BWW Interview: FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES' Laura Karlin's Taking A Bite Out Of The Proverbial Apple
Invertigo Dance Theatre's FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES will world premiere at The Broad Stage September 13th and 14th, before going on tour beginning of next year. FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES re-imagines the life of mathematical genius and WWII codebreaker Alan Turing in a mash-up with the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I had the opportunity to delve into the creative mind of Invertigo Dance Theatre's Founding Artistic Director Laura Karlin, the originator/co-creator of this piece.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Laura!
You founded Invertigo in 2007. That's about the same time you first heard Janna Levin speak on NPR about her Alan Turing book A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Would you say the gestation period for FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES began in 2007? Or much later, with other ideas taking precedence?
The flash of inspiration for creating a show came with hearing Janna Levin speak about Turing's connection with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is less well-known. The imagery of a duet with two men holding an apple between their mouths immediately came into my mind. The rest of it was more conceptual, more dreamy. I wanted to make this show, but I waited for a long time until I felt brave enough to take it on. I think I also waited until Invertigo developed into a company with the infrastructure to support the scope of the project. I'm so proud of the caliber of artists involved with this show.
How and when did you first learn of Alan Turing in your youth. Were you studying history? Or...?
I grew up knowing who Alan Turing was, as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Mine was a British home with a math genius dad in it, so it was unavoidable! I don't remember the first time I learned a fuller version of his story, especially about his persecution for homosexuality - that came later, probably in college. My honors thesis in college was Choreography & Production, and my second thesis was a pre-law degree in Queer Rights and Social Movements. (There was a vague plan in there somewhere to go to law school and be a civil rights attorney... but I founded a dance company instead!) In studying the histories of queer activism, I came across the Labouchere Amendment of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which is the law that criminalized homosexuality in Great Britain. It was under that law that both Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, amongst many, many others were prosecuted.
Since deciding to work on this show, I've read a few biographies of Turing and quite a bit about his work. I also visited Bletchley Park where he worked during WWII, and spoke with their research historian David Kenyon. A very kind and brilliant friend named Ezra Cooper has helped me with understanding some of the computer science principles.
I do want to note that it was important to me that we not to fall into the "tragic queer trope" with Turing's persecution and death. I was interested in exploring beyond that - finding reclamation, and even joy and humor in this subject matter. While he was certainly an odd, idiosyncratic personality, Turing was also known by his friends to be quite funny. He had a whimsical sense of humor. I wanted that to be reflected in the work as well. So while we honor the tragedy of his story and the awful way he was treated by the very nation he helped to save; we also ask questions like, "Can binary code be funny?" We play with ideas around artificial intelligence.
You must have seen the Disney cartoon Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs? The witch scared me. Any particular elements of the movie affected you?
I remember the forest scene - when Snow White is running through the forest and feeling overwhelmed by the frightening trees. This actually became a section of FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES - that feeling of being lost in the woods, whether it's a fairy tale forest or an emotional state of being.
I also remember thinking the queen's transformation into the witch was fascinating. As a child, I was afraid of her, but now I think, "What power! She transformed herself." Looking back, I realize how afraid we were made to feel of powerful, femme people.
I never knew about the correlation between Snow White's red apple and Alan Turing's death by a cyanide-laced apple. Truth is stranger than fiction. You or Jana Levin didn't have to make up any of this section, just elaborate on it. And what a juicy bit of fact to play with, right?
The apple certainly lends itself to the poetic imagination. There are so many threads of mythology around the apple: Eve, Snow White, Alan Turing were all punished for a longing, for love, for knowledge, for a bite of apple. The apple becomes forbidden love, which ties in with Turing's persecution. It becomes forbidden knowledge, which links to Eve's expulsion from Eden, and with Turing's work during WWII to crack the Enigma Code.
It was important to me to give Snow White a voice and a moment in the show. I didn't want her to exist solely to complement Turing's story, which is the way of it for many femme characters. She gets her own moment to reclaim her narrative. In this show, she and Eve kiss each other awake, fall in love, and rescue each other. In this case, the apple is reclamation.
I think about our relationship with symbols - femme archetypes, fairy tales, numbers and mathematics, computer codes, the apple, even the body itself - they can all mean so much to so many people. Those meanings carry different weights for different audience members. My hope is that everyone feels welcomed to the piece, regardless of their starting point. There is no right or wrong way to interpret the symbols onstage.
