“This work does what ART can and must do, and continues to do throughout the ages: question, demand, remind, and elevate our senses to the breadth and depth of our humanity — using a language OF the sens-es through the poetic image. BLACK SWANS, an opera poem” - L. Martina Young Creator-Director
white middle aged woman of Irish descent recalls when she and her African American friend got caught in the contagion of rage, then sorrow, as she is brought to the brink of saying the unsayable . . .
first-generation American, octogenarian, of Ashkenazi Jewish lineage, discovers his Jewish identity as a small boy watching newsreels of the Holocaust . . .
a mocha-hued busker of African and native American heritage notices one of his regulars hasn't come around in a while; then he learns of his fate on the national news...
a brown-skinned dancer does not interpret the stories; she is the product and the possibility these American stories tell . . .
the Children, the Watchers — are Keepers of the Dream
The hyper-fertility of L. Martina Young's creative expressions of mind and movement become animate, resonant entities of art. The dancer-artist-scholar describes her latest performance piece, Black Swans, an opera poem as “an international community and collaborative project. Multidimensional and interdiscipli-nary in scope, this performance installation weaves personal and cultural heritage stories inspired by the significance of the black swan. Aesthetically, Black Swans integrates the visual expansiveness of an opera with the intimacy and depth found in the poem form.”
The integrative and interpretive genius of Young, in part, lies in the means and manner of her amalgama-tions, drawing intention, meaning and inspiration from seemingly disparate utterances, influences and my-thologies.
“This thought from Hermann Hesse is critical to the heart of the matter of Black Swans and the entire Swans Project that I have been doing for a number of years,” states Young.
“We are nature and every fledgling and blossom, every bird and melting rose, is a metaphor and symbol that addresses us, that tries to reach us and teach us this fundamental truth of life: We are this eternal exchange; we are these infinite transformations.”
Notes Young, “A close reading of this, one is able to fully grasp the content and the reason for the content being in the artwork that we are doing in Black Swans, an opera poem. And it speaks, most specifically, to the contemporaneity of all of the stories, the sounds and the images that are brought forth in Black Swans, an opera poem. That eternal exchange and that our stories are our stories across culture, across time. It is a fundamental truth of living a life. Every human, whether they personally perceive they experience it in a particular way, experience the sorrows, the joys...'We hold these truths to be self-evident.'”
Combining the expressive, tonal and textual elements of dance, Negro spirituals, call and response, jazz, opera, spoken word and story Black Swans is a compelling piece of theater, with commentary written by a talented cast of contributors (principally Young) that strikes at the core of our society's most persistent human challenges.
I was pleased to be asked to participate in the production and performance of the work, and was equally grateful for the opportunity to speak with Dr. Young in her studio about the piece, its origins, purpose and its future.
Oliver X: Quantum physicists believe that time moves in a circle. How are you dealing with time in the context of the struggle for social justice? Remarking on the subject of “progress” James Baldwin famously said, in frustration:
“What is it that you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost 60 years ago. I'm not going to live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It's taken my father's time; my mother's time; my uncle's time; my brother's and my sister's time; my nieces and my nephew's time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
L. Martina Young: OK. And let me respond by using another mythic source, not that James Baldwin is mythic—although his voice resonates across time and therefore has that mythic gravity. From J.R.R. Tol-kien's character Gandolf, “What happens in our lives is not up to us in terms of control. All we, each of us, can do is decide what and how to do our lives with the time given us.”
This requires such awakeness. We got to be woke in this time, for what necessarily must be addressed, and to bring forward all of the lives through time that live through us. But we can only know about my grand-father, your grandfather; my grandmother; your great, great grandmother, by being woke. And seeing, through each of us, the lineage. We are each, as is told at the end of the opera poem, carriers of all that went before and what is possible to come after. That is my sense of time. There is always only this very time, this moment, always. And, as the great sages of all time have told us, in that moment, in that singular present moment is eternity. So it means seeing differently, with different eyes. As an artist, as a poetic artist my entire being is an organ of perception. And it requires of me a kind of discipline. Not only that I am a dancer, and that requires its own discipline—how I live, how I eat, how I use my energy, how I organize my time life—but also that I must allow for enough space in this crowded culture to have my entirety per-ceived on so many different levels, at any given moment. I cannot live crowdedly.
