By Edward Kliszus
The first scene of Body Through Which the Dream Flows opens with the glorious chords of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, with the 14-year-old Nadia Comăneci setting up for her gymnastics routine in the 1976 Olympics. Comăneci’s performance was flawless, and she earned the first perfect ten score in Olympic history. This introduction to the biographical drama aptly conveys human aspirations and the glory of achievement in the highest order.
Multi-Dimensional Story Telling
A multi-dimensional scene develops as the story unfolds. We view video projections against the backstage wall as a child, and her coach appears under a spotlight, and several of the troupe perform gymnastic routines. Another teen sings plaintive phrases, “Dreams are the dreams you feel, and” begin again,” accompanied by a repetitive musical motif. Four gymnasts absorb the youngest protege into a movement sequence and dissolve.
Soomi Kim appears at a lighted table, and at the narrator’s prompt, she describes her early days in gymnastics. As she speaks, multiple gymnasts illustrate her words by practicing. Kim spoke about her early training days when music came from a live pianist. Portentously, Kim recalled a coach who, when angry, threw her shoes at the gymnasts. Kim once hit the back of her head, blacked out, and received no ice or medical attention. Undaunted, she continued to follow her dream of competing in the Olympics.
Video showed Olympic gold medal winner, 16-year-old Mary Lou Retton, competing in 1984 in Los Angeles. Several young gymnasts from Chelsea Piers introduced themselves and expressed their aspirations.
Kim spoke of dashed Olympic dreams due to an injury. At the time, it seemed inappropriate for her coach to encourage her to get up and repeat a drill despite her fall. A video drove the point, depicting loud, abusive behavior by an angry coach because his child protegé overslept.
Parental support waned. Not only did Kim’s dad not support her gymnastics and attend her competitions, but he insulted her body type as she matured. The determined Kim worked to pay for her gymnastics training.
Now in NCAA gymnastics at Oregon State U, Kim felt ignored by her trainer. The troupe returned and shared their own physical challenges of height and weight, self-loathing, and fears. Kim was depressed and worried about her weight and body type. The troupe exclaims in unison, “Who’s fault is it?” They point to each other as we watch a video of a gymnastic contestant.
Kim finds work as an assistant coach, followed by video heralding opportunities for gymnastic competitors. Kim works with the troupe and handles discouraged proteges.
Next was a solo performance by one troupe member who explained how body control is critical to avoiding injury. She spoke of spatial awareness that gives her confidence but notes that that awareness was not commanded at will. Losing awareness meant losing confidence.
The Best Coach
Kim spoke of Márta Károlyi, the perfectionist coach of Nadia Comăneci, who insisted that the tiniest details be controlled. The troupe continued exercises led by Kim, who admits to a recurring nightmare as the gymnasts begin to whirl around her. The troupe launches into a chaotic gymnastic dream sequence to the song “Live Fast Die Young Bad Girls Do It Well” by M.I.A., ending with one gymnast fainting.
Larry Nassar Debacle
We see a video about convicted child molester Larry Nassar, who for 18 years was team doctor of the US women’s national gymnastics team. Under the guise of medical treatment, Nassar sexually assaulted more than 200 young women and girls. In reaction, the troupe in near darkness performed disjointed gesticulations set to expressionist avant-garde strings accompaniment, akin to the ghastly aural expressions found in Arnold Schoenberg’s Peripetie from his Five Pieces for Orchestra or visual connotations of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The troupe finishes in unison, leaving one to perform alone. They return and continue their expressionist anguish. Innocents, some still have baby teeth and watch children’s shows. More victims speak, and the troupe reacts. The horror continues. PTSD. Flashbacks. Paralysis. Darkness. The charges repeat, “sexual assault of a child, a second-degree felony.” Silence.
Kim appears alone and asks, “ Dad, are you ok?” Anti-Asian hate crimes. Attacks, slashing, and insults. Kim appears alone, standing and writhing. Coaches abusing children. We felt invisible.
What about the methods of Bela and Marta Karloyi? Do they share some of the blame for Larry Nassar? The aftermath of Nassar’s exposure and victims included renewed diligence in protecting children, resulting in the USAG banning 132 coaches since 2016.
A Healthy Debate
While reforms have emerged, are strict coaches’ techniques damaging to children’s psyches? Must coaches be stern to train children to perform at their highest levels sufficiently? How can coaches best protect and provide emotional care for their child gymnasts yet convey the drive, focus, and self-discipline required for Olympic-level success?
The narrator asks Kim if the gymnastics culture needs to be changed and if there is real reform. Kim notes there’s been change but believes the trauma is reinventing itself, mutating like a virus.
In the closing scene, the troupe is relaxing on the stage barefoot in street clothes. They’re chatting, looking at their phones, reading, stretching, hula hooping, and moving to music.
The Body Through Which the Dream Flows uses a multi-dimensional visual and aural landscape to provide insights into the complex relations of coaches and their proteges while opening a window into the inside world of children training for Olympic stardom. From the antipodal extremes of Olympic achievement to the dark cloud of the Larry Nassar catastrophe, Soomi Kim shares her journey. Her message is profound and personal, and we join the debate on what measures are acceptable in training children as competitive gymnasts. The troupe of dancer gymnasts was marvelous and shifted seamlessly from the strictures of gymnastics to improvisatory dance.
Prodigies and Aspirations
But isn’t it part of the human condition to strive toward aspirations? Don’t our paths inexorably shift as circumstances change? Must everyone achieve their ambitions, and how many children who immerse themselves in sports like baseball or basketball are drafted by the Yankees or Knicks? How many child violinists eventually tour the world performing concertos with the New York or Vienna Philharmonic? Perhaps Nadia Comăneci and Mary Lou Retton were simply unstoppable prodigies.
Check the New Ohio Theatre calendar and ticket links below for more thought-provoking and entertaining upcoming events.
Co-directed by Meghan Finn and Soomi Kim
Movement generated by the company
Choreography Consultant Alexandra Beller
Dramaturge Sarah Gancher
Stage Manager Mars Neri
Sound Designer Zeke Stewart
Lighting Designer Amanda Ringger
New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street, #1E
New York, NY 10014