TROPIC OF CANCER (UNEXPURGATED) choreography by Lucy Rupert. Presented by Blue Ceiling/Rupert and DanceWorks at Dancemakers (55 Mill). Opens Wednesday (April 14) and runs to April 17 at 8 pm. $15-$18. 416-204-1082. Rating: NNNNN
If you saw a long-limbed, dreamy-eyed woman wandering around the ROM's recent Art Deco show not wanting to leave, it was probably Lucy Rupert. "I wanted to say to people, 'Get away from that sofa - it's mine. And please don't touch the vase!'" laughs Rupert.
"My whole life people have told me that I belong to another era."
No wonder. At 10, the future dance artist dressed up as a Beat poet for Halloween. This was in Sarnia - not exactly boho central. At 12, she pretended she was one of the Andrews Sisters.
But it's only been in the past few years that Rupert's explored her fascination with a particular era, the 1920s and 30s, onstage.
In works like Pru, a dance inspired by T. S. Eliot's The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Dinner At 7:30, a multidisciplinary piece by Allyson MacMackon inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, Rupert has blended text, time, movement and music.
Now comes Tropic Of Cancer (Unexpurgated), a full-length work that draws on Henry Miller's oft-censored 1934 cult classic about boozing, whoring and trying to write in Paris.
Rupert first read the thinly veiled autobiographical novel as a teenager but revisited it again after reading other writers like Lawrence Durrell and Eliot.
"Most of Miller's books are the same story from a different perspective, or a different stage of his life," she admits over coffee two weeks before opening night. "Miller wrote as an angry man, an older man who's more at peace with himself, and then some guy who's into meditation and Buddhism."
Excited by the idea of literary types like Miller, Durrell, Woolf, Eliot, Rebecca West and Anaís Nin all living in the same period and sometimes frequenting the same circles, Rupert last year mounted a workshop that involved performers playing all six artists, using bits of each of their writing.
The result, she admits, was confusing. This time she's reassembled the same performers but focused on the relationship between Miller and Durrell as seen in two of Miller's classic texts, Tropic Of Cancer and the later Tropic Of Capricorn.
"I've been reading some PhD theses with these Jungian analyses linking Durrell with the shadow figure in Miller's life and work," says Rupert, who just earned her MA in European history.
The six performers are holding onto the discoveries they made at the workshop, yet subtly take on different characteristics of Miller. All have also incorporated some idea of cancer - be it the crustacean, the astrological sign or the disease - into their physical performance.
Rupert smiles when I mention Miller's waning literary reputation.
"He never tried to be a literary, academic type," she says. "You go through pages of him going to this bar and that bordello. Then, suddenly, he'll describe businessmen walking through Manhattan mindlessly like trapped birds.
"That's a beautiful image that holds up today. He was a mystic and seer. Some of the things he said about America in relation to the world would not be popular right now."
And his angry, often misogynist prose?
"I think it bothered me more at 18," she says. "But after reading his correspondence with Durrell I think I understood more where he was coming from. He was angry at society, angry at his wife cheating on him in his first marriage that had gone badly. When he referred to women as cunts" - and here she shudders - "it wasn't about diminishing women or seeing them only as that, but it was a way to let out his rage."
In fact, the idea of letting out anger and rage is one of the strongest themes in the book, and her show.
"How do you deal with what you think is the complete collapse of your life?" she asks.
"You can descend into wild drinking and neurotic craziness or you can go to this poetic place. The end of Tropic Of Cancer is the beginning. What his character decides to do is write the book to cope with all he's gone through.
"For me, that's poignant. Life can be stinky, but you can make something out of it, even if it's a violent, angry thing full of the 'c' word." firstname.lastname@example.org