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the wandering life

jana perkovic: nomads


Nomads Nomads
photo Heidrun Löhr
A WOMAN LIES ON A MATTRESS. WITHIN MOMENTS, THE TRIBE SHAKE HER OFF, AND A CAREFUL AND CONSENSUAL BATTLE BEGINS. THE MATTRESS IS PULLED AND PUSHED ACROSS THE STAGE, TREMBLING IN THE EVER-LOUDER MUSIC. PERFORMERS JUMP ON, SNEAKING A FEW MINUTES, BEFORE THEY ARE SHAKEN OFF BY OTHERS, NOT SO MUCH STEALING IT FOR THEMSELVES AS LIMITING ANYONE’S TIME. MEANWHILE, OTHER PERFORMERS TWIRL, BLANKET-RUGGED, LIKE MAD DERVISHES—MANAGING SCARCE RESOURCES AND ECSTATIC MYSTICISM. THIS IS NOMADS, A MEDITATION ON THE WANDERING LIFE.

Presented by Performance Space over three nights in November 2008, Nomads was the third stage of an intercontinental collaboration stemming from January 2006, when Hans van den Broeck, one of the founding members of Les Ballets C de la B, Belgian dance collective extraordinaire, ran a 10-day workshop as part of Critical Path. In May 2007, Broeck returned to Performance Space for another residency with members of his company SOIT (Stay Only If Necessary), this time aiming to harness the raw, chaotic energy of the intensive workshop to work towards a public performance.

Broeck’s interest in time-restrained creation developed from organising impromptu performances, interventions in public space bordering on flash mobs. “I have found it very attractive to have little time to think, to have to work intuitively”, he says. “The less time we had, the more it evoked the range of possibilities, the vastness of choice. It forced a flow of organic, direct thinking.”

For the project, SOIT intentionally brought together a diverse group of artists: from performance-makers like Nikki Heywood and Tony Osborne, dancers Rowan Marchingo, with a background in physical theatre, and Kathy Cogill. According to Heywood, while such artists would possibly never find themselves in a project together, it was the outsider figure that created permission, the freedom for this cross-disciplinary collaboration. The participants found Broeck’s methodology remarkable: visionary yet strongly collaborative, creating firm structures that facilitate creative autonomy within. It also challenges the common practice of prolonged retention of projects in development and research, often drawn out over several years.

Inspired by Australia, with its sense of displacement, its bewilderment at the exotic environment still strongly felt in European settler culture, Broeck, a psychologist by training, set out to explore human dynamics—fear and guilt—that play out in a newly established community. The result was two weeks of research, development, analysis and workshop, followed by a three-night performance season: Settlement. In a gesture of sociological mimesis, performers build the set together and inhabit it, create their own rules and start defying them from the onset. “We tried to alienate ourselves from normal communication; a rare outlet was that people occasionally screamed positive, warm thoughts to one another.” The set-up evokes a range of transitional spaces: refugee or detention camp, festival or a cult, with connotations of withdrawal, escape from society. It reveals the structures that bind us together: a group with no shared history needs to invent and enforce rituals, laws, punishment strategies, entertainment routine. The rulebook insists:

We must respect the loneliness of others.

We should try to wear pants inside out and back to front.

We can take a nap in someone else’s tent if the tent flap is open.

An outsider arrives at night, triggering the assimilation process. The collective morning ritual is a group crawl on the floor; aided with sparkly, summer-camp music, performers slide and roll, exchanging clothes until individuality is left behind. In the evening, after majestically amateur theatre, the women perform a gaudy disco for the hooting males. Eating alone at night is brutally punished: come morning, the transgressors are violently thrown and spun, their feet bound.

In the intense rehearsal environment, the dramatisation of goal negotiation, forced intimacy, isolation from the outside world feeds off the genuine group dynamics. Frances D’Ath, a dancer participating in a Settlement event in July 2008, noted: “Hans has talked about isolation and anxiousness within a group, and this is far more prevalent [than open conflict]. Despite doing many things together, there seems to be a calculated loneliness or distance between all of us: together but unreachable.” Yet keeping the dramatic aspect remains important. Projecting one’s own mental set-up onto a stage persona, taking behaviour to its extreme conclusion, is more important than provoking concrete experiences in performers. In performance, each individual artist retains a calm sense of performance identity. The line between being and performing, between the tensions in the camp and in the rehearsal, remains a nonchalant smudge.

Broeck and SOIT have since used the conceptual structure developed in Sydney to recreate Settlements around the world. At the National Gallery carpark in Harare, Zimbabwe, it became a consciously political, yet ecstatically communal gesture. In Bastia, Corsica, the tents were pitched on the beach, provoking hostility in a strongly territorial culture. The rulebook travelled; the rules changed. In Bastia, they added: “Whatever happens our community ought not to succumb to cynicism.”

The rules of Wellington, New Zealand, read like a madwoman’s resolution list:

From our ankles up we live in the sky.

From our souls down we touch the ground.

Nomads, developed and performed in Sydney in November 2008, is a continuation of this methodology and concept. After Settlement’s exploration of communitarian coercion, it wonders what happens to a group that deserts, leaving the collective trauma behind. It feels airy, light. Without the safety of demarcated territory, memory conservation itself is a struggle. Communal living has taught us to forgive, collaborate; Nomads remembers that we have inherited, from the millennia of hunting and gathering, the pursuit of ecstasy and the ability to forget. Resisting notable dramatic progression, Nomads is a trickle of enigmatic scenes, slowly building up cumulative intensity, anti-spectacular but riveting. A wandering confessor offers a fleeting release from tensions. Running into the wall, chasing a flickering projection invigorated by blaring music, the performers start commemorating their futile crashes with mementos. Like road shrines to car crash victims, like flowers for suicide bombers, so are the chairs, water bottles, the crushed flowers they leave by the wall little souvenirs to violence, martyrdom. Without commentary or narrative sign-posting, it is an immersive inquiry into human nature, ambiguous but never indecipherable.

Plans are now unfolding for the final instalment: Homeland. A group of wanderers finally reach their own home. But will they be at peace there?


Nomads, director Hans van den Broeck, performers, collaborators Kathy Cogill, Nikki Heywood, Rowan Marchingo, Tony Osborne, Lizzie Thomson, Vicki van Hout, Nalina Wait, Anuschka van Oppen, Joe Jurd, video design Sam James, sound James Brown, lighting design Sydney Bouhaniche, project convenors Nikki Heywood, Rowan Marchingo; residency showing, Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 27 - 29, 2008

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 21

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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