Big themes from Big Dance in new work, "17c"

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NORTH ADAMS — There's a bit of a "ripped from the headlines" vibe to "17c," Big Dance Theater's new work based on the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Since the Harvey Weinstein news, as each new day brings new accusations against another man abusing his position to sexually harass women, it feels like we're yet again facing up to an eternal problem.

"Audiences who don't understand how long it takes to make a work might think we just generated this material around that because it so mirrors that predatory nature," said choreographer and director Annie-B Parson, the co-artistic director of Big Dance Theater. "However a) we've been working on this piece for three years, and b) this behavior has been going on certainly before Pepys, which was 350 years ago."

"17c" is an ensemble work of dance, song and text that takes a feminist approach to Pepys' abundantly self-documented yet insufficiently self-examined behavior — especially toward women. It is the latest work from Big Dance Theater, a New York company founded in 1991 that specializes in inventively hard-to-classify productions, often based on literary works. Saturday's performance at Mass MoCA's Hunter Center is a sneak preview ahead of the work's official premiere in North Carolina and a run of performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next month.

"They are working at the intersection of dance, theater, and music in a way very few artists are," said Pamela Tatge, director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, who saw "17c" as a work-in-progress last winter at a festival hosted by Gibney Dance in New York. Big Dance Theater appeared at the Pillow most recently in 2015, with "Alan Smithee Directed this Play: Triple Feature."

"17c" emerges from the sprawling diary of Samuel Pepys, a London civil servant who kept a daily diary from 1660 to 1669. While it is a valuable first-person account of major events — like the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Great Plague of 1665 — it is the detailed descriptions of everyday life in all its intimate and honest detail that provides a singular window into 17th century upper middle class life.

At over a million words long, it is written without the romantic or mystical flourishes of most writing that survives from the time, nor very much self-analysis. "He doesn't write as an artist, he writes as a recorder of a life," Parson said. "I think for anyone living today it really speaks aesthetically to you because of that quotidian nature of his writing, his non-hierarchical approach. He doesn't seem to privilege meeting the king over [talking about] his bowels, and he talks a lot about his bowels."

Certainly before the advent of indoor plumbing, things we take for granted would fill a major portion of one's headspace. But there's also the familiar subjects — like domestic relations and sex. For Pepys, much of that revolved around his wife, Elizabeth, who he married when she was only 14 years old. All we know about her comes from Pepys's account of their life together — although she too kept a diary, he burned it in a fit of rage during one of their fights.

Pepys describes his behavior toward her and the other women in his life with a casual callousness of a deeply patriarchal society. He duly notes in his diary the time he gave Elizabeth a black eye during an argument (Dec. 19, 1664), and his shame that all his household servants knew about it. He describes the day his wife caught him in the middle of a sexual encounter with Deb Willets, a teenager he had hired as a companion for his wife (on Oct. 25, 1668. "I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girlie also, and I endeavored to put it off, but wife was struck mute and grew angry"). He describes an effort to grope a "pretty, modest maid" while listening to a sermon in church (on Aug. 18, 1664. "I did labor to take [her] by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again").

Much of the performance deals with Pepys' domestic life, told through its ensemble cast playing some of the characters that fill his diary, along with a sort of chorus of 20th century internet commentators who have annotated an online version of the diary. Among the stories that are woven through include when Samuel hires a "dancing master" to teach Elizabeth, but fires him when he becomes jealous of their relationship.

Parson described the diary as one of those books that she always seemed to have lying around, one you don't read cover to cover, but dip into and out of every now and then. While Big Dance Theater has specialized in making works out of classic literature — running from Euripides to Chekhov — she never considered Pepys for treatment until a few years ago. It came up while noting to her husband that both she and Pepys share a dislike of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."               

At first she explored his understanding of culture and how this relatively well-off young man paid so much attention to culture — not just attending the theater, but taking singing, music, and dancing lessons. It is a much different understanding of what makes a cultured person, based not just on recreation choice, but as a way of life.                                                                                          

"Now, if you are an upper-crust person and you dance well, who even knows about it? Who cares?" she said.                                                                                                                                                 

It shows in his intense passion for theater, which he treats as a sort of vice. He had come of age in a puritanical time — when theater was banned and had only recently reappeared. Pepys saw a lot of plays and had a lot of opinions about what he saw.                                                                      

Parson said she tracked down a lot of those plays, all written by men, and was unimpressed. But she thought she found an interesting take when she came upon "The Convent of Pleasure" by Margaret Cavendish, which Pepys read around that time and summarily dismissed. But Parson said the work, called a "closet play" because it couldn't be produced, is an interesting challenge to Pepys' world view. She described it as, in fact, a radical feminist play, about a wealthy woman who decides she doesn't need to marry because why bother, and creates an island utopia only for women. Parts of the play are included as a "play within a play" in "17c."                                                                                

Parson notes that history has taken a benign view of Pepys, becoming a kind of literary icon whose image appears on key chains sold at souvenir stands in London, even though the reality, as told in his own words, is far more difficult. "The theater that works for me is when I feel confused about how to feel about someone because they are complicated," she said.                                                            

She also wanted to unbury Elizabeth and Margaret Cavendish, and look at "how we experience history, and what it is to write about the self and how we look back at that self over hundreds of years," Parson said. "It is also about who gets to talk about it, who gets to write about it, and whose diary is burned and who gets put on a key chain."


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