The Wasteland- An Interview with Ellyzabeth Adler
By Lauren Nelson, http://www.artofthedancechicago.wordpress.org
Lauren: What inspired “The Wasteland” dance piece?
Ellyzabeth: Well, I started reading The Wasteland when I was in undergrad. I was taking a poetry class. I was reading it, listening to it in class, analyzing it and I started thinking, “Wow! This is actually written like a Shakespearean drama. It’s in five parts.” I’ve loved poetry my whole life. Poetry is the essence of language communication and I feel dance is the essence of communication. So to me, when you use poetry and you bring it to life through movement, through dance or through spoken work, it’s just the essence of communication. It’s down to what are you are really trying to say. So as I started analyzing the poem in school, I just really fell in love with it.
Lauren: What did you love about it?
Ellyzabeth: It has all these different, beautiful layers. You bring in all these elements of spirituality and references to Catholicism, to Judaism, to Hinduism to mythology. He also brings in all these different languages to get his point across. There are these wonderful parts in it from when he went to a bar and he used to overhear peoples’ conversations. There are these little snippets inside. It’s somebody telling a story.
Then he has all these beautiful descriptions. I personally love looking at inner beauty and what I call decaying, dark beauty. He’s talking about and describing Europe and the world after World War I. All these falling towers: Vienna, Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, London. All these major cities that just fell apart through bombing in World War I. Yet he somehow finds beauty in that. He talks about seeing these beautiful chapels and churches that were half destroyed, but they are still beautiful because a stained glass window might still be standing amongst the rubble. It starts with:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
He says April is the cruelest month because it is springtime. It’s supposed to be hopeful. What happens if you still feel sadness? Whereas wintertime, like this winter we’re in right now, we can all be grumpy, miserable. In the springtime we’re supposed to be happy. What if we’re not? His poem goes through all these ebbs and flows. In the end, he’s really talking about hope and humanity. And if we find connection with each other, then our society can continue.
He wrote this after World War I, after he’d gone through depression himself, seen his wife go through depression and other anxiety issues. But he says that there is still hope. He ends with the Sanskrit: “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih,” which means passing peace. Peace passed to me, peace given to you. And I just think it’s such a beautiful poem.
In grad school, I went to grad school at UIC. I had to do a directing and movement project and I fell upon The Wasteland again. I did the very first section which is the burial of the dead. I adapted it for three people. I did it for this class project and everybody just loved it, they just thought, “Wow! It’s different, it’s amazing.”
So two years later, in 2001, I really wanted to do something longer than ten minutes, which is what I had been doing for festivals. I was working in a dance studio at the time and the owner said, “Why don’t you do the piece here? We have the space.” So I did an adaptation of it and it was, gosh, over months that it took to work on it. I did it with a cast of four and we found all the different voices in there. There’s a part about Tiresias who is half man, half woman. It comes from mythology. And I have two men and two women in it. The four characters, even though they are all individuals, they are all alike at the same time. So we mirror each other with different characteristics. And what that means is that we are all in humanity a collective soul. And that we need to work together and share in each other’s experiences. But when we are separated in this wasteland, and gridlocked in our own fears, then we disconnect. That is when we fall apart. Which is what happened in World War I and World War II. One of the last parts of the poem is, “We think of the key, each in his prison. Thinking of the key.” And what that last little section is talking about is how we are all locked in our own little rooms. The key is humanity- that love, hope. That’s what turns the key to finding our own higher sense of enlightenment. So that is where the inspirations come from.
Lauren: What do you think the wasteland is?
Ellyzabeth: I think the wasteland is desolation. Any time you have loss of hope. The wasteland is any time you find something is just without hope and without love. Sometimes, you might say, that’s just because everything falls apart. But sometimes things need to fall apart with our lives, our community structures, or whatever, to rebuild them.
