Swan song

Dancer Martina Young celebrates milestones with opera poem

Photo/Eric Marks

To reserve seats at this week’s limited performances, reservations must be made online at APoeticBody.com.

Consider the swan. Associated with grace and beauty, it’s also thought of—thanks to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Ugly Duckling”—as that which at first is ugly but transforms into something unexpectedly beautiful. In particular, the black swan has associations with unpredictability, the unknown or the outlier. In the financial world, the black swan shows up without warning and has catastrophic impacts. It’s often seen as a harbinger of disaster, an ominous symbol or a mysterious stranger. It was once believed not to exist, that all swans were white, until the rare black swan of lore was discovered in the 16th century in Western Australia, and it shook people’s expectations and long-held beliefs.

These and other associations of the image of the black swan are at the root of dancer L. Martina Young’s newest work, Black Swans: An Opera Poem, commemorating not only Young’s 64th birthday, but also her 30th anniversary as a Nevada resident and her 18th year living and working at the Riverside Artist Lofts, where the show will take place Oct. 18 and 19. It’s the fifth installation of a body of work that Young calls her “life project,” SWAN: a poetical inquiry in dance, text & memoir.

“For me, it has its roots in the first time I saw the Bolshoi Ballet perform The Dying Swan, a very short, modern classical work,” Young recalled. “It made such a burning, indelible mark on my sense of being, because it addressed the divide between life and death. … So you could say—and I have said this to myself—the swan image has been dogging me all my life. Because from that first time seeing that work, when the Bolshoi came to the U.S. when I was 8 years old, from that point on, I have revisited it, or it has come to me more frequently, so that I could not deny making an inquiry into this image.”

Hope is the thing with feathers

Young embarked upon this inquiry five years ago, traveling the world and exploring various cultural associations with swans. When her travels took her to Italy, an audience member relayed to Young that the black swan originated in Western Australia. She travelled there earlier this year, where she finally encountered the black swan, an icon found on that region’s flag and a totem of the Nyoongar aboriginal people of Perth.

As she has spoken to people about the black swan’s connotations—both in Australia and around the world in places where people had never laid eyes on it and for whom it existed only as myth and metaphor—she found it inevitably would bring up deeply entrenched memories and strong associations with fear, pain, regret, loss and personal transformation.

“We’ve unpacked the metaphors of the black swan, each of us, to help us develop collaboratively the libretto for this opera poem,” Young explained.

The work is comprised of pieces from an array of local artists, including spoken word, music, song, visual art and, of course, dance by Young herself. Abbey Shock is a graduate of Damonte Ranch High School, where her performance as a Butoh dancer in the school’s theater production of Hiroshima: Crucible of Light introduced her to Young, who was a consultant with the production. Shock plays the role of today’s youth in Black Swans.

“The first time I watched, I think it blew my mind—the music from the saxophone player, he’s fabulous, and the stories that [the spoken word artists] have written, they blow my mind,” Shock said. “The way they’re delivered, you’d think no one could have gone through these things, and the fact that they deliver them so poignantly is very powerful. It’s almost as if [the players] are addressing the work to me. I’m the youth, the generation that will see what comes next. They’re all so different from each other and from me, and I take in what they’re saying, and learn and pass it on and grow from it.”

She says the show has prompted her to think about all she can learn from those who are older and wiser. “I worry that my generation doesn’t listen to the older generations sometimes, but they have a lot to say, so maybe we should,” she said.

The players addressing her are spoken word artists Oliver X, editor/publisher of Reno Tahoe Tonight; Martin A. David, author and former journalist with the Los Angeles Times; and Diane Rugg, a dance artist and educator. They share individual stories they have written themselves, which are drawn from somewhat painful personal memories that were called up by their associations with black swans. Their stories are real, raw and imbued with powerful emotions such as anger, shame and empathy, and have been pared down to their essence for a sparser, poetic delivery.

“Like most of us, I’ve worked with Martina for a long time,” David said. “We’ve had a personal and artistic collaboration that goes back 30 years, so a lot of these images have been discussed with me and everybody. So when it came to my part, writing a scenario, I could understand the transformation and apply a lot of the iconic, mythic parts of it to something very real—painfully real at times—from my own memory and background. And that was the assignment, more or less, that was given to us—to take our backgrounds and transform them, in terms of iconic and mythological work.”

He says the experience has been difficult, but also liberating. “I bring everything I have to this,” he said. “It affects me strongly. Sometimes even in rehearsal I have to catch my breath.”

Rugg also has found healing through the experience of sharing a shameful memory that had long been buried. “[T]he first time I read it, when I had written it in story form, I couldn’t read it. I was so emotional. So this has given me the opportunity to sit with that memory and heal it, to tell myself, ’You’re OK.’ … It’s a beautiful thing.”

David, Rugg and Oliver X also fulfill the function of a Greek-style chorus, commenting on the action and egging it on. An art installation by Nick Ramirez and musical numbers—including well-known and original pieces—by saxophonist Jammal Tarkington and vocalist Albert Lee, as well as an original dance piece by Young, round out the performances.

“We all have something to bring from very personal places, through the stories, songs and dances,” Young said. “We don’t have the black swan as a bird in front of us, but the image exists in human culture, so each of us has come to it through our own particular and personal relationships and ideas … our own personal heartbreaks that need communal healing. That’s the function, and that’s what I am moved by.”

Young says that this Reno production is only the first imagining of it. It’s been designed as a modular piece that can travel around the country and across the globe. In fact, from here, it travels to Australia, where it will be reimagined with new stories, music, vocals and dances, by both aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists.