Monday, October 24, 2011

Fig 1. Sasha.
General Theory and Practice of Pantomime is the first English translation of Обща Теория И Практика На Пантомимата, by Dr. Alexander Iliev. Dr. Iliev, who is a master mime and teacher of mime, acting, directing, and movement, studied with the legendary mimes of the 20th century, including Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau, both of whom endorsed the original publication. Dr. Iliev is an accomplished anthropologist and ethnographer with an international profile, and has over four decades of professional experience as a performer. Dr. Iliev is highly sought-after as a teacher by institutions across the globe, and I am very proud to number him among my friends.

I met Sasha in 2008 when I was invited by what was then called the Rhodopi International Theatre Collective (now called the Leon Katz Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory), which is headquartered in Smolyan, Bulgaria, to join them as a Visiting Scholar-Artist. My trip to the Collective was preceded by several months of work in collaboration with dramaturgs Sergio Costola of Italy and Ben Nadler of New York City, along with Sasha, researching and adapting Leonardo Da Vinci's folktale La virgine e l'unicorno (The Virgin and the Unicorn) into a performance text. When I traveled to Smolyan, which is high in the mountains that separate the fertile plains of ancient Thrace from the hills and coasts of Greece, I had no idea that I was taking, to steal a phrase from Obi-Wan, my "first step into a larger world." It was a kind of mystical journey, or perhaps I should say a journey through time and space. Smolyan looks a great deal like Park City, Utah - my favorite place when I was growing up in nearby Salt Lake -- except of course that it is riddled with sites like the Devil's Throat, a cave that is generally agreed to be the place where Orpheus descended the Underworld. You have conversations with people that include phrases like "oh, yes, this road follows the track Alexander the Great took when he conquered this region" and "oh, yes, this rest stop was built on the site of the battle of Gaugamela," and "if you turn right, you'll get to the mall, and if you turn left, you will go to the place where Prince Paris of Troy was visited by Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite."

Frankly, my work as a theatre historian made it seem more mystical than it probably was. It felt like being suddenly and repeatedly smacked in the face with the total gestalt reality of all the things I have only read about for the last thirty years, and along with that the humbling realization that I have only scratched the surface, and that with all my life devoted to learning more I can still hope for nothing more than a slightly deeper scratch. That said, the eye of the historian compresses time and space - when you experience in real life something you have been studying for a long time, you have the impression that you are experiencing it on multiple levels, all at once; past and present, distant past and present, here and there, they all collide in the mind.

The following year Sasha asked me to collaborate with him on the translation of his book, which in Bulgarian is now a standard text for actors and directors all across Bulgaria and Eastern Europe. It is a magnum opus - five volumes, including 181 descriptions of pantomime scenarios. I jumped at the chance. This work was already translated magnificently by Milena Dabova, a native of Plovdiv whose English is probably better than mine. Where I came in was just doing a little fiddly makeover of Milena's work - cleaning up the language a bit, bringing some stuff more in line with standards and practices of publishing, and struggling with the fascinating issue of the poetic floridness of the Bulgarian language (or at least, of Sasha's). You see, Bulgarian is a remarkably idiomatic language. It's hard to get Bulgarians, of my acquaintance in any event, to give you a straight answer. If you say "I promise to get you this by Thursday" they might say "a word doesn't make a hole" (duma dupka ne pravne). If you say "wow, I don't want to talk to that student but he keeps coming to my office" they might say "a black coin doesn't get lost" (cheren gologan ne se gubi). I once asked Sasha if he was troubled by the rainy weather in Pittsburgh and he said something like "the one-eyed pigeon never asks the rainbow if it has enough sweaters." I'm exaggerating, but my point is that the language is absolutely festooned with a certain innate poetry. Add that to Sasha's immense learning, his propensity towards mysticism, and his sterling command of many many languages alive and dead, and sometimes you find yourself wandering around a sentence like Theseus in a Labyrinth of words, waiting for the lexical Minotaur to --- see, now he's got me doing it.

I have many stories to tell about this process, but suffice to say that it took the better part of two years, during which time I was enchanted, edified, education, enlightened, entertained, and came away with a deeper sense not only of pantomime defined in its broadest sense as nonverbal communication, but also a deeper sense of my  own place in the universe. Like the shamans he studies and probably also is, Sasha leads his readers on an expedition of the mind, the body, and one's place in history and the cosmos. It's been an astonishing adventure.

So, you know, buy the book when it comes out.

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