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My answer, written in January but as yet unpublished, seems all the more poignant to me as we prepare for our upcoming, much grander, longer (less than an hour), and far more ambitious performance this coming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.

A Collaboration That Clicks, Day 94

Well, I did it.  I dropped a few pounds, packed some of my favorite things, and flew out to Cincinnati, Ohio for a two-day photo session with my favorite professional photographer, David Michael.  Admittedly an understatement, I have a few wickedly talented friends in New York who produce some amazing photography; however, David and I have developed a great working relationship and friendship since we met six years prior performing together in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Pearl Fishers, and we literally and figuratively just click.

Usually, we trade a bit, since he often stays with me in New York when traveling for auditions or performances of his own.  Because we do work so well together, he also takes as much time as he needs in our sessions to work on his own vision and tweak his portfolio, in addition to helping me with promotional shots and especially headshots for my career as a singer and actor.  On this unusual occasion, I stayed with and met his beautiful family about whom I had heard so much, and we had several hours over the course of two days to really hone in on some amazing ideas and locations.

Playing in my favorite outfits and fancy borrowed dresses while perching myself upon banisters at the Cincinnati Music Hall, I remembered again how little we credit the skills of models in our society.  Having slightly injured my knee last week exercising too strenuously, I struggled at times to stand in certain ways, hold specific poses, and wear high heels for hours on end.  Distractions from other sources and people in our shooting locations threatened my focus, and I battled with my own brain, trying to convey one thought at a time and use my skills and training as an actor to convey varied thoughts, expressions, and motivations while vacillating between moments of inspiration and fatigue.

Doubtless, my friend exercised as high a level of patience with me as hopefully I did with the only available makeup artist on short notice who seemed less than interested in taking suggestions, and after a wonderful but tiring six hundred photos taken, I have far more respect for anyone who poses for a living.  As the sweat dripped down David’s brow, I thanked God for my low blood pressure to keep me cool in the expensive gowns and for a friend willing and able to bear the pressures of long sessions in high heat.  He had some fantastic ideas for his portfolio, and I have to say I have as much excitement to see his vision for both his own growth as a photographer and mine as an artist.  More photos to come, no doubt.