From an emotional point of view, sometimes the wasteland is we get hurt by people or things happen and we don’t want to connect anymore. And that becomes a sense of loss of hope. And then you’re stuck in the wasteland, in negativity. But when you can start to connect with human beings and look at the beauty of humanity and understand that life, like everything, has a cycle. And one of the big visual themes of The Wasteland is the wheel. It comes up in a couple different parts, like a tarot card reading. Phlebas the Phoenician who’s a sailor says, “Oh you who turn the wheel and look to windward, consider Phlebas who was once as tall as you. “ What the wheel is is the wheel of life. A constant turning around. And so, life constantly is repeating itself. And we all are a part of the circle.
Lauren: What do you want the audience to come away with from this piece?
Ellyzabeth: I think there’s a couple of different levels on that one. One level is the artistic level of the poem. And the historical point. It’s a hundred years since World War I and that’s a long time. One of the reasons Elliot wrote the poem is so we won’t forget history. Because the moment we forget history, we forget our past, we don’t know where we are going. If you don’t have something to build off of, you don’t know where you are going.
I think also, from an artistic point of view, the poem is so rich. People for years have been trying to understand, “What does this poem mean?” So you have a cast of four bringing this poem to life, explaining the various parts of it. Because with it being poetry, which is the essence of language, it isn’t fully written sentences. There are couplets. Here we’re talking about this, here we’re talking about that. We try to bring it all together.
I think from an emotional point of view, a feelings point of view, a visceral point of view, what I want the audience to take away is a sense of hope- that just because there is despair in the wasteland doesn’t mean that there isn’t still beauty, isn’t still hope.
Lauren: What does hope mean to you?
Ellyzabeth: Hope is knowing that you can get through things. It is knowing that there are times of struggle, that you can use that time as something to learn from. A time friends or family step up to say, “I’ve got you. I support your decision. I’m here to help you.” That, to me, is a sense of hope. Trying to find a moment of growth. Because so many times we, as human beings, get stuck in complaisance. Things start to fall apart and we fight so hard to keep it the same way. But maybe things fall apart because it’s not supposed to be that way. And it’s a challenge for us to work through something.
Lauren: What is different doing the piece this time?
Ellyzabeth: Besides myself having wisdom and knowledge and a whole heck of a lot more of artistic experiences and personal life experiences, I think those things are really big.
Lauren: How do those affect it?
Ellyzabeth: I look at the poem differently, a little bit. There’s things in The Wasteland that I didn’t- I don’t want to say I didn’t catch it the first time- but I understand it more. I understand what it’s like to have your husband have an affair. I understand the feeling of isolation a little bit more. Those things are different.
With my artistic experience, learning to create more movement. Also just really coming and defining what dance theater is. This piece really simultaneously blends together acting, physical theater and dance.
Lauren: What is dance theater?
Ellyzabeth: That’s a good question. Rudolph Van Laban who started and really coined the term dance theater said dance theater is uniting of all art media to create a radical change in human kind. So that’s what dance theater is to me. So what that means is, we are a multi-disciplinary arts performance ensemble. What’s really great about the performance we do is sometimes it’s the perfect blend of all the different art forms. Sometimes our work might have more acting in response to some visual art, and I think that’s the really great thing about the style and work we do. We don’t limit ourselves as long as it’s mixing the different mediums together. Our slogan is “Performance with a purpose.” Because we want people to come in and see our work and to take away something. We don’t want to give answers to people, we just want people to have questions. Because in the Socratic method of teaching, you teach your students by asking questions and having them find the answers. So whether it’s our arts education programs or performance work, that’s how we teach. That’s how we create change. People need to ask themselves questions. And only by them finding their own answers can they evolve to the next level of their humanity.
Lauren: Is there a purpose beyond the questions for you, beyond this production of The Wasteland?
