Plane Fiction

Plane Fiction by Kelly BulkeleyThe satisfying nightmares of Paula Hawkins’ novel “Into the Water.”

I mean it as high praise when I call a book “perfect for a long plane ride.”  To qualify for this lofty accolade, a book must meet every one of several demanding criteria.  The prose can’t be too dense, conceptual, or experimental; the reading has to feel effortless.  The plot should be driven by an ever-mounting sense of intrigue, mystery, and suspense.  There should be lots of dialogue, action, scene changes, and sudden revelations.  The characters should feel like a living presence in the reader’s mind.  The story must be emotionally intense, but it can’t be relentlessly gross, cruel, or perverse. This is the only time I consider reading contemporary realist fiction, which usually feels boringly mundane.  But for the purpose of totally immersing myself in a vivid literary world when cooped up in a plane for hours on end, this kind of fiction can do the trick.

I have two additional criteria that are probably peculiar to me.  The book should not be too focused on dreams and dreaming, lest I have to find a pen and start underlining passages and taking notes.  That would pull me out of the fictional world for sure.  Yet the book shouldn’t completely ignore dreams, either, because then I’m going to start wondering if the author has an adequate understanding of human nature, consciousness, desire, etc., and I’m pulled out of the story again.

All of which is to say, Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water (2017) is a perfect book for a long plane ride.  The new novel from the writer of The Girl on the Train (2015), Into the Water has everything I’m looking for in this infrequent but high-pressure situation.  Hawkins weaves an emotionally complex narrative about the experiences, memories, and dreams (more often nightmares) of a community of people living, and dying, along the banks of a river in rural England.  I didn’t take notes while reading the book, so I’m not going to quote specific lines, but at several points I remember feeling pleasantly satisfied as a character slipped into a reverie or was consumed by a terrifying dream.  In each instance it seemed just the right time for that character to have that kind non-rational experience.   Authentic moments of dreaming flowed in and out of their waking lives, enhancing the overall sense of enjoyable fictional immersion.

I finished the book about a half hour before landing,  giving me time to ponder the surprise ending and figure out how the story ultimately hangs together.

Exactly what I was looking for!

Note: Thanks to the bearded dude with the Blue Oyster Cult tattoo on his right shoulder working at the Casa del Libro bookstore in San Sebastian, Spain for pointing me and my wife to their small but excellent selection of English-language books.  He also recommended for plane reading the magically engaging Career of Evil (2016) by Robert Galbraith.

A Festival of Dreams

A Festival of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleySeveral hundred people from all over the world gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona this week to discuss the latest findings and methods in dream research.  The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams  featured five days of panels, workshops, and artistic events.  A lively mix of academic symposium, spiritual retreat, and collective self-experiment, the IASD conference offers a stimulating variety of approaches to the nature and meaning of dreams.

Here are several highlights from the sessions I attended.

Remington Mallet, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin, described exciting new research on “the ability to communicate in real-time between sleeping and waking.”  This theme has been explored in fictional form in various movies and television shows, from “Inception” and “The Matrix” to “Dream Corp. LLC.” Mallet analyzed the sleeping-waking communications portrayed in these popular media in relation to current scientific knowledge about what is and isn’t possible.  Mallet concluded that the media portrayals are far ahead of the actual science, but new technologies are moving quickly in the very same directions envisioned by the movies and television shows.

Sharon Pastore and Tzivia Gover of the Institute for Dream Studies gave a moving presentation on the common themes in the dreams of those who care for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Building on research on dreams and bereavement, they described how simple methods of exploring dreams can be helpful for the caregivers, whether professionals, friends, or family members: “Dreamwork can guide decisions in the care and communication with loved ones, as well as coping/healing.”  In additional to academic research, Pastore and Gover drew on personal experiences of caring for a parent with dementia to illuminate the value of dreams for the caregiving process.

Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, gave a fascinating keynote address on the role of sleep and dreaming in memory formation.  This has been a controversial topic in the field, with some researchers questioning the connection between sleep, dreams, and memory.  Stickgold granted that dreams rarely include episodic memories (i.e., direct, unmodified re-playings of a waking event).  But he laid out extensive evidence to support the idea that different stages of the sleep cycle are important for memory stabilization.  Sleep seems to help people better remember the emotionally relevant aspects of a waking experience.  He didn’t talk a lot about dreams, but he did note some studies “demonstrating the explicit incorporation of waking learning experiences into dream content… [S]uch incorporation is accompanied by enhanced sleep-dependent consolidation of the learning task.”  In other words, the more people dreamed about the learning task, the better they remembered it the next day.  The best part of Stickgold’s address, from my perspective, was his willingness to admit he does not have an easy answer to the “hard question” of how to relate the psychological experience of dreaming with the neurophysiological processes of sleep.  It was a refreshing statement of epistemological humility, and quite a contrast to the views of his predecessor at the Harvard lab, J. Allan Hobson, who had no doubt about the right answer to the hard question.

Linda Mastrangelo, a psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, explored in detail a series of her own dreams in which she found unexpected connections with her family heritage, ancestral roots, and places of origin.  She combined psychology, myth, art, and sacred geography to trace out a map of her dreaming landscapes.  The frequency of certain places in her dreams inspired her to learn more about her own spiritual grounding in special features of the land, and to deepen her awareness of the wisdom traditions and ecological teachings that have grown around these places over the ages.  As Mastrangelo made clear, this is a process that anyone can pursue in exploring their own symbolic connections between dreaming and place.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology and director of the sleep laboratory at Swansea University in the UK, proposed a theory of dream function that centered on the evolutionary value of empathy.  Drawing on the studies of Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley about fiction and empathy, Blagrove presented evidence in favor of a theory that telling dreams has the effect of eliciting greater empathy towards the dreamer, which strengthens interpersonal bonding and thus enhances reproductive fitness.  Blagrove made thought-provoking use of Mar and Oatley’s psychological analyses of fictional literature as a powerful means of simulating social experience and boosting our capacity to understand other people who are different from ourselves—that is, boosting our capacity for empathy.  After exploring the connections between empathy and dream-telling, Blagrove passed the microphone to Katja Valli, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skvode, Sweden, who agreed beforehand to offer constructive comments on the proposed theory.  This was an admirable exercise in scholarly dialogue, and a valuable opportunity for everyone in the audience to observe the kind of critical scrutiny that can help improve our ideas and sharpen our awareness.

Next year’s IASD conference will be held June 21-25 in the Netherlands, at the Rolduc Abbey conference facility in Kerkrade, about 200 kilometers south of Amsterdam.  The Abbey is a glorious 12th century structure where the IASD has hosted two previous conferences.  I can’t wait!

Note: this post first appeared on June 21, 2018 in Psychology Today.

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference by Kelly BulkeleyThe world’s biggest yearly gathering of dream researchers, teachers, artists, and therapists is less than two weeks away.

The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) will be held June 16-20 in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.   I attended my first IASD conference in 1988 in Santa Cruz, California, and I have only missed two since then.   This year I am giving several presentations, covering a range of current and emerging interests.  The conferences offer an ideal place to share new ideas and test future plans.  Many of my projects over the years have been the outgrowth and flowering of seeds first sown at an earlier IASD conference.  Below are the seeds I’m planting this year.

June 17-20, 8:00-9:00 am

Morning Dream-Sharing Workshop, with Bernard Welt

“Dream Journaling for First-Time IASD Conference Attendees”

This morning workshop is for first-time IASD attendees, who will learn a variety of methods for starting a dream journal, exploring the dreams that accumulate over time, and discovering surprising potentials for creativity and insight.  Attendees will be able to share their experiences and discuss common themes and questions.  The initial meeting of the workshop will involve introductions, questions about the conference, a discussion of initial interests in dreams, and a list of topics people want to learn more about.  The presenters will take time to introduce the attendees to the basic practice of keeping a dream journal, which some of the attendees may already do.  Also discussed in introductory terms will be the role of dream journals in history, art, religion, and science.  The following sessions each morning will provide ample space for the attendees to process their experiences at the conference, ask questions, share impressions, and correlate different ideas from different sources.  The presenters will make sure in each session to devote at least half the group’s discussion to various practical aspects of dream journaling, and the list of interests and questions that arose from the first session.

