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Da Vinci's inventive spirit explored in experimental theater



The Cube, January 12, 13,

and 14 at 8 pm.


WHAT MORE AUSPICIOUS subject for a performance piece than Leonardo Da Vinci, the original "Renaissance Man," the painter whose "Mona Lisa" and "Last Supper" have been called the greatest paintings in history, but who also found time to invent and write great things? Nowhere is this more true than at MIT, which owes its very identity to Da Vinci's invention of the experimental method. Yet with possibilities come expectations, and the pressure to "do it right" weighs heavily upon the interpreters of Leonardo: Anatomy of a Soul.

Kermit Dunkelberg and Kim Mancuso, Pilgrim Theatre founders and theater artists in residence at MIT, would prefer it were otherwise. The piece they have created with their over 20 student collaborators is dedicated to looking at the world with a fresh eye and discarding preconceived notions. The Leonardo Da Vinci they have found (and on whose notebooks the production is based) is a man who delighted in looking at things in ways different than science and society dictated. He wanted to see for himself, and the techniques he employed were only tools to discovery. Although Leonardo does indeed use sophisticated sound and visuals, it is what the artists do rather than what they are that is important. The same goes for the innovative performance techniques, which emphasize movement and violent energy.

When the Leonardo company met in September, they deliberately tried to relieve themselves of expectations. As the founder of modern scientific practices, Leonardo Da Vinci had been selected as an ideal figure for a piece at MIT. The company found that public perception of Da Vinci was vastly different than his own self-image; he repeatedly made reference in his notes to his own ignorance of philosophy and learning. It was a source of pride to him that he had to seek out truth for himself instead of receiving it from others. The result was a mind of unequaled originality, a brain constantly abuzz with thought.

The Leonardo company's first challenge was deciding how best to proceed. In line with Da Vinci's own philosophy and method, they chose to make the performance an eclectic mixture of styles and representations, mixing theater with video, music, sound textures, computer art, and lighting. Even the acting itself would emphasize movement, change, transformation, and surprise. The technique used was this: each actor would take the text of Da Vinci's personal notes home and read it. Any parts which struck the actor personally were brought in for the company to work with. Somehow, the company would try to express the text fragment in visual terms, using free-form improvisation as well as direct acting. With each rehearsal, the final form of the piece grew clearer and firmer. Eventually the piece would be included in the show or discarded if it had reached a dead end. The object was to create a powerful image, mix it with the words from the text, add sound and projected images, and then refine the combination until all the elements worked together.

The result, as Mancuso described it, is like a river with islands dotting its surface; the islands are fixed points, scripted words and events, but the company may travel between them using many different methods. The one unifying element is Da Vinci himself.

From his notebooks, one might guess that Leonardo Da Vinci was a man of too many interests. They are crammed with thoughts, dreams, plans, and hopes, few of which ever went any farther than paper. At one point, the entire company delivers, one by one, the subjects of 15 books planned by Leonardo, and the list is impressive: "Book 1 of water in itself, Book 2 of the sea, Book 3 of subterranean rivers, Book 4 of rivers, Book 5 of the nature of the abyss..." We learn that Leonardo developed a whole collection of ideas for weapons, including tanks and shrapnel. He measured the human body, expressing each measurement in terms of others; for example, "The foot is as much longer than the hand as the thickness of the arm at the wrist where it is thinnest..." He performed autopsies of hanged men to find out the nature of human anatomy. And, of course, he painted.

David Atherton, sound designer for Leonardo, had a bit of Da Vinci in his eye as he described the techniques he used to produce the haunting, arresting sounds that fill the Cube. Instead of focusing on rhythm or harmony, Atherton explored the texture of sound using digital sound processing. As an example, Atherton pointed out the change in sound heard when the door is shut on a noisy room. This phenomenon, which results in a muffled sound, is called "gating." With digital processing, Atherton can gate at will, using sounds that he records or samples in the studio. One of his favorite sounds is the instant when a bell is struck, just before the sound begins to decay. By turning the reverberation level as high as possible and re-recording the sound, the shortest, tiniest sound can be made gigantic. Gate this, and the result is a startling series of staccato claps with a most un-claplike resonance. Other tricks include aural excitation, which means bringing a particular frequency to the front in a piece of recorded sound. This is the means by which we are able to pick out individual voices in a crowded room. Out of a sonorous hymn, voices emerge, eerily clear and dramatic. Like Da Vinci, Atherton delights in using technology to create and to learn about the way the world is constructed.

Da Vinci himself made a living not knowing where he was going or what was going to happen. The joy was in the discovery. By disregarding conventional rules of theater and storytelling, the performers in Leonardo: Anatomy of a Soul have attempted to discover new modes of expression, new ways of looking at what was there all along. Da Vinci would have most certainly approved.