Best Bets

The Principles of Uncertainty

Choreographed by  John Heginbotham; Text and Illustrations by Maira Kalman
Produced by Dance Heginbotham

Off Broadway, Dance
Runs through 9.30.17
BAM Fishman, 321 Ashland Place


by Ken Kaissar on 9.29.17


The Principles of UncertaintyDaniel Pettrow and Maira Kalman with Dance Heginbotham in The Principles of Uncertainty. Photo by Rebecca Greenfield.

BOTTOM LINE: An exquisite and spellbinding collaboration between John Heginbotham and Maira Kalman, with live music by The Knights.

Astute observers of dance know better than to leave a performance frustrated that they don’t know what it means. Dance doesn’t speak to the intellect. Like music, it bypasses the brain and penetrates the soul speaking directly to our emotions. As long as it succeeds to captivate our senses, the mind doesn’t much care what it means. It’s delightful. That is all.

The Principles of Uncertainty is indeed delightful. A collaboration between choreographer John Heginbotham and writer/illustrator Maira Kalman, this piece came to be simply because Heginbotham asked Kalman to create a piece with him. “We did not know what it would look like, sound like, or really even feel like when we started, but I believe we trusted each other,” Heginbotham explains. It’s fun to compare Heginbotham and Kalman’s description of what they tried to create. Heginbotham’s is an imposing paragraph. Kalman’s is light and succinct, resembling stanzas of a poem with ample space in between.

I get the sense that Heginbotham and Kalman recognize the absurdity in creating a dance piece. They are simply enjoying each other and themselves and the affect is irresistible. Heginbotham's choreography feels effortless and playful. It is unencumbered of pretension and even invites you to chuckle at its silliness. Heginbotham is out to delight and entertain, not shatter and devastate. Even his least successful moments are spellbinding and enchanting; his more successful ones achieve joy and hilarity.

Kalman is not just a writer but a poet. Her text is exquisite in its abstraction, and perfectly complements Heginbotham’s choreography. Like the dancer’s bodies and the music, her words elude the intellect, but serenade the soul. Like any great poet, Kalman is never frivolous with her language. Every letter and piece of punctuation is meaningful, and at times we get to see projections of her language written out, character by character, on the upstage wall, along with her magnificent illustrations. Kalman makes the act of drawing a letter feel interchangeable with drawing an image, as though it all comes from the same part of her brain.

Accompanying the piece is Brooklyn’s very own The Knights, a Grammy-nominated orchestral collective. They are clearly just as silly and game for a laugh as everyone else involved. Vocalist Alex Sopp, for example, starts the evening crooning a haunting tune in Italian, and then proceeds to play flute and kazoo. Later, she yodels.

Towards the end of the piece, the dancers approach the orchestra and wheel them slowly across the stage; the result is oddly satisfying. Musicians always appear to be an implacable element in performance, the one area of the stage that is off limits to the director and choreographer. It’s so much fun to see the dancers violate this unwritten rule.

The Principles of Uncertainty only runs at BAM through September 30, but I’m hoping it will enjoy another presentation in New York soon. Kalman explains that she and Heginbotham were “trying to make something that feels like it is almost nothing.”  They have succeeded. The Principles of Uncertainty is almost nothing—but decidedly everything.

(The Principles of Uncertainty plays at BAM Fishman, 321 Ashland Place, through September 30, 2017. The running time is 60 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Friday at 7:30 and Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $25 and are available at


The Principles of Uncertainty is choreographed by John Heginbothan. Text, Illustrations, Scenic and Costume Design is by Maira Kalman. Music Direction is by Colin Jacobsen. Projection Design is by Todd Bryant. Lighting Design is by Nicole Pearce. Stage Manager is by Valerie Oliveiro.

The cast is Daniel Pettrow, Maira Kalman, John Eirich, Lindsey Jones, Courtney Lopes, Amber Star Merkens, Weaver Rhodes, and Macy Sullivan. Music is performed by The Knights: Colin Jacobsen, Caitlin Sullivan, Alex Sopp, and Nathan Koci.