Eliza Ladd is the human equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Her creative work colors outside the lines of performance arts genres — performer, dancer, stage writer, music maker, choreographer and director, to name a few. She’s also the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training’s associate professor of movement and dance. For years, it seemed like nothing could stop this human dynamo. And then the pandemic came. Bringing with it a world of social distancing and remote human connection on Zoom.
Ladd’s response was “Gravity and Levity” — a short, spoken-word and performance video. Calling it “minimal” doesn’t do it justice. In this piece, the artist reduces herself to a single hand, with two “googly eyes” glued to its fingers — a literal hand puppet, performing in a small black box. It sounds funny, and at times it is. But the piece can also be heartbreaking. It ranges from slapstick to mime to dance to a cry from the depths of the artist’s heart. What was Ladd thinking?
Here’s what she told us ….
“My work as an artist is all about the body. The pandemic removed my ability to play, perform, and practice with others in a shared space. What will become of live theater? Is it doomed to disembodiment? This question was already in the air before the pandemic with the prominence of the computer and technology.
The tag line to ‘Gravity and Levity’ is: ‘It took four hundred million years to go from quadruped to biped and now this?’ ‘This’ refers to what’s happened in the pandemic, the removal of the body from common currency. Or perhaps its reduction to fingers and eyes. Typing and texting, seeing and watching — living your life through the computer screen. Nowadays, it’s how I teach, make art, and find theater.
In pre-pandemic times, I was already aware that my field was slowly becoming a dinosaur art form. But it’s not extinct yet — and people still long for the expressive art of the human body, perhaps even more than ever. The pandemic may have accelerated our evolution (or devolution) towards disembodiment. This raises so many questions for an artist of movement …
Is it possible to find embodiment and community through the computer and technology? Can we still create relationships, communicate, and express ourselves through movement? Can we make meaningful theater on Zoom? Can we still find expansiveness and connect with the audience?
To answer these questions, I created a character with my hand and some googly eyes. She’s a kind of a puppet, who’s just fingers and eyes. And this little one is me; but she’s also not me. In this performance piece, I shape-shift into that puppet. This character dances, sings, and speaks poetic text — all in her little black box. This allows me to create physical expression with my fingers and eyes and transmit it through the Zoom sphere.
you know when your world turns
everything ship slide slop side the other way around
chronic becomes dependable
intermittent becomes all the time
suspended becomes permanent
suspended in time together, o what a sacred space
—Eliza Ladd, “Gravity and Levity”
And it turns out that the answer to all my questions is ‘yes’ — on a very deep level.
I found that all the principles of large-scale theater still apply in a performance made of a hand and some googly eyes. The tiny expresses the vast. I create a crossroads where the microcosm and macrocosm meet. And technology becomes a window into something expansive and liberating. There’s a magic of scale—and it speaks to the isolation we’re all feeling.
This tiny being expresses a great deal about what we’ve lost and what it means to be alive right now. She’s confined to a little black box and pushes back against the boundaries. Despite her limitations, she keeps trying to express herself and communicate. So, in a way, I’m thinking inside the box. But I’m also reaching outside the box for some kind of freedom. Putting this little persona in such a confined situation speaks to both the powerlessness and power of our bodies in the spaces we create inside the computer.
My character expresses playfulness, poetry, and defiance. And I think the hypothetical viewer knows exactly how she feels. This tiny being bonds with the audience, and expresses the loss and grief we all feel when we can’t relate to the big world with our whole body. But she also expresses a kind of power. She’s a shape-shifter, with a sort of fluidity — and that’s a powerful thing. She taps into the vastness of humanity with her many transformations. In the end, I think this little one makes a connection with the audience — and that’s when I show my face. It’s as if to say, ‘You’re here, I’m here, and we’re still together.’
We’re alive and we’re dying. It’s funny and tragic. Ah, theater!”
Eliza Ladd’s performance and talkback was produced by Sarasota Contemporary Dance. Click here to watch.