While on vacation in Quebec City, I went to a free showing of Cirque du Soleil. It took place in the muggy depths of the city. The stage was tucked in the corner of a hilly area behind a field of gravel. Everyone attending had to stand up. We were crushed in together; eagerly craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the strange performers who bounded across the stage. They were unearthly creatures, garbed in spandex like a second skin. Their faces were masks of chalky paint; they were constantly twisting, impossibly limber. They juggled fire, walked on tightropes, and flipped off trampolines. One woman spread feathery wings that sliced through the air as she twirled. Another woman mirrored her, her face a mask of harsh lines and her pirouettes more like violent kicks. Her sharp eyes were always focused on the woman in white, and she followed her like a creeping shadow.
I was reminded irresistibly of the eternal battle of the white swan and the black swan from Swan Lake as these other two dancers wove around each other, barely avoiding aggressive collision. Whether intentional or not, there was a classic story in this performance, one that had endured and been reinterpreted many times over the years.
When one is a writer or a story enthusiast, one can find a familiar story hidden in any performance. Much like we form images in our mind when we read tales, images can form tales in our minds. The visual is always inherently related to the textual. A simple image or dance can embody a thousand concepts, and a million images can spring from a single sentence. Even if something does not mean to reference a piece of writing, certain tales are inlaid so deeply in the foundation of our culture that we cannot help but think of them when events play out before our eyes. Performances create their own world of words, and words create their own world of cinema.
As I watched the frenzied Cirque du Soleil performance, ideas were stimulated in my mind. Inexplicably, I started spinning plans for stories that had nothing at all to do with the themes of this performance. I weaved tales about the nature of stories, about people trapped in that ever-changing, interconnected web of worlds where fiction and reality are the same. Something about the atmosphere of this dance simply moved me; inspiration was thick in the air. The unearthly masks of paint the actors wore did not merely transform their appearance. They allowed the actors to make themselves fictional characters- beings of pure fantasy with a script written out for them, concepts borne from imagination that nevertheless had a real person pulling their strings. It seemed to me that all performers are writers in some fashion because they all play out their own vision of their character’s story.
I left this cinematic experience with a new understanding of how deeply storytelling was imbedded in every facet of life and performing. The mind was theatre that never stops broadcasting.
Despite all this miraculous understanding and birth of new ideas, when I got home and sat down to write, the images and tales that had flooded my brain instantly evaporated. Without the electric atmosphere of the crowded stage and the energetic rush I felt from watching a hidden story unfold before my eyes, I found that my imagination was an unknowable mush, any new revelations hidden in a mess of nonsense. I stared at the document I had bought up on Word in vain hope that the story to end all stories would miraculously beam from the unconscious depths of my jumbled brain to the blank page. It didn’t happen.
It appeared that what I had failed to realize about this wonderful theatre of the mind was that sometimes it chose to simply broadcast static.