From Short Story to Theatrical Dance Production4 min read

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Photo courtesy of Nousha Salimi

Part of what I love about writing stories is the chance to inspire and collaborate with other artists, so I was thrilled when Daniel Flores, a choreographer who recently transplanted his dance company from San Diego to New York City, asked if he could adapt my short story “Sexagesimal” (Editor’s Note: “Sexagesimal” was our Apex Magazine 2012 Short Story of the Year–If you’ve not read it, go do so now!) for the stage.

I hadn’t written the story with performance in mind, but because of the way I’d chosen to break up the text—in chunks, with minute and second values assigned to each–there had always been a temporal quality to the story, in structure, theme, and even title. In “Sexagesimal,” memories fade, morph, and reappear in a way that echoes a live performance, where the action onstage is always ephemeral, and the recollection of the event always diverges from the actual experience.

“Sexagesimal” became part of a trio of pieces, collectively called False Steps, that Daniel and I created by combining my writing with his choreography. I acted as narrator for these pieces, sometimes interacting with the dancers as if they were my written creations, and sometimes as though they represented past versions or memories of myself.

All three pieces dealt with the concept of deeply interconnected relationships, exploring their origins, their evolution, and their aftermath. As the story of a couple processing their shared memories in the Afterlife, “Sexagesimal” incorporates all of those stages, and lent itself perfectly to the overarching themes of the show.

Daniel and I took Teskia and Julio’s messy relationship as the starting point for the piece, deciding that we would focus on the cycle of their emotions and interactions, rather than follow a strictly linear narrative. Daniel, who immediately told me how drawn he was to the concept of “morphalating” on his first read of “Sexagesimal, reread the story, searching for language and imagery that inspired ideas for movement. (The way he describes the process— “kind of like reading a pop-up book, but a 3-D, animated one”—might just be the basis of one of my future science fiction stories.)

He picked out a few moments—Teskia’s walk down the aisle on her wedding day, her attempts to wake Julio when he falls into a coma in the Afterlife, the “hypnagogic jerk” she experiences as her memories begin to resurface—and translated them directly into movement, juxtaposing them with stretches of stillness to evoke the “nostalgic quality” he drew from the story. “I chose to present it almost as if the characters were too aware that it was the last time they were going to relive that particular memory, and were trying to hold onto as long as they could,” Daniel says.

“Sexagesimal” closes with Teskia recalling a moment from when she was eight years old, with Julio chasing her across a playground, though she cannot remember if he caught her. Daniel used this passage as a motif for the piece, and it was the first sequence I saw Federico Garcia and Ellyn Sjoquist, the two dancers who became Julio and Teskia, act out when we began to rehearse.

Photo courtesy of Nousha Salimi

Watching Federico and Ellyn embody Teskia and Julio’s story remains my favorite part of the performance. Ellyn told me that she’d been particularly struck by “Sexagesimal” because of her grandmother’s struggle with a particularly rapid form of dementia: “I couldn’t help but imagine her existing in that universe that you built and operating within those structures, and I thought it was a fantastic way to picture an afterlife. I connected particularly to the little idiosyncratic mix-ups in the world you created—talking about time as a monetary unit, walking through seasons. They reminded me of the types of confusion that my grandma experienced in her illness.”

Ellyn played off of the bewilderment and apprehension Teskia feels in the text, combined with her concern for Julio and her frantic search for answers in the Afterlife. Teskia and Julio’s complicated feelings for each other becomes palpable in the way Ellyn and Federico interact on stage: their embraces turn to shoves, then back into tender touches; they reach for and run after one another, passing through each other’s grasp; they lie still, at peace, only to jolt awake and find themselves caught in the same constant cycle of love and betrayal they thought they had escaped.

Sharing the stage with my own characters for a packed house at our spring showcase was a surreal experience, particularly because Ellyn and Federico, under Daniel’s direction, embodied Teskia and Julio so totally. “I was struggling with costume ideas for this work, especially because the characters have memories from different decades of their lives,” Daniel told me. “In an attempt to resolve this, I allowed ‘Sexagesimal’ to unfold and come completely alive in my head, and I saw Teskia and Julio constantly present, in their coffins. And then I realized: ‘Of course! Teskia is buried in her favorite dress, and Julio in his favorite suit.’”

Of course. I hadn’t thought of what Teskia and Julio’s quintessential Afterlife outfits might be, but when Daniel pointed it out, it made perfect sense. Having someone else expand on a story that once existed only in your head is a profoundly gratifying experience, and having the chance to work with such talented artists to bring it to life is an amazing one.

Both Daniel and I have agreed that we want to keep developing the piece for the company’s fall season. You can see a preview video of the dance here, and stay tuned if you’re in NYC—another chance to see Daniel Flores Dance’s production of “Sexagesimal” is coming soon!

False Steps: sexagesimal (preview) from Daniel Flores Dance on Vimeo.

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