From May 25 through June 6, Seattle-based dance-theater company 33 Fainting Spells will return for an artist residency to develop and perform its latest piece, Our Little Sunbeam. Co-commissioned by the Walker, the work balances the giddy optimism of the 1969 lunar landing with the despair of Anton Chekhov’s play Ivanov. In a recent e-mail interview, co-artistic director Dayna Hanson discussed their work with Diana Kim of the Walker’s Performing Arts Department.
Our Little Sunbeam draws inspiration from iconic moments in American history, various pop cultural, musical, literary, artistic, and filmic references. Why do they resonate for you, and how do they influence the work?
The timing of the space race was impeccable: In 1969, Nixon said, “We find ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth.” Through the images they brought back, the early astronauts were able to convey at least a hint of what it was like to look at Earth from space, which altered humanity’s view of itself. Chekhov’s Ivanov is full of “raucous discord”; but, in the world of the play, there is no counterpoint–not a photograph from Earth, not religion, not love. Aside from this parallel, the intensity and drama of this period of the U.S. space program make it irresistible and inexhaustible source material. As we researched, we became interested in a particular Mercury Project astronaut, Scott Carpenter, who reminded us of Ivanov in that they both have a bit of the antihero in them.
The counterbalance between the NASA recordings and the Chekhov play is a strong theme. How did you decide upon these two anchors?
The epithet “our little sunbeam” is used in the play to mark the entrance of a minor character; in a sense, Ivanov is a “minor character” within Chekhov’s body of work. And Scott Carpenter is a minor character within a very elite cadre of astronauts from a hugely celebrated project.
Could you talk about the company’s treatment of the play and how this influences the choreography?
We never wanted to present a play, but wanted to use Ivanov as a springboard for experimentation. We chose a handful of scenes that we felt caught the essence of the story and characters. We didn’t consciously decide to approach each scene differently from the others, but after a period of months noticed that we had quite an assortment of approaches: we performed an improvisation; we adapted a scene from a soap opera; we wrote music. So there’s a lot of texture in this composition. The choreography, too, represents an exaggerated range of approaches. Sometimes we are dancing as characters: sometimes the characters are dancing out abstractions of their stories, sometimes physicalizing their interpersonal dramas, sometimes just dancing.