 

Sunday, June 17, 4:15 to 6:15 pm

Arts Symposium: Dreaming, Media, and Consciousness

“The Mythic Roots of Cinematic Dream Journeys”

The presentation will start with a discussion of the idea of films as simulated dreams (with “films” also including works appearing on television, some shorter than typical movies, some longer).  The presentation will analyze the elements of cinematic experience in terms of its historical roots in theater, myth, religious ritual, and shamanic journeys.  The focus in this first section will be the creative interplay of art and dreaming within the formal features of cinematic experience.  The second section will focus on two dream-related themes in several films and television shows that have deep mythic roots.  One of these themes is the heroic journey into the realm of dreaming in quest for something of importance or value for the waking world.  The other theme is the danger of becoming trapped in the realm of dreaming and no longer knowing what is waking and what is dreaming, or who is dreaming whom.  These two themes have alternately enchanted and terrified humans throughout history, as witnessed in various myths, stories, and philosophies around the world, and now in the movies and tv shows of the present day.  The power, mystery, and wonder-provoking weirdness of dreaming emerges very clearly in several films and televisions shows, including Dead of Night, Dream Corp. LLC, The OA, and Twin Peaks: The Return.  These and other works will be considered in terms of the two mythic themes of heroic journey and identity paradox.

 

Tuesday, June 19, 11:30 to 1:00

Religious Research Panel: Dreams About God

“The Dreams of God of Lucrecia de Leon”

The dreams of God reported by Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain, included dangerously accurate prophecies that brought down the wrath of the Inquisition.  This presentation explores the religious, psychological, and political dimensions of her dreams, especially the theme of dreams as speaking truth to power (drawing on the historical research I did for Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition).  The presentation will start with the historical context of Lucrecia and the religious dynamics of her life and community.  It will then look at the 24 dream reports specifically mentioning “God” in the main collection of her dreams, and discuss the main themes and features of these dreams.  This discussion will include use of digital methods of data analysis, Jungian psychology, cognitive science, and metaphorical theology.  The presentation will conclude with reflections on the psychological, political, and religious dimensions of dreaming in historical circumstances and in the present-day.

 

Wednesday, June 20, 2-3:30 pm

Dreamwork Panel: Theories and Work of Jeremy Taylor

“Creating a Dream Library”

Following his death, Jeremy Taylor’s massive collection of books and papers have been entrusted to me, and in this presentation I will share plans for building a library that will provide a long-term archive for Jeremy’s books and papers, plus my books and papers and other dream-related resources people have shared with me.  I will discuss the plans for this library in relation to Jeremy’s tool-kit principle #1 that ALL dreams speak in a universal language of symbol and metaphor.  That principle offers a key for understanding the nature and significance of Jeremy’s library (a vast repository of the world’s mythic, religious, and artistic traditions). I will also address Jeremy’s personal practice of dream journaling and its importance for an appreciation of his life and work.

 

Dreaming, Art, and Transformation

Dreaming, Art, and Transformation by Kelly BulkeleyAn experimental workshop offers a glimpse of the potential power of a dreaming collective.

The full impact of the Dream Mapping Project’s workshop in New York City won’t be known for a while, as each artist who participated now goes forth to reflect, imagine, and create new works.  But it was clear that everyone felt the vibrant intensity of the dreams we shared and the dynamism of our interactions with each other, and I’m not alone in saying it was the most powerful process of exploring dreams I have ever experienced.

We gathered on Friday morning, May 11, for an open-air breakfast at the Butcher’s Daughter restaurant, seven of us sitting outside at a table set for four.  It was a beautiful sunny day, and as the relentlessly honking trucks and cars roared past on the street just a few feet away, we had our first chance to talk and get to know each other.  We had been meeting via video conference for several months, but this was the first time most of us had met in person.

Dreaming, Art, and Transformation by Kelly BulkeleyFrom the restaurant we walked to our base camp for the weekend, a second-story loft on a tiny street curving through the heart of Chinatown.  It was a perfect space for our needs, with gentle theater lighting, a small stage, a couch, several chairs, a restroom, a curtained area with a video projector, and a tea and snack station.

