I became very interested in philosophy in my early twenties. It was around a time when I was just figuring out most of my priorities in my work and life in general, and it helped that I (a Unitarian Universalist) was freshly in love with a girl who had some very strong, specific ideas about life, the universe and everything. One wishes to rise to such specificity, after all. So I began reaching out--in the inimitable U.U. fashion--for any and everything around me related to philosophy. I rapidly began leaning eastward, based on a completely non-substance-abused altered state I found myself in one day. Here's a short list of some of the books I explored as a part of this process:

  • The Case for Christ
  • A Grief Observed
  • The Celestine Prophecy
  • Hero with A Thousand Faces
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Way of the Peaceful Warrior
  • The Tao of Pooh
  • Tao Te Ching
  • The Analects
  • The Art of War
  • Chuang Tzu
  • Siddhartha
  • The Prophet

I came to find a lot of personal truth in Taoism, such as I understood it, and incorporated it into my core philosophy of Unitarian Universalism. (Let's not get into religion here; pretend we're at the Thanksgiving dinner table.) One's spiritual and philosophical journey continues, etc., etc. Being a U.U., I find people with answers a little silly. People with answers often find this frustrating. I suppose this is part of the motivation behind all these books written about the way we should all be living. Sure, there's a selfless hero's quest to such a contribution to the history of literature; every self-help author has had some profound sip from the fountain of Truth and returns to his or her humble hometown to share the wealth, like a mama bird, regurgitating into her young, blind ones' beaks. But let's face it, too: No matter how ecumenical one is, writing a treatise on what one believes is at least a little about saying, "I know something you don't."

Written apparently in a similar spirit is the famed book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. I'll admit two things: I haven't read the book, and I can't get a terribly clear picture of the author's intention in writing it. It seems, however, to have been embraced by anarchic Christianity as a really good metaphor for how a life should be lived, and by all accounts (no: still haven't read it) there are some good reasons for this identification.

Last night I attended Kinesis Dance Project's presentation of Gull(ability), a work-in-progress sort of thing in its first stages. The dance featured Friend Patrick and Friend Melissa (who is also Kinesis' founder/choreographer/artistic director) along with three other dancers, and was squoze (is SO a word) into the Manhattan Theatre Source stage, which itself was further reduced in spacial capacity by a proscenium demi-arch, presumably built for this weekend's premier there. True to my college habits, I read up on the various notes and critiques of Jonathan Livingston Seagull prior to attending, in order to better appreciate whatever parallels Friend Melissa might draw. This was probably a dumb idea on my part.

I forgot two things. Firstly, Melissa tends to treat her inspiration for shows as just that, making her product unlimited by any artificial allegiance to identifiable details from the source. There were people emulating seagulls, and there was the dissatisfaction in an individual for the given circumstances of her life, but from there it took off into explorations and free-verse in the form of dance. And therein is my second neglected fact: It is a dance. I forgot that my best mental state for watching dance is one of extreme receptivity--a relaxed mind taking in waves, rather than an analytical one struggling to make sense of it all. That difference of mental state makes all the difference between an evening of sublimity or one of frustration. I found the sublimity, but wasted a lot of time sputtering about in the detritus of logic and analysis.

And so maybe too there was a third neglection (is SO a word) (the three thing just never gets old for me, do it?). The Taoists are big on being receptive. It's sort of their whole thing, really (see 7/16/07 for a brief reference to my take on this), and part of the appeal of the philosophy for yours truly is the way in which it reminds me how valid and valuable that approach can be, in any experience. I neglect my self-learned lessons sometimes, to my and my friends' and coworkers' disadvantage.

Gull(ability) doesn't seem to be interested in telling a story per se; at this stage, it is much more an alternately humorous and existential expose into the neuroses of four seagulls, and the aspirations to nonconformity of one. This does not sound entertaining, I confess, but in the hands (and feet [and legs]) of Melissa Riker and her crew of uninhibited dancers it achieves out-loud laughter. They do not seek to impersonate seagulls, or even to embody them (a term I hate seeing the generic use of in artistic circles). Rather they interpret seagulls in movement and shape into human forms, each one a little characteristic of the individual dancer, which is nice, seeing as how that's most likely a distinction animals make amongst members of their own species. A particularly memorable sequence involved a series of tableau in which the dances all came together to form the shape of a single seagull from different perspectives, weight-sharing and flat-out climbing atop one another to create wings. The entire performance was infused with this sort of child-like joy, which we can safely state is a trademark of Melissa's choreography to date.

In contrast to that joy, Gull(ability) also contained some movement that began humorously, but through repetition became almost disheartening. The dancers would haul their left legs up and down, or perform a brief, formal series of pelvic twitches with glassy stares, and hysterical laughter was elicited repeatedly by the latter. As the piece went on, however, it became clear these twitches were unthinking, unfeeling impulses--compulsive--and something about them seemed empty and sad. This, interspersed as it was with "solos" in which each gull came on stage with a bundle of seemingly precious items and made a nest out of them somewhere on stage or in the audience, suggested to me only after the performance the hollowness of the pursuit of a material life.

Then again, maybe it was just a comment on conservationism?

In terms of what I'd like to see this piece progress with (and Melissa asked for feedback, so stop judging me to be judgmental), of course I'd hate to see any of Melissa's patented sense of humor leave, and the sound design by Benjamin Oyzon was beautifully layered. I would like to see a more succinct narrative of our seagulls' personal quirks. Or perhaps an expanded view of who they are, as seagulls (a sentence I never would have guessed I'd one day write). I felt it needed to go one way or the other, or else let their nesting build toward something, otherwise it becomes (at least in form) too predictable to me. But this is an actor talking. I'm always trying to make it about story.

When very often, it's better just to not act, and let the moment be what it wants to be.