Peaceful Pandemonium: Reflections on Tableau Vivant

Once upon a time, several of my readers asked, “Why?”  They continue to ponder, “Why the nudity,” “Why the Bulgarian music,” “Why you (a question more likely uttered by acquaintances or colleagues)?”

Rehearsal for Tableau Vivant
Rehearsal for Tableau Vivant

My answer, written in January but as yet unpublished, seems all the more poignant to me as we prepare for our upcoming, much grander, longer (less than an hour), and far more ambitious performance this coming Monday and Tuesday, May 23 and 24 at 7pm and 8pm, respectivelyWithin this tableau, one will find weddings (yes, actual weddings), dance, improvisation, Bulgarian folk singers, a string quartet with a few additional players, opera singers, new compositions (none of mine in this production), classic opera arias, and just about every body type imaginable, both clothed and exposed. Within this preparation time and Tableau Vivant itself, I hope to find the peaceful pandemonium of life so perfectly expressing the imperfect we all discover each new day.

My answer:
The Peaceful Pandemonium of Tableau Vivant
By Abigail Wright

In September, at our first rehearsal for the current incarnation of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant, a large circle of fascinatingly varied introductions confirmed my role as the only nude singer. Although CJ Body joined me in my exposed expression as an unclothed upright bass player for our fall tableau as part of the DUMBO Arts Festival, I bore that undertaking alone in January’s Bathhouse Studio performance. Rima Fand, a brilliant composer I’ve had the extraordinary joy of knowing in three separate artistic endeavors, entered into the equation and introduced an unusual task for most of the models as well. As musical director, she and Sarah Small designed an aural tapestry that placed almost every performer equally far from their comfort zones by layering voice upon voice (mostly untrained), until each added his unique sound to the swelling chorus of suspended, sighed, and soared tones.

Since September, the larger group of artists composing Sarah’s tableau has grown closer in companionship and familiarity, and something about the quality of the picture and drones of the sonic landscape feels more cohesive and powerful as we join together again, now at Bathhouse Studios. The Black Sea Hotel, a hauntingly beautiful Bulgarian folk quartet fully clad in bright crimson wool dresses, ever-powerfully intones a stirring folk song about a man waiting for his friend’s death in order to marry the woman for whom he pines. Sarah Small, whose musical arrangement they sing, enters into the living picture to enliven selected groups of models, static poses beginning to unfreeze and interact with one another.

As eventually the motion quiets and our once crescendoed chorus comes down from the swell, this photographer/composer/creator adds her voice as a soloist which then melds with the folk quartet to conclude the perplexing but poignant song. Almost ominously, as the melodic love story ends on the Bulgarian word meaning “death,” each of us personalizes it, as chanted, spoken, shouted, and vibrated pitches echo a resonant “umre” throughout the space. Upon this scattered final iteration, each person in tableau releases her individually held pose, engages the eyes of a random audience member, and waits for the first note of my aria after extended silence as a signal to fade away and drop her head.

In September when Sarah and I first met to discuss which aria I might perform to conclude her Tableau Vivant, I had a comparatively vague sense of the profound nature of her living picture as a whole. After hearing her focus for the tableau as a means for exploring life and death, I chose music and a text that would minister to her spirit as the creative energy behind such a feat. In “C’est l’amour vainqueur,” commonly referred to as “the violin aria” from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, the character of Nicklausse sings this song to the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, imploring him to write. Referencing the beauty of music, its transforming power, and finally triumphant love, Nicklausse exclaims, “It is all-conquering love, ah, poet, give your heart!” Little did I understand at that moment how much the aria and tableau as a whole speaks not only to Sarah Small as the creator of the concept, the musicians and the models inhabiting it, and the audience in the room, but especially to everyone as a microcosm of life as a whole.

In my brief but meaningful experience with the art of tableau vivant, I have enjoyed an insider’s view of her “Delirium Constructions” as a means to explore in public all of the common human experiences most hide. Fusing truly implausible combinations of the primal with the classical, musically and visually through the clothed and bare, static and engaged, healthy and deformed (some models in particular have body paint and positions to indicate bruises, rashes, and injury), proud and meek, this odd concoction of life without pretense explores some of the most profoundly universal themes in a short twenty-minute span. Reminiscent of the musings of Shakespeare as Hamlet tells Claudius how “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar,” this photographer brings to light in one small space a truly living picture of the simple complexities of humanity, seen and unseen. By insisting upon such an unapologetic depiction of existence, Sarah Small presents the most honest public offering in which I have ever taken part. As society imbues her art with love, death, life and its intricacies, may she continue to inspire audiences in the peaceful pandemonium of her Tableau Vivant.