We started with introductions, as each participant told the rest of us about their family background, cultural traditions, artistic practices, and international journeys as immigrants.  We talked about sleep, and dreams, and the various ideas and theories people have developed to interpret their dreams.  I told them about the general dream-sharing process we would be using during the workshop, and I described the most important principles for making sure this process became a positive experience for everyone, drawing on Jeremy Taylor’s basic approach to projective dreamwork.  I emphasized the need for everyone to feel safe and respected, and I encouraged us all to practice the virtues of patience, empathy, playfulness, and trust.

Following a lunch break, we invited a local musical artist, Rome, to officially launch the workshop with an hour-long “sound bath” performance.  Using a specially designed set of seven metal bowls, each one finely tuned to a specific musical note, Rome created a strong vibrational field within the loft space, playing notes, harmonies, and rhythms that resonated all through our bodies.

Dreaming, Art, and Transformation by Kelly BulkeleyNow in a very contemplative state of mind, we shared for first time the dream we had each chosen to bring to the workshop.  The suggestion was to bring a “big dream,” a dream that’s especially memorable and still feels vivid and powerful today, even if it came from many years ago.  Each participant described their dream twice, in the present tense, to help the rest of the group get a full, holistic sense of the dream’s characters, settings, feelings, etc.  I asked everyone to give a title to their dreams, and this is what they offered:

Jennifer (from Mexico, living in Venice): Tasting the Moon

Viktoria (from Ukraine, living in Berlin): Giving Birth to a New Me

Alisa (from Russia, living in New York City): The Potato Dream

Victor (from Zambia, living in Oslo): Creepy Lungs & A New Beginning

Kristof (from Flanders, living in Brussels): The Ancestor Dream

Lana: (from Jordan, living in rural Netherlands): Wear the Dance Belt on Your Head

Kelly: (from California, living in Portland): Being Dissected by the Evil Alien

(Note: the titles may change, depending on how the process unfolds from here.)

This took us through the rest of the evening, as we eventually opened the conversation to include all the dreams and began pondering their various points of immediate convergence (such as family members, animals, flying, loss, fire, crying, hope).

The next day we spiraled more deeply into these dreams, carefully exploring each element of each dream and inviting everyone in the group to share unexpected feelings, forgotten memories, and intuitive insights.  Two dream-savvy visitors, Bernard Welt and Margot Jewers, joined us for a few hours to add their perspectives.  At a certain point Alisa took the lead as the discussion became more psychological, bringing in ideas from Freud, Jung, and Gestalt theory, and also more spiritual, expanding into realms of transpersonal experience and metaphysical awareness.  We paused for long digressions to hear each other’s personal stories, many of which had never been told before.  The dreams themselves became a living presence in the room, like visitors from another dimension, the cosmic +1 for each member of the group.

As the night wore on, we began discussing our plans to create a collaborative performance that we could present on Sunday evening, at the end of the workshop.  We had invited a few local friends to attend, and we wanted to share something special with them, something they would find interesting, entertaining, and hopefully dream-provoking.  But we had no specific plan yet, and we finally decided to end for the day, get some rest, and trust that inspiration would strike.

When we gathered the following morning, everyone brought an impressive degree of energy and focus.  Led by Lana and Jennifer, we quickly dove into a series of theater and enactment exercises, playing with our dreams in more actively embodied ways.  By this point it felt almost effortless to slip into the dream characters and let them interact with each other.  And yet (speaking for myself), it also felt utterly surrealistic to embody one of my own “big dreams” while moving through a space filled with several other fully-immersed dream characters, whose lives and stories and multiplicities of meaning I had come to learn very, very well.

Before we knew it, it was time to prepare the stage, lay out refreshments, and welcome the guests.  The performance went by in a blur, and I have no idea what the attendees made of it.  I’m pretty sure they had never seen anything like it!

Dreaming, Art, and Transformation by Kelly BulkeleyBut after the audience left and we were able to debrief among ourselves, it was clear that everyone felt this kind of process has enormous creative potential, far beyond what we rather spontaneously put together for that evening.  We are cooking up plans for additional collaborations, with a goal of presenting a group exhibit at the 2019 conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, to be held in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, June 16-20.

Although the workshop officially ended Sunday evening, most of us stayed a day or two later to work with Kristof for additional video and photography work with our dream characters, going outside the womb-like studio into the vastness of the bright, bustling city.  Once again, the dream exploration process took another spiraling plunge into the psychic depths, as our embodied dreams entered a different reality, disclosing new dimensions of meaning.

