‘Dance Opera’ celebrates the eternally provocative Anaïs Nin
The late author Anaïs Nin has been both celebrated and condemned for her frank writings about sexuality and the creative spirit. Her essays and memoirs contain intimate details of her bohemian lifestyle, her passionate love affair with Henry Miller and her friendships and flings with other leading literary figures. She kept journals for most of her life and wrote candidly about taboo subjects like adultery, incest and abortion.
Such a dynamic life makes for great drama, and Nin’s life has been adapted for the stage several times. The latest incarnation is “Anaïs, A Dance Opera,” created by composer-lyricist Cindy Shapiro and director-choreographer Janet Roston. Produced by Mixed eMotion Theatrix, it opens Aug. 27 at the Greenway Court Theatre.
The performance features six dancers, and “Eternal Anaïs,” as she’s called, is the singer and the evening’s master of ceremonies. She is Nin’s spirit in the present day, reflecting on her many anecdotes as the dancers carry out her stories. One of the dancers inhabits the physical role of Anaïs, while her spirit watches on and occasionally offers guidance.
Nin was born in France in 1903 to Cuban parents. The show is essentially a theatrical biopic, covering Nin’s life from childhood, when her parents separated and she arrived in America at 11 years old, to her death in Los Angeles in 1977. A humorous scene occurs in her early 20s, when her first husband brings her back to Paris, and she is shocked by the cross-dressing and sexual openness at the famed Folies Bergère cabaret hall. In one scene, the dancers representing Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller play out their sexual affair in a steamy dance onstage. A more serious scene is drawn from a nightmare Nin catalogued in her memoirs.
The libretto does not quote Nin, but her words are projected onto a screen throughout the performance, along with lyrics from the songs. In one scene, a recording of the real-life Nin reading from her diary is heard as dancers interpret her words. Other projections help set the tone for each scene. Rather than use sets, the video flashes from a bustling Paris cafe to the neon lights of Broadway.
In the show, the “Eternal Anaïs” character uses a handheld mic rather than a wireless body mic, lending the performance the air of a concert. It’s “part rock show, part theater experience,” Shapiro said. “It’s just this weird hybrid.”
This is not Shapiro’s first opera about a strong-willed woman. She wrote a 2014 rock opera about the Greek mythological character Psyche that featured a nine-piece ensemble and was sung by a 13-member cast. Roston was the show’s choreographer, their first collaboration.
The seeds for “Anaïs, A Dance Opera” were planted about six years ago, when Shapiro read a collection of love letters between Nin and Miller called “A Literate Passion.” She began writing songs about it immediately, and she and Roston “chipped away at it, little by little” while they worked on “Psyche,” Roston said.
The two also brought in Nin’s editor and publisher, Paul Herron, as an adviser. His small publishing house, Sky Blue Press, has published Nin’s unexpurgated diaries, as well as an annual literary journal and a blog focused on Nin, and he hosts the “Anaïs Nin Podcast.”
Nin’s thoughts on love and art have been “trending” thanks to social media. A 2015 article in The Guardian found that Nin has become a “style muse” for contemporary artists. Images bearing inspirational quotations from her work are prevalent online. Her greeting card-worthy quotes include “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are,” “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage,” and “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”
Nin was “the original blogger,” Roston said, and would have felt right at home on Twitter.
“Things she said in 1942 are considered radical now,” Roston said. “She was decades ahead of her time.”
Roston has worked as a choreographer for TV shows, commercials and the stage. She received several awards for her 2014 production of “The Color Purple” at Celebration Theatre. Her father was twice president of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
In the 1980s, Shapiro performed music in New York City’s downtown underground rock scene. She went from diving off stages to working as a video game developer, and later singing on the bimah as the second cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She has also worked as the music teacher at the temple’s day school, run the youth choir and prepped “hundreds of kids” for their bar and bat mitzvahs.
An early version of the show was performed in October at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica, mainly to gauge audience reaction to the songs and the projections. The reaction was positive. But just two weeks later, Shapiro underwent surgery to remove a deadly brain tumor. She’d had blinding headaches for decades. An MRI detected “a one-and-a-half-centimeter ball in the middle of my head,” she said. “They had to literally separate the two halves of my brain to get this thing out.” After a successful operation and about two months of recovery, Shapiro returned to work on the Anaïs Nin production.
Shapiro said that as she worked on the opera, she noticed “how much power there is right now in the idea of sexual agency. The idea that a woman can express herself sexually and be a sexual being is still considered novel in our culture.” She cited an article written by President Barack Obama about feminism in the September issue of Glamour, in which he argued, “We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.”
Nin, of course, is not universally loved. In 1995, the biographer Deirdre Bair published a scathing book about Nin. The heavily researched, nearly 700-page biography characterized Nin’s memoirs as intentionally deceitful. In reality, Bair argued, Nin was a selfish narcissist, pampered by her parents and indulged by her husbands (she was married simultaneously to Hugo Guiler and Rupert Pole, which she kept secret until both men claimed her on their tax returns). According to Bair’s portrait, Nin seduced adolescents, slept with her father, hurt others with no emotion while boasting of her generosity and was a self-promoter obsessed with fame who used art as an excuse to act irresponsibly.
“It was basically a hatchet piece. It’s considered the absolute undoing of Anaïs’ stature in the culture, because it went through her life story in a factual way, but also, along the way, Deirdre Bair was weaving through her tale how much she disrespected her subject, and how horrible and monstrous the subject was,” Shapiro said, calling the biography a case of “slut shaming.”
“Nin was this absolutely brilliant, poetic writer and groundbreaking author,” Shapiro said, “philosopher, and basically a genius.” This opera is less an effort to “rehabilitate Nin’s reputation in the culture,” Shapiro said, than it is to honor the late writer’s legacy.