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My answer, written in January but as yet unpublished, seems all the more poignant to me as we prepare for our upcoming, much grander, longer (less than an hour), and far more ambitious performance this coming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

Times in my life quite like the present don’t present themselves terribly often. Never before have I had so many varied jobs and gigs at once. Within the coming month, I rehearse and perform an intensely musical puppet play, prepare and perform April in Paris (my French-themed recital featuring Eugene Sirotkine and Benjamin C.S. Boyle), rehearse new music written by Sarah Small for our Tableau Vivant and a music video, and begin rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera to revive our production of Orfeo ed Euridice with Mark Morris.

Meanwhile, because many of these gigs still leave me mostly unemployed, I’ve taken a side job or two in art modeling, in focus groups, and with the charity auction ibidmobile team mentioned in last week’s post. With little money and only two fully open spaces on my calendar between now and April 25, every second, penny, and friendly face feels almost painfully precious. Given the recent news of earthquakes, tsunamis, radiation leaks, and explosions, all from one unexpected event, perhaps I ought to continue this attitude throughout and beyond each of my busy days.

Last evening, I had the chance to earn a little money again with ibidmobile, a somewhat tiring but important job helping to facilitate silent auctions for charities. Five hours on my feet with an ipad, talking over music and hundreds of guests? Not a situation I generally would seek out as a singer who needs to rehearse in the morning. I could have grumbled about at least a handful or two of things, as any work provides such an obviously tempting atmosphere for complaints. I may have even heard one or two from other employees in passing.

Instead of joining in, something came over me tonight in a very exciting way that required no alcohol whatsoever, and I hope to take it from last night into each of my every endeavors this month. No, at last evening’s Nightingale-Bamford School charity event, I chatted with friends about fun auction items near NCG 1350 and the Andromeda Galaxy at the American Museum of Natural History while waiting for the guests to arrive. I helped at least a few people win their coveted experiences, wines, and lunches, ran into a friend who works at the school, and met a drummer interested in hearing me sing for his world music group. When for a brief moment signal interference paused the auction, we danced with incredibly fun and generous guests under the blue whale. At the end of definitely my favorite of these events thus far, a great girls’ school had raised a very significant amount of money for tuition and scholarships.

Tomorrow brings more recital rehearsal and an evening of running from a puppet with a club. I hope you’ll join me here and in person for the rest!

Soon = Wolfy’s Journey DVD Release
March 31 – April 10 = Don Cristóbal
April 16 = April in Paris, A Recital with Abigail Wright and Eugene Sirotkine/
(April 17 = Private Music Video Filming with Sarah Small)
(April 23 = High Fall Stunt Class)
April 29-May 14 = Orfeo ed Euridice
May 23, 24 TBA = Tableau Vivant at Skylight One Hanson
(June TBA = Skydiving trip #2 – join us!)
July 29-August 7 = Das Liebe der Danae