The dream I shared with the group, “Being Dissected by the Evil Alien,” comes from my early 20’s, and I have been studying and exploring its meanings for many years.  Yet the dream became something entirely new during the course of this workshop.  Being in a group of immigrants, the Evil Alien suddenly appeared as an immigrant, as a strange and frightening visitor from a radically different place.  As I let the members of the group guide me through a deeper exploration of the dream, I gradually became aware of the sensation of being metaphorically “dissected by aliens,” leading to a surprising shift in the locus of my perspective within the dream.

On Monday, Alisa and Kristof dressed me in a black cape and leather mask, and told me to close my eyes.  They walked me around for several minutes, spun me in various directions, then told me to open my eyes. I was standing in broad daylight at the intersection of Canal Street and 6th Avenue.  Truly, an out-of-body experience—bringing the dream into waking, and waking into the dream.  I have never, ever felt like more of an alien in the world.

I’ve asked the other participants to write some reflections about what they felt during and after the workshop, so I will wait until I hear from them before making too many big-picture comments about what it all meant.  One thing was very clear on that last night, however—everyone had gained a dramatically deeper insight into their own big dream, and into dreaming in general.  The group somehow generated an unusually high degree of trust, engagement, and creativity that made those insights possible.  The question I’m now pondering is, how exactly did that happen?

We had done a lot of preparatory work by phone, video, and email, and that certainly helped when we finally got together for the workshop.  Alisa arranged for an excellent meeting space, and Lana, Kristof, and Jennifer lent us their theatrical skills.  Jeremy Taylor’s approach to group dream-sharing, with its emphasis on the “If it were my dream” preface, provided a simple, common language we could use to safely and respectfully navigate through each other’s dreamscapes.

Perhaps the most important factor was what I am calling (in retrospect) our multi-polar approach to leadership.  Alisa and I set the project in motion, and we both made introductory comments at the start of the workshop.  But after that, the process took on a life of its own, as different members of the group stepped forward at various points to guide the next twist of the spiral.  The final performance was a thoroughly collaborative effort that emerged organically, with no fixed plans or expectations.  The multiplicities of the group—multiplicities of personality, culture, gender, race, sexuality, and artistic media—became an amazing source of interpretive strength.

Two other serendipitous events helped prepare me for the workshop.  The first came on Wednesday, the day before I traveled to New York, when I had a cup of tea with Delanna Studi, who wrote and performed the one-woman show “And So We Walked,” a fascinating dramatic memoir about her journey, in waking and dreaming, to reconnect with her Cherokee heritage.  I saw the show that evening at Portland Center Stage, and felt extremely inspired by her courage, creativity, and deep wisdom about the ways of dreaming.  The second came the next morning, on the flight to New York, when I read a book I had recently bought, Jon Lipsky’s Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out (2008), which I figured might give me some ideas for the workshop.  Indeed it did!  I’ll close here with some quotes from Lipsky, a powerfully creative dreamer in his own right and a long-time professor of theater at Boston University:

“It is this quality—that dreams are both part of us and apart from us—that makes them so valuable to anyone interested in their inner life, and to artists in particular.”

“Dream Enactment is a laboratory for collaborative playmaking.  Each dream has to be explored by the ensemble.”

“Dream Theater is a laboratory for practicing the art of ‘rotating’ leadership.”

“So: imagine a nightclub—small round tables, low light, candles—and up where the jazz band would play there’s a stage.  On that stage a troupe of actors appears for late-night dreams.  A soundman with a synthesizer sits off to one side and starts tolling a bell. The Dream Show is about to start. For the next forty-five minutes, the troupe will present a set of dreams like a set of jazz with themes woven together through image and narrative like some kind of theatrical music. The troupe takes a break and over good wine or strong coffee members of the audience, stimulated by the dream set, share their own reminiscences of dream life. The bell tolls again and a second set of dreams is enacted. Maybe even some dreams culled from the audience are presented as an encore. This is one vision of a Theater of Dreams: a place where actors and audience re-experience their dreams. The style would not be dreamy, but precise. The goal would be to have the audience dream the actors’ dreams. The breadth of experience that we all possess in dreams—what I call ‘Our Own Shakespearean Stage’—would be revealed. Actors and audience would come together in a world of imagination where the fantastic and the mundane sit side by side and our passions are unleashed in the most ordinary circumstances. Here we feel the overlap of our dreamscapes with our waking life, and we leave the theater feeling that our world is much fuller than we usually allow. The magic of a dream show is that it’s essentially autobiographical, a true personal story distilled and embellished by the creativity of the dreamer’s dream weaver. The Dream Café demands a commitment to be true to the dream story, while crafting a theater piece that resonates on a more universal level. This is an attempt to stretch the boundaries of contemporary theater by throwing our intimate, personal, imagistic experiences on a larger archetypal canvas.”