Oliver X: How do you mean that?
L. Martina Young: I can't crowd myself with all that human culture puts in front of me.
Oliver X: The noise?
L. Martina Young: That's right. The chatter. And yet, I'm not immune to it. No one can be immune to it. I'm in life, we're in life. But there are choices to be made. Ways of organizing that chatter in relationship to that noise that does not consume me, so that a work like this can be born. That there's enough of a wide berth, for the birth of something of that people will walk away from and be touched by.
Oliver X: Let's talk about the birth of the swan in your life. What does the swan mean in your work as a thematic continuum since that early encounter when you were eight years old, and through your post-academic life?
L. Martina Young: Because of my academic work in depth psychology (the work of Jung, the work of James Hillman in archetypal psychology), as an artist, what often resonated through my studies, was the fact that all imagery comes with matter. In other words, what matters – what is mattering, for you. What is calling you.
The swan had been, and has been, calling me. It is at some point that we must actually pay attention in a holistic way. Turn to the image and say, 'What is it that you want of me?' So that tap on the shoulder showed up as a calling. I finally addressed the calling and thus it has opened up my interest, my joy, my journey to the swan as a complex image around which human stories have always been told. The image itself has been the conduit for particular human stories. So those particular stories have something to say about the swan throughout the human imagination, and continues to unfold and give meaning through the content of the stories themselves. What I'm continuing to address is to bring myself to closer readings of the stories in different cultures. As a whole perceiving organ, I see how individuals literally shape them-selves to the idea of the swan. They go into some kind of reverie, some kind of memory, in the telling of their swan stories.
Oliver X: Give me an example of that memory creating ignition that the swan inspires and is a catalyst for.
L. Martina Young: Yes, I'd love to share that. I was in Italy three years ago and was in an international art exhibit, where I was performing one of the swans performance installations. I met with another artist who was a part of that exhibit. She happened to be from Austria. She's a very well-known painter in Austria and throughout Europe. And we had a conversation and I asked her about the swan in Austria because clearly that's a place where swans exist...white swans. So she took a pause; she sat back in her chair and I saw her entire being become filled with telling her about how her family every Sunday morning, would go to the lake to feed the swans. She said, 'After they were fed,' and I'm watching her arm start to rise – she's in a reverie, she says 'and then they would float away as if they were in an in-between world. They were not of this world that we occupy, you and me they were in some other, beyond world.' I have that on tape and I have the image of her telling me this story. She is filled with the memory and that connection and to anoth-er world. So what that tells me is that the swan image is also a carrier of that between world. We see that in the Irish lore and all throughout the Celtic lore on the swan. For the poet Yeats, the image of the swan is the solitary journey of the soul, of each individual human soul.
Therein gives us yet another meaning of the swan; opens up through this particular telling with this Austri-an artist, and as a poetic artist, it is not about an either or, it is about an 'also.' The swan also means this and that...It's a constant opening and re imagining through the specific stories being told that the swan im-age itself evokes, at the individual level, at the cultural level, at the mythic level.
One of the meanings we have all attributed to the swan is transformation – which again, is something that Hermann Hesse talks about. These images are meant to remind us that we are these infinite transfor-mations. When we lock down our sense of identity, we are closing the door to these infinite transformation that each of us has the potential of becoming. We are always becoming. We are this and we are that. And that is the point of the stories being told in Black Swans, an opera poem. That I am interested in the possi-bility of all of us—audience and artist alike—in discovering and locating something of ourselves in one another's story. That what touches us in someone else's story, is something already in us, that we can then lay claim to and embrace. And by that embrace, expand our sense of identity.
Don't miss Black Swans, an opera poem, October 18 & 19, 2018. Tickets can be purchased at www.apoeticbody.com. The event is located at The Lighthouse/Studio 502.