Writers in Collaboration: When Words Become Dance

BY Rochelle Goldstein, October 10, 2019

Writers in Collaboration is a bi-weekly series covering writers involved in two art mediums and/or working with other artists.


This week we sat down with head of the translation program, Professor Susan Bernofsky who has been working with choreographer John Heginbotham's and artist Maira Kalman to bring the works of late Swiss writer Robert Walser to the stage.


Headshot of Susan BernofskyAlthough Bernofsky has been involved in musical performances before—she translated part of the German libretto of the Magic Flute for an Isaac Mizrahi production—never has she been on stage, a principle player. But for a 3-day run at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Bernofsky will be the still point for other performers in the dance play, Herz Schmerz, its title a tragi-comical pastiche that translates into "heart sickness" or "heart pain." 


The work, inspired by Nervous, a short piece written in 1919 by the German-speaking Swiss writer, Robert Walser, includes chorally performed staccato overlappings of words, or “moods” as Bernofsky describes them, to the music of Swiss composer Hans Huber, a contemporary of Walser’s. Commissioned by Mikhail Barysnikov, the project began as a collaboration between choreographer John Heginbotham, who was part of the Mark Morris Dance Group before starting his own troupe, and noted illustrator and author Maira Kalman who designed the sets and costumes and who previously worked with Bernofsky on another Walser-related project.


Bernofsky was involved in the performance initially as a consultant in this latest transformation of the words of the man she unabashedly calls her “first literary love.” She has, since those early adolescent stirrings become one of the world’s leading translators of Walser’s work and has helped spearhead a popular revival of interest in the original and idiosyncratic author. She’s been thinking about and translating Walser for thirty-five years, and in fact, on the exact day that the Herz Schmerz collaboration began in early August, she handed in a 700-page biography of the writer to her editor at Yale University Press, the fruits of a 7-year effort. 


It was this intimate knowledge of Walser that Bernofsky drew on as her role in the dance play evolved. At his most prolific, the German-speaking Swiss writer was the lens through which you understood the lesser known Kafka. Aside from Kafka, many of the leading writers of his time admired him: Herman Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Robert Musil, to name a few. His more contemporary admirers included Susan Sontag and Wilhelm Sebold. Walser is now considered to be an important modernist, the missing link between Kleist and Kafka. In Berlin, Robert Walser and his brother Kurt, a renowned set designer, were men about town, and Robert turned out novels and stories and feuilleton for the newspapers.  


But like many writers, he faced the familiar challenge of making a living to supplement his art, and true to his idiosyncratic sensibility, he transformed himself into a butler, a job that requires the complete disappearance into a role. He was also a clerk to help subsidize his writing, but eventually became overwhelmed by the stresses of life and had a nervous breakdown, voluntarily committing himself to a sanitorium, where he spent the last 22 years of his life until his death in 1956. 


It was this time in his life that Bernofsky drew on to inform her role in the play. Seated at a small desk methodically folding a piece of paper, Bernofsky provides the anchor in a stage space full of frenetic activity as the other performers move around her. Heginbotham calls her role “the heartbeat” of the play. I asked her how she could maintain concentration, and interest, having to perform this rote task for the 40 minutes of the production, and over the “many, many, many” hours of rehearsal. She said she channeled Walser at the sanitorium, where in the wisdom of the day the way to treat mental illness was to provide calming, rote tasks to patients.  Walser was given the task of pasting and folding paper bags.


“It started with way more text,” Bernofsky said about the collaboration, pausing during rehearsal to fill me in. At the very beginning Kalman, Heginbotham, and Baryshnikov read Walser’s letters out loud to each other around the piano until through words they began to sense their way into movement. The spine of the play evolved from the story Walking into the anxiety-producing Nervous. Eventually the cocoon of words cracked open and dissolved altogether into Walser’s buoyant rhythms, and the humor and tragedy of his life transformed into movement, gesture, and sound. 


Bernofsky calls Heginbotham “a great choreographer” in the way he can combine movement and gesture in new ways that culminate in a fresh approach to Walser. “He needs to create in real time and thinks through other people’s bodies,” Bernofsky said. She tells me the choreographer chose to work with only one professional dancer, Maile Okamura, a colleague from the Mark Morris Dance Group, and two actors, David Barlow and Daniel Pettrow, who do not have a dance background, because he wanted to incorporate how nonprofessionals move across the stage into the mix. Cellist Caitlin Sullivan and Pedja Muzijevic also perform. Aside from the design, Kalman will speak Walser’s words, the few words that now glint on top of the music like something iridescent.  


Herz Schmerz will run from October 10-12 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37thStreet, New York City. Tickets can be purchased here.