 

Art, Immigration, and Dreaming: An Experimental Workshop

Art, Immigration, and Dreaming: An Experimental Workshop by Kelly BulkeleyAn international group of artists join together to explore their dreams.

Next weekend (May 11-13), six professional artists and I will gather in New York City for an experimental workshop on the interplay of dreaming, artistic creativity, and the realities of life as an immigrant.  The participants are an incredibly talented group, and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to learn from them.  The artists include:

Alisa Minyukova. Born in Leningrad, living in New York City.

Victor Mutelekesha. Born in Zambia, living in Oslo, Norway. 

Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez. Born in Mexico, living in Venice, Italy.

Viktoria Sorochinski. Born in Ukraine, living in Berlin, Germany.

Lana Nasser. Born in Jordan, living in the Netherlands.

Kristof Persyn. Born in the Netherlands, living in Belgium.

Alisa originally came up with the idea for the project, and since the beginning of the year she and I have been in regular conversation with these artists via video conferences, talking about their dreams and exploring questions of language, identity, and meaning in both art and dreaming.  As an overarching concept for the workshop, Alisa has been developing the idea of “dream mapping.” We will experiment and play with various ways of mapping the terrain of our dreaming landscapes, orienting ourselves to their most important features, and tracking our dream personas as they journey through these imaginal realms.  Each artist brings a lifetime of personal and cultural experience with dreaming, which bodes well for the creative energies we hope to generate together.

Two other people have been invited to join the workshop at certain points to add their ideas to the mix.  Bernard Welt, a long-time friend from the International Association for the Study of Dreams and a leading expert on dreaming and the arts, will lead a discussion about dream journals, sharing dreams, and mapping dream content.  And Rome Omboy, an artist and healer, will open and close the workshop with a Singing Bowl meditation.

A major motivation for the gathering is the rising hostility and violence towards immigrants all over the world.  We believe artists can be a powerful force in promoting greater recognition of our shared humanity, especially artists who are deeply attuned to the multiple identities that emerge within their own dreaming depths.  The goal of the workshop will be to generate creative insights about overcoming fears of otherness and illuminate new paths toward personal and collective integration.

Kristof will be creating a video documentary of the workshop, which is sure to become an interesting creative work of its own.

 

 

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma!

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyPeeling away Freudian assumptions to reach a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A radiant new production of the musical Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival re-interprets a classic American love story for contemporary audiences.  With bold innovations in casting, staging, and choreography, the OSF production differs in many ways from the 1943 Broadway stage version and the 1955 Oscar-winning film.  Far from changing the story, these innovations amplify and extend its original, joyful spirit.

This is especially true with “the Dream Ballet,” the elaborate dance sequence that ends Act I.  Created by the legendary Agnes de Mille, the Dream Ballet has become an icon in the history of American musicals.  The new OSF production, directed by Bill Rauch and choreographed by Ann Yee, intensifies the emotional energy of this central moment in the play and deepens our psychological insight into the feelings and motivations of the characters.

At the risk of theatrical heresy, I will say the OSF production of the Dream Ballet is better than the original. It goes further in illuminating the emotional heart of this dramatized nightmare, and it peels away the original version’s mistaken psychoanalytic assumptions about female sexuality to reveal a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyA quick recap of the plot: Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and Ali Hakim, a Persian traveling salesman, are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s girlfriends.

The OSF production makes two significant changes in casting.  Curly is played by a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, and Ado Annie is now Ado Andy, played by a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens.  The love triangles are the same, but the gender dynamics have changed, and the Dream Ballet changes, too.

