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Dwight School Students Interpret Tao Te Ching in New Play

By Della Hasselle | December 10, 2011 11:04am

UPPER WEST SIDE — A new play by the Upper West Side's Dwight School brings a little hip-hop and modern dance to the ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching.

"The Way," directed by the school's theater director and New York City actor Terrence Christgau, is being performed through Sunday at the YMCA on 64th Street near Central Park West. It is the first play to use the verses of the Tao Te Ching in a Western setting with modern-day themes and struggles, according to Christgau.

"What you will see...is a global premiere of a play that is new in content and form and one that is left malleable so that any group whether educational or professional, from across the world, can mold the characters," Christgau said.

Christgau said the play takes up themes that reflect the philosophy of Tao Te Ching and philosopher Lao-tzu's poems, including the message that rigidity is not the same as strength.

"In the worst of storms, the reed will lay down in the wind and rain and stand again when the storm passes, whereas the great mighty oak, a symbol of strength, will crack, break and perhaps fall because of the rigidity that is supposed to be its strength," according to a translation of one of the poems.

To modernize the script, Christgau allowed the students to devise their own pieces, based on their own New York experiences, using twelve of the Tao Te Ching poems.

In one play, 25 students, ranging from grades 9 through 12, played students, teachers and parents coping with a life-threatening illness of a couple's newborn child.

Other original pieces include a hip-hop performance where student Jonathan Burton, a sophomore, raps about his fear of death and the desire for people to love each other more fully. In another, senior Olivia Dunkley performs a modern dance piece to Verse 57 of the Tao Te Ching.

"It's all about non-attachment," said Dunkley, "In the verse it says, 'let go' a lot. That's what I'm trying to interpret."

Senior and stage manager Fallon Rosen said the play looks at how it can be challenging, but rewarding, for those raised in the west to accept Eastern philosophy.

"It's about how if you incorporate the Tao into your life, it changes the whole perception of things," Rosen explained. "This story is about someone who doesn't use the Tao, in any way, and everything just really starts to not go so well."

Rosen added that rehearsal would often end in hour-long discussions, in which the class broke down the literature and applied the principles to their everyday lives as students and as New Yorkers.

"I think it's a really great opportunity because here we don't really learn that much about the Tao, and about Chinese culture," Rosen added. "And I think it's a really great opportunity to understand something so fully. It's really incredible."