At intervals, I become obsessed, or maybe possessed, by a live performance. Usually it's music; the creak and throb and texture of the live voice not smoothed and perfected in the studio, the way sound becomes a tactile experience, the sway or stillness, the silence or shout of the people around you. When you get down to it, being part of an audience is a collective experience we don't most of us get on a regular basis, and it can heighten the immediacy of the performance itself. Then, too, we are seeing the performer unedited and in 3-D. Even if we don't get the close-ups of TV, we see or hear things we wouldn't in the physical effort of performance.
For years my ongoing performance obsessions have been two musicians: Australian country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers, and "hardcore Americana" musician Tim Eriksen. You may gather, if you listen to them, that I have a thing for intense, stripped-raw vocals. When you see a musician perform over decades of your life, and still more when your relationship with the music and musician become deeper and more complex, music can raise the ghosts of your own past, of where and who and how you were other times you heard a song. I see ghosts, too, as well as rapturous dancing and virtuosic choreography during performances of the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Sometimes, though, a performance comes from nowhere to grab you, enchant you, tear your heart out. The mime show (no, really) I saw a couple years ago that shocked me by delighting me. And, recently, two performances a metaphorical world apart: the recent Broadway production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and figure skater Jeremy Abbott performing in Stars on Ice.
Like I said, different.
There may be no end to the glowing reviews that have been written of this production of Twelfth Night on Broadway and, before that, in London's West End and at the Globe Theatre. But the well-reviewed can be a letdown in the end and what's excellent isn't always lovable.
But lovable this production is at two levels. It's hilarious, but at different places than most productions of Twelfth Night. Rather than asking us to laugh most at the pomposity and ultimately the torment of Malvolio, Malvolio is played with soul and longing. He's still an ass, but he's not a caricature. We're allowed, encouraged even, to feel bad for him, which fixed the problem I had had the previous time I'd seen Twelfth Night, when ultimately I felt a little dirty about the parts of the Malvolio storyline that were played for laughs. In the Globe production, though, the rage that leads Maria to torment him is also made comprehensible; nothing comes out of nowhere (and if you want laughs, Paul Chahidi's Maria is a droll marvel). As much of a revelation as the shifted angle on Malvolio is, though—and to be clear, I think this read of the character should be used far and wide—ultimately I was most affected by Mark Rylance's Olivia. Rylance somehow plays Olivia for broad humor and yet simultaneously conveys her yearning and her sorrow. It is a stunning achievement. Also stunning is Samuel Barnett's performance as Viola/Cesario; he and Joseph Timms as Sebastian are made up and bewigged to be virtually identical, yet by subtle differences in stance and movement you can always tell who is supposed to be the woman in male drag and who the man.
How crazed was I (were we) by this performance? The next day, after some mooning about, we looked at each other and agreed we just had to see the production of Richard III being done in repertory with Twelfth Night. (Excellent, but not really a delight of a play, you know?) And if we hadn't seen Twelfth Night toward the end of its run, I'd have found a way to go back.
And then there's the latest performance to grab hold of me.
Exhibition and show skating may have, over the years, given rise to more cheesiness than greatness (hey, I saw the Smurfs at the Ice Capades as a kid), but now, at a time when competitive skating too often becomes a mathematical exercise in racking up points with little attention to music, performance or just pure skating, Stars on Ice and exhibitions are a chance to see skating performances that are coherent, that have an internal logic and emotional core beyond point values, that mesh fully with a song, beginning to end.
To be fair, Americans had probably the most interesting men's competitive programs this past year—namely, Jason Brown's deservedly viral Riverdance free skate and Jeremy Abbott's quirky, elegant short program, which sadly may be best remembered for the fall he took—and got up from—at the Olympics. But one of Abbott's Stars on Ice performances (naturally the one they didn't show on the television airing of the tour last weekend) is ... well, it's my current obsession.
Skating to English singer-songwriter Ben Howard's "The Fear," Abbott moves around the ice followed closely by spotlights; the rest of the ice is dark. The symbolism of the lighting isn't hard to read with the lines of the song:
I've been worryin' that my time is a little unclearBut it doesn't have to work, and it does; he's confined by the beam of the lights, but moving insistently, searching. It's also about becoming—"I will become what I deserve," the song says. It's beautiful skating-as-skating, it's dancing, it's a remarkable mesh of movement and song. It was one of those moments that catches you by surprise in its power. And you wonder if you're imagining that the rest of the crowd is as captivated as you are, until, at the moment your heart catches in your throat, people begin clapping in rhythm, not to a pounding beat or obvious urging from the performer but because the moment makes it so. Alas, for now, outside of memory or live performance, it seems only to be available in two videos shot at different shows from not particularly close up and in not very high quality. But when you've seen and been possessed by such a performance, even a crappy video comes a little bit to life as it interacts with the memory.
I've been worryin' that I'm losing the ones I hold dear
I've been worryin' that we all, live our lives, in the confines of fear
I went to Twelfth Night because I got tickets for Christmas. I went to Stars on Ice on a whim. It's a good reminder of how revelatory that whole getting-out-of-the-house thing, that being-in-a-room-with-strangers thing, can be. And when one of those strangers records such a performance, YouTube can provide a lovely—if not necessarily high-quality—reminder.