The new production makes it easier to recognize that Laurey’s dream is not about a romantic choice between Curly and Jud.  The preceding scenes make it clear that Laurey only agreed to go to the Box Social with Jud in order to spite Curly (“I did it because Curly was so fresh”), and she confesses to Aunt Eller that she’s deeply scared of the brooding, resentful Jud: “Sumpin’ wrong inside him, Aunt Eller… I know what I’m talkin’ about.” In the OSF version, Laurey’s romantic desires are obviously inclined toward the female Curly, which doubly emphasizes her sexual disinterest in Jud.

What, then, is Laurey dreaming about, if not a choice of Jud versus Curly?

The dream begins with a playfully sensual dance, in which Laurey revels in the pure freedom of movement and feeling that open up to her within this imaginal space.  A spotlight tracks her as she dances and floats across the stage, casting an enormous, graceful shadow on the screen behind.  Then Curly enters the dream and joins her dance, along with other shadow spirits who further enliven the increasingly romantic atmosphere.  The dancing gradually morphs into a beautiful wedding procession.  But just as Laurey is ready to pledge her vows to Curly, Jud steps between them.

Everything suddenly darkens, as Jud takes control of the dream space and everyone’s behavior within it. He seizes Laurey, casts Curly aside, and forces all the other characters to conform to his personal desires, desires that have been stoked by the pornographic pictures in his smoke house.  The women from these pictures now enter into the dream and move around the stage like harlequin puppets, mimicking sexual acts with a robotic lack of emotion.

The most striking innovation in the OSF version of the Dream Ballet occurs at this point, when Jud commands that two characters with non-traditional gender presentations be forced to switch their clothing, so they look like a “normal” man and woman.

Laurey seems utterly helpless as Jud imposes his will on her dreamscape, turning it into a nightmare of paralyzing weakness and vulnerability.  When Jud rises up against Curly and violently attacks her, pounding her with wooden logs and punching her mercilessly, Laurey is terrified that Curly might actually die under the assault.

At that moment, Laurey’s agency suddenly returns.  She steps between them, letting Jud know she will accept him if he will let Curly live.  Jud agrees, the violence ceases, and the dream ends.

If, as I’ve suggested, the dream is not about Laurey’s romantic indecision between Curly and Jud, then perhaps their presence in her dream should be viewed in less literal terms.  Perhaps their significance is more symbolic or metaphorical in meaning.

A good way of testing that idea is to apply the “Gestalt” approach of psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970).  Perls taught that one way to explore dreams is to treat them as inner theatrical productions, with every element of the dream—each object, setting, and character—representing some metaphorical aspect of the dreamer’s own personality.  The dramatic conflicts in dreams reveal parts of ourselves that are immature, alienated, or not yet integrated. The better we understand these conflicts, the more fully we can grow into our innate potentials for health and wholeness.

This is just one way to look at dreams, and many others could be validly applied here.  But let’s see where a Gestalt approach leads.

For Laurey, her conflicts in the play revolve around one of the most frightening experiences of human life: falling in love.  If she yields to her feelings for Curly, Laurey will have to let down her guard and emotionally open herself more than she ever has before.  She will become a new interpersonal being, a sexually mature adult, an intimate romantic partner.  To fall in love is to undergo a total transformation of the self.  The first scenes of the play make it clear that Laurey is, indeed, falling deeply in love with Curly, who just as clearly loves her back.  But for some reason, Laurey cannot openly express her feelings.  What’s holding her back?

This is where the Gestalt approach may help.  Using this method, we look for aspects of Laurey’s personality that can be described metaphorically as an “inner Jud” threatening to destroy her budding love with Curly.  And here, I believe, we come to an intriguing notion.  At least twice in the early parts of the play, Laurey behaves in quite Jud-like ways.

First, Laurey’s response to Curly’s songs to her (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”) follows the same emotional trajectory as Jud’s response to Curly’s song to him (“Poor Jud”)—their initial enchantment with Curly’s alluring visions turning to bitterness and disillusionment at how far the visions fall from reality.  Laurey berates Curly after the “Surrey” song, saying “Why’d you come around here with yer stories and lies, gittin’ me all worked up that-a-way?”, before furiously slamming the door on her.  Laurey’s angry distrust blocks her from accepting the uncertain future of a romantic relationship with Curly, just as Jud’s angry distrust prevents him from forming any kind of relationship at all.

