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Digression: A Dance Writer Looks at Whitman Undressed

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty
and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none
shall be less familiar than the rest.

Jeremy Bloom follows Walt Whitman’s declaration literally. His “Leaves of Grass,” a nude staging of “Song of Myself,” received an invite-only viewing at the Cell Theater in May, with future engagements for the public to be announced. 

It would be a stretch—O.K., a lie—to call this production “dance”. There’s no choreography credit, no dance explicit in the director’s background, and no attempt to market itself as terpsichorean. As someone who’s rarely in a theater unless there’s dance involved (full disclosure: I don’t read a lot of poetry, either), I hardly feel qualified to comment broadly on the show. But bodies are my way in.

(I am large. I contain multitudes.)

Whitman, Bloom, and I are all focusing, in some way, on the self as a physical entity. Instead of feeling oppressed by the body’s boundaries, Whitman celebrates the infinity of life. His body is grounded yet encompasses the universe. In response, Bloom multiplies the speakers: 25 bare figures: young and old, male and female, large and small, dark and light. Each different than the others, they create a mosaic parallel to the diversity Whitman describes.

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death

The physical imagery of the show lingers with me. Section six, with its inquiring child and references to mothers’ laps, becomes explicitly maternal. Four women deliver the verse with cupped, upward-reaching arms and sky-turned gazes. They cross the stage with purpose. Viewed profile, this posture brings their curves into higher relief. They are earthly and divine, creating life and connecting souls across generations, just as grass grows over tombs.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars

Bloom makes good use of the Cell’s unique properties. The door to the courtyard is open, providing a convenient stage entrance and a literal window to the broader world. Whitman collapses the within and without; Bloom accomplishes something of the same. Most effectively, he places Micah Stanek in this doorway, back to audience, looking out. Sometimes Stanek turns to speak to us, but mostly he is still. Quietly absorbing the great beyond, then endeavoring to communicate it to us, he inhabits a poet’s stance. (Stanek uses crutches during the bow, indicating that his staging may be practical. Still, I think it’s perfect.)

The balcony—wider yet shallower than the floor beneath—is used as a second stage, verticalizing the space. The two realms are connected by a visible stairwell and objects passed or dropped between the levels. Some of the most interesting images occur on high. As one speaks of the impossibility of knowing God, actors on the balcony touch fingers like Adam and the Father on the Sistine Chapel. Atley Loughridge, reciting “And as to you corpse, I think you are good manure,/ but that does not offend me,” leans slowly backward over the railing. Her spread legs braced, breasts to the sky and long hair spilling down, she looks boldly at the audience, dismissing the death-as-profane.

Like the text, this show not only extends its outer boundaries, it also explores its crannies. Actors enter from a closet. They make music by slapping their flesh. They exist behind curtains and under veils. They blow bubbles into spherical bowls of milk. They explore inner space.

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of
my own body, or any part of it

For all Bloom’s inspired choices, there are some shortcomings. The clothed pianist takes me completely out of the work, and bolder lighting would draw me deeper into it. Most frustrating, though, was all the slow, trance-like motion. My dance bias is evident here, but this is unnatural. As if set to default poetry-reading mode, the performers appear to revere Whitman’s greatness but miss his effervescent intention. I concede, it’s terribly unnerving to take your clothes off for an audience, and—as I keep reminding myself—this isn’t dance. Still, I want them to loosen up, get gestural with me, and find power instead of fatigue in their held poses. The size of the cast alone cannot convey Whitman’s grandiosity; individual bodies must participate. Veteran actor Doug Barron is extraordinary here. He moves as if building to the punch line of a great joke: easy yet passionate, fully in the now of his speech. When more of the actors absorb this approach, the show will come into its own.

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,
they are not original with me

Whitman’s poem contrasts the timeless with the specific, and insists they are the same. Yet his images of blacksmiths, coon-seekers, and opium eaters have lost their immediacy, seeming exotic or quaint. Bloom’s naked bodies help us transcend this gap of history by reducing contemporary markers. Even uncovered bodies retain culture’s stamp, however. The particular diversity of the cast, with their tattoos and grooming habits, root the show in the present, inviting us to fly with them through time and space, carried by Whitman’s words.


Mary Love Hodges


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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