Emily Pope-Blackman and Gregg Mozgala in rehearsal, photo by Andrea Mohin
Last Thursday night I canceled rehearsals to go see Diagnosis of a Faun, presented by the VSA International Festival at the Kennedy Center. Choreographed by Tamar Rogoff, the work was inspired in part by the famous ballet Afternoon of a Faun and features Gregg Mozgala in the lead role of the faun. An actor by training, Mozgala learned to dance for this role and proves himself to be an articulate and captivating mover. Exploring the intersection of myth, medicine and the stage, Diagnosis tells the story of both the faun and an injured ballerina-nymph who are under observation by two different doctors for severe injuries to their achilles tendon.
Most reviews of the work focus on Mozgala’s biography as a “31 year old actor with cerebral palsy,” and I confess that his condition was part of what intrigued me about the piece. My brother, Wade, was born with mild cerebral palsy, and, as a child, he went to all kinds of therapy and special programs for his condition. These days Wade doesn’t have any visible handicap, and he really enjoys physically active work like working on our family’s farm. Dancing, like field work, is basically skilled manual labor, and it was fascinating to me that someone with cerebral palsy about my brother’s age would choose to push himself in this way.
Watching Gregg was amazing, but not really because of the “inspirational-overcoming-handicap” angle. He was just so physically invested in the role, unafraid of being alternately funny, grotesque, beautiful or almost animal-like. Many trained dancers, especially women, are coached to be light, pretty and pleasing which is great if you want to be a fairy or a nymph your whole career. Discovering modern dance in college, I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified as I learned to dance with power, attack and abandon. Watching Mozgala perform I felt a little jealous that he seemed so free, shifting his body texture and quality to express every capricious mood of his character.
In the end, the rehabilitated ballet dancer joins the faun in a delightful pas de deux where he teaches her to shape her body like his–no pointe shoes in sight. And, this was a satisfying moment. Unfortunately, the choreograph ends the piece with the young dancer back in her pointe shoes and tutu. In reality, a traumatic rupture of the achilles tendon would prevent her from ever dancing a full-length ballet again, but it wouldn’t necessarily stop her from dancing altogether if she could embrace other movement possibilities. But, as so often the case, she was bound to her ideal of herself. That’s what so appealing about the faun–he is both a chameleon and yet somehow unapologetic about who and what he really is.