Second, when Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to the Box Social, her goal is not to spend more time with Jud, but rather to provoke a jealous reaction in Curly.  Whether intentionally or not, Laurey tries to manipulate both of them to suit her personal needs and desires.  She treats Jud as an impersonal tool, and Curly as a passive object for her to control.  This is ultimately Jud’s deepest character flaw: his obsession with dehumanizing fantasies of power and control that seem to fulfill his wishes but in fact only make it harder for him to become truly intimate with real humans.

None of this is to suggest that Laurey is exactly like Jud in all ways, or that we should feel more sympathy for his violent behavior.  Rather, this Gestalt-informed approach suggests the Dream Ballet is a metaphorical vision of why exactly Laurey is having so much difficulty letting herself fall in love: She’s too much like Jud. To enter into a truly mutual and loving relationship with Curly, Laurey must first deal with the problematic qualities she shares with Jud.  As her dream vividly portrays, these qualities will kill any chance of a real relationship with Curly.

Laurey seems unable to stop Jud’s attacks on Curly in the dream, until she makes the active, conscious decision to embrace Jud.  Again, this does not signal Laurey’s romantic preference for Jud.  In a Gestalt view, this means that Laurey realizes in the dream the only way to save her love for Curly is to take responsibility for her own Jud-like qualities and grow into a larger self that can encompass these energies without being overwhelmed or dominated by them.  This greater emergent self is prefigured in the OSF production with Laurey’s magnified dancing shadow, a dark but graceful harbinger of growth to come.

To sum it up in Shakespearean terms, Laurey comes to a realization similar to that of Prospero at the end of The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” (V.i.275-276)

Unfortunately, when Laurey awakens she immediately (mis)interprets the dream in a literalistic way, as instructing her to choose Jud over Curly. It takes the second act of the play for Laurey to recognize her mistake and learn how to express her true feelings.  She finally agrees to join Curly in marriage, and she rallies the strength to confront the “outer” Jud and tell him he’s fired.  In both instances, Laurey speaks with greater confidence, maturity, and passion than ever before.  She has indeed grown to become a newly conscious being, sure of her own expanded power, and yet willing to open herself fully and lovingly to another.

I would offer this same argument about the meaning of the Dream Ballet in the original production of Oklahoma!, but it would be a tougher case to make.  This is why I say the OSF production is better than the original, which was overlaid with so many Freudian preconceptions that Laurey’s deeper conflict is harder to appreciate.

According to Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories were enormously influential in the mid-20th century United States, dreams are fantasy fulfillments of unconscious wishes, usually sexual, that remain unfulfilled in waking life.  The Dream Ballet seems to fit this theory perfectly: Laurey naturally desires a sexual relationship with a real man, not a boy, and Jud’s postcard girls symbolize her own repressed erotic wishes.  Laurey’s mind may prefer Curly, but her loins favor the hot, fiery Jud. To resolve this conflict and fulfill her unconscious wish, the dream sets it up so that Laurey’s embrace of Jud appears to be a morally virtuous self-sacrifice, rather than the lustfully satisfying fantasy it truly is.  Both ego and id get what they want.

In the original staging, with Jud and Curly cast as men, such an interpretation makes a superficial kind of sense, especially with Curly having a gun in the dream that won’t shoot, a classic Freudian symbol of male impotence.  And yet this interpretation depends on a theory about “hidden” female sexual desire that is problematic, to say the least.  It suggests Laurey’s resistance to Jud is actually repressed unconscious desire.  When she says no to him, she’s really wanting to say yes.

As I’ve noted above, there is nothing in the text to justify the idea that Laurey is romantically attracted to Jud.  Only if Freud’s mistaken ideas about unconscious female sexuality are smuggled into the story can Laurey’s character and dream be interpreted in this way.

The OSF production liberates Laurey from these psychoanalytic shackles and brings forth a more authentic dimension of meaning in her dream that was always there, but not as evident in the original version.  With Curly cast as a woman, it becomes clearer than ever that Laurey’s deepest conflict is not simply about sex, but about love—the frightening, exhilarating, and transformative experience of falling in love with another person.

 

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, May 2, 2018.