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Storyteller mimes historic Apollo 11 moon landing at Royce Hall

Physical storyteller Andrew Dawson said it was difficult for him as an aspiring actor to inhabit other characters, but with mime and physical theater, he has learned to tell stories using just his body. He will perform interpretations of “Space Panorama” and “Spirit of the Ring” at Royce Hall. (Keaton Larson/Daily Bruin)

"Space Panorama & Spirit of the Ring"

Through Nov. 17

Royce Hall

$49

By Matthew Chu

Nov. 13, 2019 10:18 p.m.

While the eyes are the window to the soul, the hands can be just as expressive.

Meticulous hand gestures and facial expressions make up the performance toolkit of physical storyteller Andrew Dawson, who is showcasing two original works for UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance at Royce Hall through Nov. 17. “Space Panorama” recounts the story of the Apollo 11 moon landing in commemoration of its 50th anniversary, while “Spirit of the Ring condenses Kurt Wagner’s 16-hour “The Ring Cycle” into a 30-minute performance.

Dawson recreates scenes from the stories by forming shapes with his hands and moving them around a table. Featuring only Dawson as himself and a black-clothed table as his stage, the two pieces are mimed to prerecorded music and voice-overs. In “Space Panorama,” narration provides context for the visuals, while Wagner’s score provides a musical setting for “Spirit of the Ring.” Although the stories that Dawson reimagines are large in scope, he said he sees his miniaturized approach as an advantage to his storytelling.

“The beauty of a constraint is that your imagination is then limitless,” Dawson said. “In a way, the tighter the constraint, the more your imagination can get on far … and I thought, ‘If you’re going to use a small stage, then you’d better tell a really big story.’”

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As an aspiring actor, Dawson said it was difficult to inhabit other characters, but with mime and physical theater, he learned to tell stories using just his body. Having trained under the exercise therapy Feldenkrais Method, he practices movements and exercises to limber up his shoulders, his arms and especially his hands – running his thumb up and down his fingers to keep them soft and flexible.

Such techniques are on full display in “Space Panorama,” which he conceived in 1987 alongside director Jos Houben. Together, Dawson said they drew from television images and memories of watching the moon landing as children to visually tell the story. Gavin Robertson, who voices the piece’s documentary-style narration, said the performance is faithful while maintaining a witty tone.

“On the one hand, the attitude is serious and awestruck,” Robertson said. The moon landing was an amazing accomplishment. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of slight sardonic or wry comment on how big an event it was, how much money was spent to get people to the moon, while we still have a lot of poverty on this planet.”

Similarly, to reinterpret “The Ring Cycle” for “Spirit of the Ring,” Dawson said he spent a long summer studying the opera to determine what he could translate onto the table without losing the story’s essence. Dawson said his creative process to accomplish this task was akin to filmmaking.

“Even though there’s no actual camera involved, the way I move my body and the way I tell the story, I tell it like a film story,” he said. “I can go into an extreme close-up, I can go into a wide shot, and I tell this visual, movie story.”

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As in cinema, Dawson said choreographing his hands is similar to editing so that the action hits the right musical beat. For “Spirit of the Ring,” he said Wagner’s musical themes aided this process, as audiences who know the opera will recognize the character motifs. Meanwhile, “Space Panorama” features excerpts from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, which Dawson said he selected not only for its filmic qualities but also as a nod to the Space Race – scoring the American moon landing to Russian music.

With this year marking the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Meryl Friedman, CAP UCLA’s director of education and special initiatives, said Dawson’s retelling is an opportunity to engage younger generations with the historical event. Friedman said young students from the UCLA Community School spent the past year learning about the landing and designing their own spaceships and art pieces, which will be on display at Royce Hall.

“I think that it’s very inspiring to see what one person with their own body can do as storyteller,” Friedman said. “The analogy is watching a great athlete work with their body and what their training and their passion and their dedication allows them to do. An artist works the same way, and it’s great for anybody of any age to see that.”

After decades of practicing theater and dance, Dawson said he never gets bored of performing for others. In a way, he said he shares the experience of his audience, watching the story unfold in front of him. And as a storyteller, he finds fulfillment in creating those images out of his imagination and seeing them come to life.

“The pleasure is knowing you’re triggering those images in people’s minds and then taking them on a journey through the story,” Dawson said.

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