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By Kina Poon and Wendy Perron
Inside off-Broadway's smash hit Sleep No More
Leslie Kraus and Paul Zivkovich, Photo: Christopher Duggan
A site-specific evening of blockbuster proportions, Sleep No More has been off-Broadway’s hottest ticket for two years, and is still going strong. Its themed nights, including the upcoming New Year’s Eve banquet and after-party, keep both new viewers and die-hard returning fans abuzz.
Audience members—participants, really—are told to don white masks before they wander through the vast and spooky McKittrick Hotel. You’ll encounter strange rooms of various persuasions, all from bygone eras, decorated in mind-blowing detail. As you explore the building, making your own choices as to what rooms to enter and when, you happen upon the show’s performers in wordless scenes inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. So the narrative is experienced in segments—making the dancer/actors, in choreography by Maxine Doyle, responsible for pulling the audience into the story. As packs of viewers follow performers through dark passages and up and down stairwells, you become aware of the choreographic force of the audience itself. Your mileage will vary, but you will see intensely visceral, at times overwhelmingly emotional performances: a slow seduction atop a bar counter, a partner-flinging pas de deux that ends in bloody murder, a sweeping, polished ballroom scene with an unshakeable sense of foreboding. The awareness that you’ll never get the full story is what keeps ravenous fans coming back for more.
Audience members, with trademark white masks, surround Nicholas Bruder and Sophie Bortolussi, Photo courtesy SNM
Punchdrunk theater company, the British group behind Sleep No More, has been at the forefront of this kind of immersive theater for more than a decade. For the dancers in the show, this is a completely different kind of performance from being safely on the stage with the audience at a distance. We, at Dance Magazine, decided to interview three dancers in the current cast.
Paul Zivkovich, who possesses the kind of grounded, commanding presence that seizes an audience by its throat and holds it breathless, portrays Macbeth with a soul-baring rawness and an intriguing intelligence. The Australian dancer auditioned for the show last year in London, where he has been based for much of his career. After being cast in Sleep No More, he participated in sessions with the National Theatre in London to develop his Macbeth, which would be joining the current crop of performances.
His portrayal—which ranges from an introspective, fluid solo in a graveyard to an athletic duet with Lady Macbeth—draws on his training as a competitive gymnast (he didn’t start dancing until age 20) and his natural acting ability, probably shaped by his work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan, and Australian Dance Theatre. “I’m not a very angry person at all, so Macbeth was license to go completely mad,” says Zivkovich, who, like the other dancers, switches between that role and another.
But the humanity of Zivkovich’s madman is undeniable. “It is a theatrical experience, and it can be scary: the minimal lighting and the music can be overwhelming; the blood, nudity, sex, and death are going to trigger emotions in people,” he acknowledges. “But the main thing for me is to bring an empathy to [Macbeth]. I want the audience to feel like they want to touch me, to be intrigued, but also stand a distance because they aren’t sure what I am going to do next.”
Leslie Kraus and Paul Zivkovich, Photo: Christopher Duggan
He doesn’t mind the fact that some audience members might not see his scenes at all—in fact he calls this possibility “the beauty about the show. You can enter at which level you like, follow your instincts, hold your partner’s hand or not, get lost from them, get frustrated by that.” He adds, “It brings out people’s personalities.”
Ultimately, the eight-performances-a-week show is still a challenge. “The movement can be violent at times but I find the three hours of 100 percent commitment more exhausting mentally [than physically]. It’s a gift to have a job that forces you to be so present.”
Leslie Kraus, a 2009 “25 to Watch” for her work with Kate Weare Company, is a riveting performer. With her flaming red hair and intense eyes, she plays Lady Macbeth as well as a secondary character, Agnes Naismith.
Kraus worked briefly with Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett of Punchdrunk during the auditions, and she remembers the feedback they gave her. “It was all about that immersive quality,” she says. “They’re asking me to have an authentic experience that the audience is going to gravitate towards. You really are trying to project what you are doing. If you did it without that projection or intention then it doesn’t make any emotional sense to the audience. You have to do it with that fervor, and that’s what the whole training is: Drop in and connect with everything that you’re doing and really experience it.”
From the get-go, Kraus had no trouble really experiencing it. “The first time I played Lady Macbeth, at one point I looked behind me and saw Macbeth come towards me and he was just covered in blood. And I remember being like, Wow this is so present I don’t have to worry if I look in it enough. You are actually in this world.”
To get into the world, she had to use skills that dramatic actors use. “We’re trying to promote a story without using any words. [The audience has to see] the story behind my eyes, what my thought process is. If I’m having a thought, I have to be able to show it to you with my focus.” For dancers, she says, “If you go to pick up a glass because you want to drink, you pick up a glass to drink. But in this, you want to show seeing the glass, having the thought that you want the glass, and then go toward it.”
Another challenge is that the show is completely site-specific. “You pretty much dance on furniture, like a huge double bed, a dresser, or even a wall. I almost never dance with my feet on the floor.”
The proximity and unpredictability of the audience is a mixed bag for her. “They are leaning over your shoulder to watch what you’re doing. You can feel their energy, which can be wonderful or terrible. People are great and people are awful.”
A sensual dancer who can switch from sweet to forceful on a dime, Haylee Nichele plays the very pregnant Lady Macduff. Her demeanor is so real that you worry about the baby when she engages in a push-pull, tumultuous duet on a high ledge. Acknowledging that each performer puts a lot of themselves into each character, she says about that scene, “There’s a little bit of my own insanity or neuroses or need for control. I think it’s the perfect location to express that because you’re literally on an edge.”
Haylee Nichele, Photo: Christopher Duggan
Although the choreography is meticulously timed to the music, the danced relationship changes depending on who your partner is that night. “You might be more nurturing with somebody or more fiery or stubborn with somebody else. They might be excited or they might be exhausted, and that’s what you play off of.” She also plays off of the contradictions in her character. “I think that Lady Macduff is incredibly special because she is eight months pregnant. There’s this whole idea of protecting your child, yet these crazy, insane, and slightly exaggerated, unrealistic things happen to her.”
Nichele feels galvanized by the proximity of the masked viewers. “When the audience is swarming around you, it is so invigorating. I think that’s why the show is so fresh every night. There are some shows where I’m completely exhausted, but then you can feel somebody get into it and you hear them gasp, or go ‘Oooh’ or ‘Whoa!’ It’s exciting knowing they’re into it just as much as you are.”
Some specific reactions she’s gotten? “When Lady Macduff is murdered, you can hear them weep sometimes. And that is incredibly touching. You almost want to say, ‘I’m OK.’”
Nichele, who had danced in works by Mark Morris, Eliot Feld, and Merce Cunningham while at Juilliard, had to “give up those ideas of technique and just let the character come on, just open up to this different world.” She draws on her technical background very consciously during the show. “We’re not doing Limón, Graham, ballet, or Horton, but those things strengthen you and teach you how to use your body safely.”
Kina Poon is an associate editor and Wendy Perron is the editor in chief of Dance Magazine.