Women and flowers. Men and pursuit. Money and ruin.

The Brandeis Theater Company's 'Tea and Flowers, Purity and Grace' dazzles

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"I can’t bear ugliness," says Susan Dibble in an unconscious echo of Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel "The House of Mirth," which Dibble has adapted for the Brandeis Theater Company as "Tea and Flowers, Purity and Grace." "I have to find a way to relieve it with humor."

In more than 30 years of choreographing for theater productions at Brandeis and at professional companies that include the Berkshires’ famed Shakespeare and Company, Dibble has created a unique body of work that honors elegance and imperfection, dignity and discomfort. Her hallmark is the emotional resonance that she finds in unconventional images and gestures: children tie women to trees under the watch of a man with giant scissors; actors dressed as stylized ducks dance with a dreaming fool; women move fearlessly through a torrent of baseballs.

Dibble, the Louis, Frances and Jeffrey Sachar Professor of Creative Arts, first adapted Wharton’s dark, ironic story of New York society into a unique form of dance-theater in 2005, when Tina Packer of Shakespeare and Company asked her to create a piece to mark the novel’s hundredth anniversary. The Brandeis production expands that original choreography and features a cast of sixteen, including a narrator (guest actor Nigel Gore) that Dibble added to illuminate the novel’s many threads, including "women and flowers, men and pursuit, money and ruin."

Socialite Lily Bart, 29 and unmarried, gambles in financial markets and at cards; she forms unwise alliances with her friends’ husbands and flees the scene whenever it gets ugly. Her desperation to hold on to her popularity, money, and status suggests the production’s central metaphor and key set piece: a ladder. Tea, which in the novel becomes both remedy and poison to Lily, also takes on a symbolic role, and Dibble interprets Wharton’s “furies,” mentioned only briefly in the book, as the grotesque nighttime transformation of the society harpies who plague Lily by day.

Like many of the Shakespearean heroines for whom Dibble has made dances, Lily is motherless and floundering. The women in her life resent and distrust her. Lily, in turn, rejects Gerty Farrish, the homely, earnest social worker friend who could have helped her construct a life outside of country weekends and flirtations with married men.

In Wharton’s depiction of aristocratic American society, says Dibble, women are treated like flowers: “They are groomed and watered and tended, and when they no longer meet the expectation of the gardeners—the men—they are cut away.” The men are parasites as well as gardeners. “But the men are funny,” says Dibble, reaching again to the humor that makes the sadness bearable. “They’re like clowns. They can also be the voice of reason, spelling out the facts, but ultimately the women have more power, and they lead Lily to her fate.”

Music leads the characters through "Tea and Flowers," especially music for piano: Chopin, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin’s rags. The piano represents wealth, status, and, for the women, a measure of their accomplishment. Dibble finds resonance in her own family history. “We supposedly came from the aristocracy, but all the money was lost in the Civil War. All that’s left are silver, portraits, and a piano that Vladimir Horowitz once played, they tell me. Growing up, I heard the piano constantly during summer days in the country, which for me is a memory of calm and pleasure.”

The "Tea and Flowers" dancers drift through an elegant parlor and form tableaux vivants, the figures posed in re-creations of classical myths, whose cloaked eroticism enthralled Victorian society. “The threads that connect the tableaux vivants of life can suddenly tug,” says Dibble. “They might strangle the posing figures, or toss the picture into a darker light.” The women blossom and wilt, and these are the movements that inspire Dibble’s interpretation of the story. In contrast, ”the men move in and out, drinking, conversing, professing, like hungry dogs, and women are the food, or a soft bed to nestle in where they can rest and give up their relentless posing.”

Wealthy, successful, and educated, Edith Wharton distanced herself from feminist politics and the Victorian preoccupation with the “woman question,” yet freely critiqued society’s harsh oppression of women. Told that Wharton called suffragists a “monstrous regiment,” Dibble nods. “In this piece, I’m less aligned with feminism and more devoted to Wharton’s insight into what happens to one ambitious woman, the idea of how striving for perfection can lead us to the direst levels of our unconscious.”

Contemporary viewers may look down on Lily Bart as a social climber. In self-help vernacular, she is a smart woman who makes foolish choices. Through music and movement, however, Dibble reexamines Lily’s desperation and leads her to a restful and calming place, to purity and grace.

Location and Tickets
Brandeis Theater Company productions are performed in the intimate theaters of the Spingold Theater Center, located on the Brandeis University campus at 415 South St. in Waltham, Mass. Tickets are may be purchased purchased online, at the box office or by calling 781-736-3400, option #5. For directions and more information, visit www.brandeis.edu/btc.

Performance Schedule/Prices
Friday, Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. - $20
Saturday, Nov. 22 Matinee at 2 p.m. - $18
Saturday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. - $20
Sunday, Nov. 23 Matinee at 2 p.m. - $20

Photography by Mike Lovett

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