Erica Saben's "Inside' at Fringe Festival

4 minute read
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A few moments of entrapment with Erica Saben


It was said of Rachmaninoff that just by his bowing to the audience, even before he sat at the piano to play, you knew you were in the presence of greatness. In my 20s and 30s I encountered in a Japanese monastery a Zen monk whose yawns, whose way of brushing his teeth, whose mopping the temple floors, whose simple acts of sitting were more beautiful than any painting or dance I have yet seen. This monk haunts me, even as I write this. For I’ve confirmed over the years what I sensed repeatedly then: that an infinite multiplication of my own acts wouldn’t contain the splendor so evident in any one act of his, and that this paradox went to the heart of Zen.

I suppose in dance I search for that absent splendor. Which brings me to Erica Saben.

Because of my seat, I may have been the only person in the Arts Bank Theater able to see, in the wings at the far edge of the stage, a slowly moving pair of hands— Erica Saben’s, I now know. The fingers of these hands were warming up in the 30 seconds before their owner would appear. I had been to another performance two nights earlier, and nothing –– not one of its movements, nor the sum of its movements–– equaled, in depth, in meaning, in the power of its disclosure, what Ms. Saben achieved with her hands even before she’d begun.

The visible establishes the invisible

Onstage she is seated on her shins, Japanese style, on a plush upholstered footrest. She is completely still. But from the first instant, prior to any gesture, she discloses to the audience, through the demonic negation in her eyes, her “Inside,” the title of her piece. Through something visible–– her body–– she establishes at the outset something invisible: her interiority. This interiority has a voltage; it is charged, in her case, with psychic danger. This seems to me the key to how her body, without having yet moved, nevertheless is alive in a way none of the bodies I saw two nights earlier were alive.

Once that interiority is generated, Saben creates with the most minimal movements her total entrapment. It is crucial that all this is revealed before she moves, for it locates her suffering prior to her actions. It is her being that is infected, not simply her doing, and this removes all possibility of escape through action.

Saben reveals this condition almost exclusively through her eyes and the minimal movements of her hands. That she is squatting on her legs and consequently deprived of movement is therefore not the primary cause of her immobility. Were she to rise and walk off, there would still be no escape, as in Cavafy’s line in his poem The City: “As you’ve ruined your life here in this one corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.”

Sucked deeper into the footrest

Saben reaffirms this notion in the closing minute: She tries to attain release by sliding her legs out from under her, but the effort is futile. Her hips and upper torso are pulled deeper and ever deeper into the soft footrest, as if despair were gravity. The impression was that had she the stage technology to do so, she would have been pulled into the footrest until she disappeared.

For a body to call forth such charged invisibility seems to me a tremendous artistic achievement. But it may be that a dancer, to be great, must achieve it— for without that quality, movement is perhaps dead.

The electric air around him

To the artist, the invisible need not be interior. What made the monk I mentioned so remarkable was his ability to electrify the air surrounding him. The space outside him and within him seemed unified. Its invisibility, somehow engendered by him, was greater than him. The power of the cosmos poured through him, shooting him full of vibrancy even as he brushed his teeth.

I used to trail behind this monk like an amazed five-year-old, trying to comprehend how gestures so trivial could seem to encompass the meaning of life. If he felt my presence he would turn and look at me as if I were nuts. But he needn’t have turned. Just watching him was sufficient to feel, as Rilke did before the headless statue of Apollo, which “from all the borders of itself, burst like a star” ––

here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

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