Choreographer’s personal grief translates into engaging production

Advanced Beginner Group combines dance and theater to convey feelings about death and hurricanes

'I Understand Everything" incorporated classical Japanese theater effects. Image courtesy The Ringling Museum
‘I Understand Everything’ incorporated elements of classical Japanese theater. Image courtesy The Ringling Museum

The stage was cluttered. A large chandelier made of plastic bags hung over the far corner; there was a homemade floor lamp near the front edge of the stage; a video screen flickered in the background; and there was a set of drums practically hidden in a corner near shelves of old vinyl records. These were a few of the objects that could be seen in the first moments of I Understand Everything Better, a challenging dance/theater piece about death, dying and hurricanes at the Historic Asolo Theater March 11-12.

In the performance, choreographer/director David Neumann and members of the Advanced Beginner Group used a collage of sound, song, thumping drums, video, words and minimalistic gestures to convey an emotional journey between what was going on in a man’s dying, disjointed mind and the exterior effects of a hurricane’s wild wind and rain.

The Advanced Beginner Group is a performing/production co-operative whose members designed the lighting, the sets, the videos, the costumes and the text of I Understand Everything Better, but the basic concept was set in motion by the deaths of David Neumann’s parents, which coincidentally were bracketed by Hurricane Sandy’s devastating destruction of the northeastern U.S. in the fall of 2012. In structuring the work, Neumann turned to the Japanese classical theater, incorporating elements of both Noh and Kabuki as a way to bring together his personal feelings about accepting loss and the universal experience of death. His choice was an obvious one, as his parents, who were part of Mabou Mines — an experimental theater company of the 1970s — had used Japanese-influenced Bunraku puppets in their productions,

Because I was familiar with the work of Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk and other artists who looked to Asian culture, with its mix of unrelated images, as a way to expand the emotional impact of theater, I thought I was immune to the tension building up by the antics of Neumann portraying a reporter being pounded by the hurricane’s winds or jumping around in a colorful Kimono to John Gasper’s drum rolls. However, the spoken text and images reflecting the wandering travels of the dying man (“a man of great distinction”), the radio sounds and the beautiful singing of Jennifer Kidwell — together with the constant shifting among the weather reports, the hurricane’s explosiveness and the hospice workers aiding the dying man — created an unexpected emotional impact. It was so subtle and so strong that when silence suddenly replaced all the noise, I could not understand why no one put a pillow under the dying man’s head.

This was the final and, perhaps, the most controversial performance in the exciting 2015-2016 New Stages series at the Ringling Museum’s Historic Asolo Theater. In the program notes for the performance, Neumann said he does not think he understands anything better, but that loss had brought him a new perspective that he had been prompted to share in I Understand Everything Better. Nonetheless, on the stage, as the production came to a close, Neumann — in a quiet voice — said his hands were like his mother’s and his shoulders were like his father’s, implying that seeds of life continue in unexpected ways.