For me, there is something about the moment before the bite - that moment is so full of possibility. Life flashes before the eyes, and a choice is made. Nothing will ever be the same.
What sparked the current incarnation of FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES?
I was at a creative and professional crossroads. I had wrapped a huge Invertigo project, and experienced a deep personal loss within a couple months of each other. This project had been welling up for a long time, and it felt like a moment either to step off the edge or to put it away forever. I was lucky to have [our former Executive Director] Tara Aesquivel and [our Touring Director] Leslie Scott, who encouraged me to go for it. Very few artists can accomplish what we do without the voices around us who encourage us to dream bigger and push further.
I see choreography credits listed as yourself, with Cody Brunelle-Potter, Hyosun Choi, William Clayton, Jessica Dunn, Adrian Hoffman, Isaac Huerta, Spencer Jensen, Corina Kinnear, Dominique McDougal, Shane Raiford and Luke Dakota Zender. How did the choreography come about? Did you lead with movement ideas and the others contribute?
I am listed as the creator and director of the show, and while I did contribute movement, so did all of the dancers who have worked on the piece over the years. I work in a deeply collaborative way. It's important to me that dancers are credited for their creative contributions, especially because I don't see that happen often enough. The Invertigo dancers are generous, generative, brilliant collaborators, and I want the world to know it!
Often, I will come in with a raw idea, a scenario or a set of questions, and we will all explore from there. We generate movement, and then I do a lot of shaping and directing. We're all in constant conversation and examination.
Since FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES is based on Jana Levin's book, the music (by Toby Karlin, Eric Mason and Julia Kent) must have come after, right? Did you have a hand in the soundtrack?
The sound design is created from various original compositions by Toby, Julia, and Eric (different tracks, they didn't work together), and other pieces of pre-existing music, as well as sound designs that I put together. I created the show's soundscape from these elements according to where the show's story was going.
I love working with new music, and there's also a delight in something that is familiar or recognizable. I will say that each of the three composers that created individual tracks for the piece is brilliant. Julia Kent creates rich tapestries of evocative cello, with a lushness and an intricacy that sweep dancers through the landscape. Eric Mason understands the language of dance in a magnificent way (and is married to one of my favorite choreographers, so that makes sense) and has an instinctive sense of what score will resonate within a dancer's body. Toby Karlin is a longtime collaborator (and my brother!) who plays one million instruments, and composes intriguing and beautiful tracks with both intelligence and intuition.
I want to also mention Nebulo, whose track was not composed specifically for this show, but who is a longtime favorite of mine, and who is a wonderful electronic artist.
How did you go about having FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES considered and ultimately being selected for a New England Foundation for the Arts' National Dance Project grant?
NEFA is an incredible organization. Receiving an NDP award has been truly transformative. We applied once and were rejected. Then we did a creation intensive in 2017 to sketch out some ideas of the show. That allowed me to refine my thoughts about the piece, as well as, create some work samples that showed a clear vision. The brilliant staff of Invertigo were crucial elements of success in receiving and then executing this grant.
You'll be touring FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES beginning in February 2020. Do you already have your cities and venues scheduled?
We will be heading to University of Florida in February 2020, and beyond that, I need a few more crossed T's and dotted I's before I share some exciting news! Stay tuned!
Will you be travelling with your dancers? Or will you hand over the reins to one of your co-choreographers?
I will be on maternity leave during our first tour stop, but our amazing production team is in place. I may get on a plane last minute - who knows!
Is Invertigo open to new members? Next auditions?
No auditions on the horizon, but Facebook, Instagram and our email list are great ways to keep on top of that.
What do you look for in infusing Invertigo with new talents?
I look for generosity of spirit, professionalism, a fierce commitment to artistry, curiosity, and thoughtfulness.
Was your choreography for FORMULAE & FAIRY TALES set at any specific point in time? Or do you allow tweaks for different performances?
I am always questioning, always pushing. It's rare that I look at something as complete. There's a balance in feeling satisfied with the work that has been done, and a relentless drive to knock it all down and start again.
Thank you again, Laura! I look forward to experiencing your choreographic take on Alan Turing and Snow White.
Thank you! It's a humbling, beautiful experience to be sharing this work, especially at a venue as gorgeous as The Broad Stage. I hope it inspires conversation, sparks change, and invites people into different worlds with us.
For ticket availability on Sept. 13th and 14th at The Broad, log onto www.thebroadstage.org
For cities and dates of Invertigo's upcoming tour, log onto invertigodance.org