BWW Blog: The Remarkable Susan Dibble
Susan Dibble is a remarkable dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She has been for decades, and I had the fortune to work with and around her for some years in Massachusetts.
She is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which for her ability to enfreedom any of us to dance and move. More than that, she can make most non-dancers, like me, feel like they can dance.
But I have always admired something more structural in how she choreographs a story or show. For those of us learning dances, she teaches small sections at a time. Over days or weeks, we begin to see an arc to the sequence. But it isn't until all the dancers and story-tellers are in the room, sometimes with an audience, that we know when we are to do a certain dance. When we discover how we made up a whole, it is breath-taking. If the entire event is a human body, I discover I am a finger, for example - and just as vital to the body functioning beautifully as the four people dancing the heart, and on and on.
Susan does this quietly, and always, seemingly, knowingly. It was usually an error to ask Susan directly where the dance will fall in order in the event. She usually just smiles. So, we would learn just to enjoy learning. And, I would now add, enjoy placing trust in Susan.
Though I will never be a Susan Dibble, I have the residue of her work on me. As a director of Shakespeare, I have more of a luxury than Susan has in that I can be familiar, even intimate, with the arc of a vast play by Shakespeare before rehearsing it. Not so for choreographers of new pieces, necessarily. Still, Shakespeare's work being so deeply personal and poetic, it warrants reflection and interpretation for modernity and locality - and for new artists coming to it.
Such was the case with Tennessee Shakespeare Company's recent production of The Taming of the Shrew. For all the conversation and debate that the cast and I entered into during rehearsal, and for all the worthy debate about both the play and the production I have heard since we closed -- in classes, newspaper op-eds, from patron letters -- I did manage to keep a few things quiet about the playing of the play, including the final arc.
We were only able to do this largely because of my trust in our actors. In particular, we left open the ramifications of our 1927 white Petruchio (an aging clown actor in a traveling troupe) and black Kate (a maid in the house) walking off-stage together without returning to the induction premise. It left open the possibility of an illegal but very happy marriage of the period, and it induced debate. Kate's final speech was left almost entirely intact, with the maid who played Kate (MaConnia Chesser) reflecting on her own personal social definition mid-way through. But our Petruchio (Paul Kiernan) would never let her bow to him. He encouraged her to finish the text of the play, and she gratefully did.
I have not learned Susan Dibble's gracious, knowing smile. But I have learned to say, "let it be for a while." If we get the story clear, sometimes the audience will help us finish the question. This is what we achieved with Shrew, which is artistically one of the most satisfying feeling in live theatre.