Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2006
The great mystery of life can be summed up in the words Absence and Presence. I have been witness now to both birth and death, and I can tell you that the puzzler in both cases is where that life came from or went to. One minute there are four people in a room, and then there are five, or three. How does this happen? No one knows.
So the title of Andrew Dawson’s award winning theatre/dance piece could be translated Death and Life since he created it as a tribute to his father on the 20th anniversary of his death, but Dawson has chosen the more accurate words since his piece deals not just with the physical absence and presence of life, but the mystery of how people can lie in the same bed together and be absent from one another’s lives, or sleep hundreds of miles apart and still be very much present. Even death does not remove a loved from our lives. The deceased remain present to us in a myriad of ways tangible and intangible.
Dawson had absented himself from his father’s presence long before his death in 1985. He had emigrated to America, but he and his father had also grow apart in many other ways. Dawson presents his father, a letter carrier in Britain, as a lonely widower who finds little pleasure in life. His father never understood his son’s career in the performing arts. Nor, I imagine, did Dawson understand his father’s ability to live without art and creativity in his life.
So even when both were present on this mortal coil, they were absent from one another. And yet Dawson still keenly feels his father’s presence two decades after his death. Dawson was absent then too. In fact everyone was. The elder Dawson’s body lay undiscovered for ten days. A body absent of its presence, an unnecessary shell discarded but not disposed of.
In Absence and Presence Dawson uses his extraordinary skill as a mime and dancer, (He studied Dance with Merce Cunningham in New York and Theatre in London and Paris with Desmond Jones, Philippe Gaulier, Monika Pagneux and Jacques Lecoq), as well as remarkable manipulations of light and sound, to evoke his father’s presence once more. He physically morphs into a version of his father, using a pair of eyeglasses and a pipe along with his malleable body to make the change. On a television screen we watch and listen to a video of a man, presumably Dawson, visible from the nose down, as he sucks on his pipe and reads excerpts from the father’s letters to his son. In one of the few live spoken passages in the show Dawson stands center stage and reads from his father’s letters as well. Most of the passages depict a severely depressed and lonely man whose appetite for food and for life are dwindling rapidly, but there is an occasional burst of humor.
But most of Absence and Presence is unspoken – a tale told through movement, light and an effect recorded musical score by Joby Talbot. The original lighting design was created by Dawson, along with the chicken wire sculpture of a seated man that keeps him company throughout the show. (At MoCA the lighting was executed by Steven Smith.) Unlike some works in this genre that I have seen, there were very few moments in “Absence and Presence” which felt inscrutable to me. Dawson has the ability to communicate very clearly without words.
I am having trouble finding words to describe how Dawson used space. The word "carved" is too predictable and too violent, "manipulated" is too soft, "constructed" is too workmanlike. He performed on the floor, rather than on the stage, at the Hunter Center, mostly inside a rectangle proscribed by a border of bright, white light. The audience was seated on bleachers on one side of that space, and so in that sense this was a traditional, fourth wall piece. It had to be because Dawson was at all times completely in control of what was seen. Alone on the stage he was master of all – movement, sound, light, shadow. Perhaps the word I am seeking is "conducted." Dawson conducted the space the way Seiji Ozawa conducts a piece of music, coaxing it gently and lyrically in a harmonious flow from movement to movement.
Two of my favorite pieces in the show were the amazing sequence depicting a man swimming after a lost ring as it drifts down through the water, and the sequence where Dawson’s father comes to see him perform, and then leaves. The former was just a brilliant masterpiece of movement. You clearly saw the ring fall, break the surface of the water, and begin its languid descent. Then the man went in (I swear I saw Dawson’s hair flow as if underwater during this sequence, although, of course, that was impossible) and swim down, down, down after it. Looking desperately, coming up gasping for air, going down again. Swimming, swimming, his strokes depicted both life-size and in miniature with just Dawson’s fingers telling the story. I was absolutely mesmerized.
The scene in the theatre, in which Dawson managed to play his father and himself in several different roles on stage, was charming in its desperation to please, the balloon of frenetic effort punctured sharply by the realization that the father was gone. Absent.
There was also a delightful tap dance number, choreographed by Wendy Shkreli, which accompanied an old-fashioned, up-beat number depicted as emanating from an old time radio set.
The chicken wire figure, painted white, had an amazing ghostly quality. In the sequence where Dawson interacted directly with the figure, lifting and carrying it in various postures around the stage, he managed to make it seem both lighter than air, ready to flay away off of his fingertips like a helium balloon, and as heavy as the unbearable sorrow of losing a parent. In an earlier sequence, without touching the figure, he had manipulated a bare lightbulb to throw shadows from varying sizes and textures on the white backdrop. Sometimes this ghost of his father was seen to loom large as an almost solid form above him, and at other times it appeared small and transparent, like a spirit glimpsed dimly in a dream.
I went to see Absence and Presence with some trepidation. My parents are now both gone, and I was with my father at his death. I was concerned that I would find this piece, powerful enough to win the Total Theatre, Herald Angel, and The Carol Tambor awards during the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, painful to watch. I needn’t have worried. Dawson’s tribute is very specifically for and about him and his father. My experience may have enabled me to get more out of Dawson’s performance, but he never trespassed into my own sense of loss.
Having the opportunity to watch a performer of Dawson’s caliber was a tremendous experience, and one I am happy to say was well attended. MASS MoCA does our community a great service by bringing this type of high-quality avant garde theatre to northern Berkshire County. How I wish there was more than one performance so those of you who weren't there on December 2 could rush right out and buy tickets.
Go to the Absence and Presence's Web site for more information about the piece and future performances of the show. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006