Ellyzabeth: I think about our body of work and what we do and it has various themes to it. Whether it’s a piece about women and body issues. It’s, “Where did this come from?” Our next piece we’re doing is unraveling veterans which is about, “What’s going on with these veterans when they come home? How did what they experience while they were fighting affect them? And how has it changed them?” And it’s about creating empathy. Because I feel that when people see something on stage, they can empathize with people. So when you have a question in your head- “How does this affect me? I’m not sure how or why.” - you can empathize with people. And I think one of the big things that our country as a whole lacks is empathy. Because if we had empathy, it wouldn’t have taken this long to get universal health care. We wouldn’t be cutting food benefits, if we had more empathy for each other. As opposed to, “No, I’m going to live in my little gated community.” Because everything that we do affects each other. And that’s part of the Wasteland. The way Chicago Danztheater, the way I set it up is in a circle. Everybody has their own important role in it to make the wheel, the circle more forward. If somebody doesn’t do their job, we can’t do that.
A lot of these things, it’s about getting people to ask questions about what we’re doing. I love this term, “radical change in human kind,” and I don’t know if we’re radical, whatever you want to call radical, I just know that when people come to see our work, it does impact them. People do feel changed. People who don’t normally come to see dance say, “Oh, I really like this. I might go check a dance concert out.” People who see dance theater stuff and say, “Oh, there’s a lot more theater in this.” And I don’t expect everyone to like what we do. I’m totally fine with that. Because if everybody liked what you do, you wouldn’t have any place to go. What I do try to do is bring in new audiences all the time. Getting people to ask questions. Just present art in a different way.
Lauren: How has dancing changed for you over the years?
Ellyzabeth: My body- different! Over the last thirteen years I’ve had double foot surgery, pins in my feet. My leg doesn’t go up as high. I was hit by a car. So yeah, my body has changed. I don’t naturally weigh 120 libs. I’m okay with that. That has changed. I probably actually am now healthier and a better dancer and performer at thirty nine than I was when I as twenty nine or twenty five or twenty six. A lot of that has to do with self-confidence, knowing who you are and being grounded in your body. Having to work through double foot surgery and having pins in my feet, that was like two years of my life of leaving how to walk differently, getting used to having your feet not broken.
Lauren: Was that from the car accident?
Ellyzabeth: That was from point shoes and breaking my little toes on stage. My car accident happened, I was in my car, somebody hit my car, I got out of my car and got hit again. It was a double whammy of a day. But I couldn’t dance or anything for a year of my life. I still have bulging discs in the top and lower of my spine. You know, so as a result my legs just don’t go up as high anymore. But I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m not a good dancer, a good performer or actress. It’s just my body is changing. That’s the other thing- acceptance. It’s like the Wasteland. We need to stop fighting that death is inevitable and the moment we can accept where we are in our own life, that’s when life gets better. That was a big theme I did in my last work with Rumi’s poetry.
Lauren: Has that changed the way that you dance or see dance too? The way that you experience it?
Ellyzabeth: It’s definitely changed the way that I dance. There’s stuff that, the right side of my body can do better than the left side of my body for instance. Balance is, I’ve had to re-learn how to balance. That took a while. As far as seeing dance, what it does is it makes me, and actually any type of performance, I watch the human body a bit differently. You go, oh, that person’s moving this a little bit differently. I also think having to go through those two traumatic experiences with my body it has actually made me a better teacher. Because I can see within kids with different physical needs how to teach them differently.
There is this stigma about people that they think they have to be perfect to dance. That’s not true. You have to learn to love it, there’s lots of stuff you can do. There’s a lot of places to go take ballet, jazz, whatever, you don’t have to be a professional dancer. I think one of my greatest moments is when I see somebody who is not a professional dancer take class and enjoy it. You know, that I think is amazing and awesome.
Ellyzabeth: Anything else you want to say about The Wasteland, dance?
I think this production in particular of the wasteland, because of the combination of the three other performers who are working with me in this piece, because I am performing in it. The four of us really work well together, so much so that we can just sense each other, read each other’s minds. I think it has this amazing blend of dance, acting, physical theater. I’m saying a monologue upside down on somebody else’s shoulders. I think if people came to see The Wasteland, they would understand this epic poem a little bit better. But they would also be moved. It’s going to be a really great show. I’m excited for it.