By Siena Oristaglio
The room is as dark as a crow.
A bright light appears, bathing a group of figures. They pose along a bench, their gazes fixed into empty space.
Strange sounds permeate the room — news clips, low voices, musical snippets, static — a radio on seek. The group remains still.
Far behind them, two figures emerge. One, legs spread, appears to give birth to the other. Tumbling and crawling, the pair advances towards the motionless group.
A familiar cinematic tune plays, its regal trumpets signaling the start of a film.
The pair moves excitedly. They peer through the cracks between bodies into the bright light.
They want to watch the movie, too.
The room flickers and grows dark.
The last time I was in this theater, I walked out of a performance for the first time in my life.
It wasn’t that the show was dull or badly-executed. In fact, it was the opposite: Too powerful, too moving.
That evening, an endless row of dancers had performed their own death, each collapsing into a field of strewn flowers. At the time, I was so raw with grief that every sunken body felt like a hammer swung into my chest.
As the dancers fell, heartache churned the air into thick butter. I escaped into the night, flushed and hyperventilating. I slipped past rows of barren trees and kept walking until I could breathe again.
Two years later, I’m back, at Triskelion Arts in Greenpoint for a new show by dancer and choreographer Mei Yamanaka. It’s Yamanaka’s first evening-length work, “If You, Then There.”
Resting in the silent dark after this first vignette, I wonder, Will there be more grief tonight? If it happens, will I stay?
Stage lights illuminate. The group is gone, as is the bench. The two primary dancers, dressed in sweatpants and multicolored socks, begin to form and reform into impossible shapes.
Over the speakers, a young voice lisps: My mommy is so good to me. I have the best mommy in the whole world.
The voice is from an old cartoon, I think. Donald Duck? Tom and Jerry?
One dancer — the one who gave birth earlier — tends to the other. Carries them. Rocks them. Lifts them. Feeds them. Strokes their hair. Moves their limbs.
The cartoon voice returns, forlorn: Oh boy, I sure am ugly. I wish I was dead.
At once, the child figure slumps into the caretaker’s arms.
My chest pounds.
The caretaker carries the child’s lifeless body around the room and lowers them to the ground.
I grind my feet into the floor beneath my seat. There will be more grief tonight. I glance at the glowing exit sign. I take a breath of cool air.
The child lies, unmoving, at the front of the stage.
How do we revive the disappeared?
I’ve never written about dance before — it’s strange. Without documentation, any description relies on a slippery film of memory and emotion.
It’s an act of imperfect revival, not unlike recalling a loved one who has passed away.
The collapsed figure now awakens. Their hands intertwine and flutter. They are alive, entranced. They follow their fluttering hands around the space.
For some reason, I imagine what is probably intended to be a butterfly instead as a crow.
I recently encountered a large group of crows in a parking lot in upstate New York — more than I had ever seen in one place. I watched for what felt like hours as they moved in an elaborate, mysterious choreography.
Crows, long associated with death and mourning, hold funerals for their own. Hundreds may gather around the body of a killed relative. Scientists don’t yet know whether this behavior is, in fact, driven by grief. More likely, the birds use these gatherings as a kind of reconnaissance, an attempt to ascertain how to avoid the fate of the deceased.
Humans, consciously or not, do the same. The first question often asked after a person passes away: How did they die?
A recent poem by Fatimah Asghar titled “How’d Your Parents Die Again?” speaks to the sense of futility and alienation this question can incite in those who love the one who’s gone.
“Does it matter how? There’s no / place to see them again,” Asghar writes.
The crow sweeps across the stage, searching for something or someone. Its dancer follows, transfixed.
How do we grieve a relationship altered?
The dancers undress and redress on stage. Their relationship transforms from that of a caretaker and child to something resembling lovers.
They sit beside one another on the floor. Their toes touch. They kiss. Their hands form into flowers in front of their faces. They smile.
The cartoon voice from earlier returns: Will you eat me, Mr. Pussycat? Please eat me.
In the first, a duckling comes to believe that Tom is his mother. He naively follows his “mother” around as Tom attempts to cook him into various pies and stews. Jerry, of course, repeatedly rescues the duckling from certain death until, at last, the duckling realizes his mother’s intention is to murder him. In a painful moment of clarity, the duckling launches himself into a pot of boiling water. Yelping, Tom snatches him out of the air, having grown too fond of his prospective meal to let him die. The episode ends with duck and cat splashing together in a lake, Tom seemingly having embraced his new role as a mother duck.
In Downhearted Duckling, the young duck is again depressed. Having read “The Ugly Duckling,” he decides that he is too unattractive for this world. He follows Tom around, this time trying to get himself eaten, baking himself into pies and even, at one point, seasoning his own body for consumption. Jerry manages to keep the duckling out of harm’s way until, thankfully, an attractive girl duck strolls into the scene and tells the duckling she thinks he’s cute. The duckling is instantly elated, his existential angst vanquished. The pair trot into the sunset, arm in arm.
Though these episodes end happily, we sense their resolutions are fickle. If Tom were to grow hungry again, the duckling would likely be forced to grieve the loss of his “mother” once more. If it doesn’t work out with the girl upon whom his entire self-worth is based, the duckling might again find himself without a reason to live. While not a physical death, betrayal nevertheless necessitates grief.
On stage, a kneeling dancer plays a game of jenga. One by one, thin wooden blocks are removed from a tall, trembling tower. At last, the center will not hold. The structure collapses into rubble.
Ducks, like crows, are known to mourn their dead. An article on the Audubon website mentions a duck who drowned itself after the death of its mate. A news story about the mourning habits of animals describes a duck who lost his partner and lay weeping on her body for hours.
How do we grieve a fantasy destroyed?
The pair of lead dancers now move their limbs in unison, bodies pressed flat to a wall, their outfits aglow against matte black paint.
Sprawled in a far corner, a small group lies belly-down, eating popcorn.
The lights dim. The cinematic introduction resounds. This tune — a short ceremonial composition played on brass instruments — is known as a fanfare. Historically, it was played at the start of a hunt, and once more to announce the feeding of leftover kill to the hounds.
My heart beats in anticipation.
A lead dancer buckles and collapses. Their eyes flicker shut. Dead, again. Their body is lifted. They are carried, limply, around the stage.
My heart softens into stillness.
Is their room in grief for fanfare?
The slumped dancer resurrects. A disco ball has appeared above the stage and a series of joyful movements commences, culminating in the group of dancers sprawled on astroturf. They smile and recline as if enjoying a lively spring day.
The revived figure interlaces their fingers once more. The crow returns.
The group follows the creature with their eyes, hypnotized by its dives and ascents.
The crow, at last, comes to rest on a shoulder.
The room darkens to black.
The audience erupts.
The performance ends.
I step into the night and head towards my cousin’s bar, The Flamingo. Trees sway in the street, stripped of their leaves. No birds chirp.
It’s nearing the end of winter and even the bitter night air seems to hold its breath, awaiting the avian fanfare that signals spring’s return.
As I walk, I think about those who will not experience this warm revival, who exist now only in imperfect recollections of their living loved ones.
I swear I see the shadow of a crow flash across the sky.
How do the dead grieve a future that never arrives?
More of Mei Yamanaka’s work can be found at https://www.meiyamanaka.com/
Siena Oristaglio (all pronouns) is an artist and educator. She co-runs The Void Academy, an organization that helps independent artists thrive. She lives in New York City.