Vancouver actor and dancer Billy Marchenski once portrayed Jesus in a short film called "two X 4". But it wasn’t until the pandemic that he got serious about playing Lucifer.
The catalyst was a conversation he had with a friend, Lesley Ewen, in a parking lot on Great Northern Way in Vancouver. She had come to see a butoh performance that he had done with a local artist and some performers from Japan.
According to Marchenski, he shared a story with Ewen about a dream he’d had about the devil. Marchenski, who’s in his mid-40s, had experienced this as a much younger man but it stayed with him.
“It was kind of a nightmare dream,” Marchenski told the Straight by phone. “I remember it being really grotesque.”
He related to Ewen that he woke up really scared.
“She said, ‘We should make a piece out of that. I’ll dramaturg you.’ And I went, ‘Okay,’ ” Marchenski recalled.
This discussion, plus a whole lot of work, has led to the creation of light-bearer, which will have its B.C. premiere at the Dancing on the Edge festival.
In this dance performance, which will be presented to a live audience at Richmond’s Iona Beach, Marchenski expresses his interpretation of what it’s like to have been cast out of heaven and fallen into hell.
The Latin word lucifer means “light-bringing” when used as an adjective—hence, the title light-bearer.
“In the mythology of Lucifer, he was the most beautiful angel in paradise,” Marchenski said.
But he quickly added that this angel started a mutiny—a rebellion in heaven—to try to overthrow God. “So he went from the most beautiful to the most ugly.”
Not only that, but the devil also experienced the ultimate separation from God, which Marchenski likened to the “ultimate isolation”. He could relate to this during the time he was rehearsing the show in his apartment.
“I thought it was pretty resonant to me at the time, being in quarantine, not being able to socialize, not being able to see people, having restrictions on me,” he said. “I thought it actually resonates with the time that we’re in.”
Marchenski’s light-bearer will be performed as butoh, which is a form of Japanese theatre that commonly tackles taboo topics. Because it’s butoh, Marchenski will be covered in white makeup and wear a small garment covering his loins.
“A lot of that is so you can see the body,” he explained. “You can see the expressivity of the whole body.”
Hitting back at authority
During the pandemic, he worked closely with Ewen, who’s living in London. He sent her videos of him dancing in his living room, often late at night. She would reply by forwarding images and videos that might inspire him, such as an iceberg melting.
“It just kind of accumulated into something I felt that I wanted to show,” Marchenski said.
Actors often need empathy to be able to see the world through their character’s eyes. That raises an obvious question: did Marchenski ever feel empathy for Lucifer?
“Oh, yeah,” he replied.
Then he took a long pause before adding that his character is up against God, an all-powerful and all-knowing entity.
“But he still has this desire to rebel or to fight against it even though he knows that he can’t possibly win,” Marchenski said. “Even after he gets thrown into hell, he still has the desire to somehow get back at the authority.”
So, yes, Marchenski has a certain level of sympathy for the devil—at least his anti-authority side.
“I don’t know if heroic is the right word,” he added. “But he still has this unquenchable desire to sort of hit back at authority, hit back at control, hit back at those who have the power.”
Because it’s butoh, Marchenski’s character manifests this in movement in ways that people might not expect. Marchenski’s understanding of butoh is that a lot of it is about surrendering control and letting yourself be affected by the world around you and the people around you.
That stands in contrast to western culture, in which people often exert a lot of effort trying to control their body and force it do things.
“To me, butoh is kind of the opposite of that,” Marchenski said. “It’s about surrendering control and surrendering power and letting your body be moved—being touched by things.”
He feels like his character, Lucifer, is, indeed, surrendering because of the futility of his struggle. But Lucifer won’t entirely give up the fight.
That’s another aspect of the character that Marchenski can relate to.
“I’m getting older and I’m still wanting to perform—and still wanting to dance and act,” he said. “It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep training and to keep working your body and to keep trying to have your instrument in a state where you can be seen by an audience.
“And at the same time, it requires a lot of surrendering of control, of letting your vulnerability be seen, letting who you are be seen by people,” he continued. “So, yeah, for me, I’m often struggling with this…putting myself through my paces and trying to keep myself active and at the same time relinquishing that motivation and just allowing myself to feel whatever it is I’m feeling at the moment.”
Show takes place in response to nature
The show will take place at low tide, which introduces an element of unpredictability on each day. It’s conceivable that a bird or an animal could appear on Iona Beach.
“The piece is happening in response to when the tide is moving,” Marchenski noted. “It’s trying to be in response to the world, to nature. That’s an opportunity as a performer or an artist to sort of pay more attention to that.”
Last year, he had a rough cut of the show filmed on the beach. It occurred as wildfires were raging in Washington state and Oregon, smothering the Lower Mainland in a big cloud of smoke.
“It just looked like this barren, otherworldly kind of landscape,” Marchenski said. “And it was kind of perfect for the piece.”
He conceded that light-bearer feels very personal to him.
“I’ve had a lot more time to myself and a lot more time at home, obviously, and a lot more time with my family,” Marchenski said. “I think it’s caused me to look inside and really assess where I’m at in my life.”