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.

Answers for the Patient Anonymous ~ 168

Ms. Wright,
Just a repost question from November 29th. If you don’t want to respond, it’s ok, but I thought since you were working on a new post about the Tableau Vivant you may want to combine the issues. I am sorry to hear about your feelings, though I think getting out of the house, showering and doing something (anything, reallly) is quite helpful. Kudos to you for doing so, for blogging about it and for holding yourself responsible to keep up your promise to yourself. It ain’t easy but you only get one life and you, for better or worse, get to run a business around your life. Being a solo practitioner is a hard and stressful task and you should give yourself credit for doing it.

And kudos to you for owning the Tableau Vivant and being so open about it. I suspect that one reason you get so many hits on this issue is that only your blog (apart from Ms. Smalls blog) comes up in Google if you search for it. You are the only artist to publicly identify yourself as one of the artists in the performance (at least by Google search standards). Not fully understanding the purpose or intent of the Tableau Vivant performance, I’m not sure why this is, or what it means or says, but others have apparently not embraced their performance in the same way that you have. As a result, you get the Google hits for having so publicly embraced your performance.

I read your blog a while back after the Dumbo Arts Festival and commented on your being a part of the Tableau Vivant show. You were kind enough to respond in the comments. For background, we stumbled on the performance when we went to the bookstore and was told a performance was about to start, so we stayed.

First, more power to you for posting the video where all your friends could see you. It is one thing to perform naked in public and have it disappear, or to have it appear generally on the Internet, but another to directly link it to yourself for the world (and your friends, family and future significant others) to find and see it. Perhaps this is part of your liberation and “skydiving” experience.

Second, and more importantly, can you please explain what the performance meant? we watched the original performance, and the video, and remain confused. I’ve also read Ms. Small’s site, but I still don’t get it. Since it was apparently such a significant experience for you, I’m also curious what you got out of it (beyond the freeing experience of being naked on a stage).

By that I mean I don’t understand the message or meaning other than the nudity and singing (beautiful by the way). Perhaps I’m not that understanding of modern art or concept pieces (I once saw a “play” in the East Village, I think by Mac Wellman, and had similar difficulty). Yes, it is rather interesting to see naked people, and the different bodies, sizes and types, and to watch them sort of interact or move about, and to have it done to music, but to what effect? How was the performance described to you when you auditioned and during rehearsals? What was Ms. Small telling or describing when she wanted the actors/actresses to move? Were the movements choreographed in a particular way for a particular reason? This was why I had googled Tableau Vivant after the show and found your blog.

Thanks for listening and I look forward to your response (but rest and have fun–no need for an immediate response, or any if you prefer). ~Anonymous

 

Original Photo by Andy Stromberg

This past week, I have once more had the honor of participating in Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant, singing in my church choir, rehearsing for an upcoming Valentine’s Day concert at the Cornelia Street Café, and recording Lorca-inspired music for the talented composer Rima Fand, among other fantastic activities. I’ve worked with incredible friends, colleagues, musicians, actors, videographers, makeup artists, models, directors, composers, and seemingly average folks living quite extraordinary lives. For those who believe that the artistic community gives or collaborates too little or has reached a point of stagnation, even in the winter, my little life in New York and I beg to differ.

While speaking on the phone with Sarah Small tonight for more than an hour after my recording session with Rima, I felt overcome by gratefulness for the small role I have to play in her world and art. In a brief moment, I understood how her work exists as a microcosm for life itself, in all of the common but sometimes unexpected pieces of ourselves and our relationships with one another that we so often hide from the public world. In the next few days and posts here on Skydiving for Pearls, I hope to take you on a journey inside my understanding of one woman’s Tableau Vivant.

For my patient anonymous reader, thank you for your persistence in questioning our motives and inspirations. You’ve truly helped me to “flesh out” the meaning in a piece that has instinctively meant so much to me and opened up my heart to a new confidence and vulnerability. I hope these next few days will shed some light for you on a performance that has illumined my life in so many ways.