Big Dance Theater’s “17C” may be based on a man’s diary from 350 years ago, but the performance aims to highlight just how many correlations our current society has with life in the 17th century.
When the company decided to analyze the diaries of 17th-century Englishman Samuel Pepys, the task of relating a world full of male dominance and the prominent use of chamber pots to modern times lent itself to two years of breaking down Pepys’ diary entries.
Elizabeth DeMent, who plays Pepys' wife, Bess, in the production, said that it's Big Dance's take on deconstructing the diary, which includes many elements such as dance, poetry, music and video.
“In this case, it is the diary of Pepys and that really serves as a jumping-off point to then tell a broader truth,” DeMent said.
In order to convey that broader truth to their audience, executive director of Big Dance Theater Aaron Mattocks discusses the mediums in which "17C" and other BDT productions utilize.
“I think what makes Big Dance Theater unique is the adaptation of unexpected literary sources through the lens of choreography and experimental theater, but primarily I think through a view of dance,” Mattocks said.
Annie-B Parson, choreographer and co-director of Big Dance Theater and "17C," expands upon the idea of how modern perceptions of social media shares common identity-based motives with Pepys’ diary entries.
“He was sort of at the beginning of the commercialization of leisure and the creation of the self in public — the public self," Parson said. "And that’s just obviously like Instagram and Facebook and everything. We decide how we want to be seen. And we have multiple identities on these social media platforms, where we craft different identities.”
DeMent notes that "17C," not unlike many other Big Dance Theater productions, follows a non-narrative perspective of the diaries of Pepys. She noted that audiences are not usually as accustomed to stories that break more traditional plotlines.
In order for audience members to fully appreciate "17C," DeMent offers a unique way for audiences to consume the performance.
“My advice to audience members, and then viewers of Big Dance Theater work, is to view it as you would listen to a piece of music, or, just because, if you are determined to understand in a linear and logical way, you will sort of miss the broader point,” said DeMent.
In addition to ties between how modern-day society portrays personal identities on social media, “17C” also challenges Pepys’ male-dominated perspective. Mattocks discusses how female leads in “17C” drive the performance, even though Pepys does not present the female voice directly.
“I feel like one of the things we’ve done with '17C' is sort of really, really, really focused sort of intently on the diaries of Samuel Pepys and to sort of tease out the imagined female narratives that are missing from his diary," Mattocks said. "And to bring, through the use of these two female book nerds who are actively throughout the piece building, like filming a video blog review of the book, so we’re learning through a very contemporary lens about the world of Samuel Pepys, and it’s a device that has not been so straightforward before.”
Parson encourages “17C” audience members to link Pepys’ view of women and his actions of sexual predation with modern sexual allegations. She discusses how “17C” directly relates to recent sexual scandals among individuals who are prominent in the American film and media industry.
“It is really timely because of Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes and all this stuff that is coming out about sexual predators, because he was a sexual predator, too,” Parson said. “No big surprise there. But he writes about it in a very uncensored way. So it feels very timely, and it allows the audience to really have a chance to contemplate the motivations and the effects of that behavior.”
“17C” will be performed by Big Dance Theater in Memorial Hall on Thursday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m.
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