is both a sport and an art) know all about how muscle memory and nervous energy can either enhance one’s technique or backfire, inspire one mistake or a snowball of countless errors.

Tonight, I practiced my best technique into an oratorio aria I’ve sung very little since I first performed it in Maryland a few years ago.  I could list the excuses –  that I just heard about this audition while I was in Long Island, sick and without my music, that I don’t usually audition for temple gigs and therefore have nothing particularly appropriate, that I couldn’t practice before yesterday because of my health – but none of it will matter tomorrow.  Honestly, I do handicap myself a little by widening my horizons and preparing monologues and song books of jazz and musical theater selections to go along with my opera and sacred music arias and art songs.  Tomorrow I have to put on my temple ensemble singer hat and most likely sightread in Hebrew along with my aria, at a wonderful temple where I already sing as a sub.

This is my third audition since December to keep or further a job where I already work, and though I’d rather not have to do them at all, I have to figure out a way to better prepare for them, perhaps vocally and definitely mentally.  I have tried, to the point of very specific performance oriented therapy, to varying degrees of success, depending on the day.  Fortunately, the people who have hired me know without a doubt how well I sightread and that despite occasional human error, I make an excellent singer, musician, and colleague.  Although I can comfort myself with the popular adage that they know me and always take nerves into account, I want my awesomeness to reflect in my audition.  Cheekiness aside, I want to walk into that room tomorrow knowing that they will see and hear me as myself, not some nervously “perfect” and boring version of me.  So today, I practiced, revamped a newly ensemble-focused résumé, and scanned and printed my music.  Tomorrow, I do what really challenges me: the audition.  In my mind, I have no choice.  I love my work, ensemble and otherwise, and I intend to keep performing in any and every way I can.  Wish me luck!