||Testament, She She Pop |
photo Doro Tuch
Listen to my story, it might be true. Some version of biographical performance was at the core of many shows at Vancouver’s PuSh 2013. ‘This is my life, your life, our lives’—the strength (or weakness) of such truth-claims was only as good as the artist’s aesthetic muscle. Some had trained harder than others.
Testament by She She Pop (Germany) mines Shakespeare’s King Lear for insights on contemporary intergenerational issues such as inheritance and elder care. Three Lears, untrained performers in their 70s, and their four real-life progeny (permanent members of the company) confront, empathise with and sometimes court one another’s favour.
As in King Lear, there is humour: one of the fathers, Manfred Matzke, a physicist, keeps it logical by calculating the exchange of love, which he calls “impulse,” and property—“emissions,” between parent and child, using algebraic equations drawn on a flip chart. Lear’s mistake was to release his “emissions” too soon; once his children had received all of his property they had no incentive to return “impulse.”
There is also brutal truth: Joachim Bark speaks of the shame he felt when, in an earlier work by She She Pop, he was forced to look up his daughter’s shirt as she wrestled with another woman while suspended above the audience. Bark has no objection to nudity as long as it’s justified. When witnessing an older actor of the German stage tossed naked during the storm scene from King Lear, Bark had felt the gesture was symbolically appropriate. His analysis justifies what happens next in Testament: the fathers are stripped down to their underwear while the daughters dance a storm around them.
The presentational and task-oriented performance style of Testament keeps the investigation open to the audience. The tasks are straightforward: sing a song to your daughter, read some relevant text from Lear, describe the algebraic formula while you are drawing it, et cetera. It’s the rhythm with which the tasks are arranged that gives the sum of the parts emotional momentum and devastating clarity.
photo Marco Caselli Nirmal
As in previous shows I’ve seen by choreographer Jérôme Bel, the rules of the game are strict. On a bare stage, he tightly controls the gestural and vocal performance of Cédric Andrieux, a statuesque dancer in his mid-30s. Andrieux performs excerpts from his life as a dancer, demonstrating training sequences and recreating past shows. Occasional comments about a past love relationship are kept to a minimum. Andrieux almost always speaks to us directly. We return the gaze. It’s implicit in this controlled situation that, while engaging in direct visual ‘conversation’ with Andrieux, we must never approach the stage. Nor should we vocally interrupt the chronicle. And yet for all these constraints, the rhythm of the piece is so expertly constructed I have no desire to disrupt it. Andrieux’s inadvertent twitches reveal a lot. The constraints amplify his inherent charm. By the end I feel I know nothing about Andrieux as a person, but everything about him as a dancer. As in Testament, aesthetic rigour in the form of simplicity of address creates a deeply engaging encounter between spectator and performer.
||Boca del Lupo, Photog |
photo Karri North
Photog by Boca del Lupo (Vancouver) consists of verbatim extracts from the testimony of several conflict photographers. Boca has chosen to collapse these into one psychologically consistent character named Thomas Smith, played by producer-actor Jay Dodge. A large screen framing the back of the stage features stunning photographs from conflict zones—human beings shot up, crying, dying. It would take a world-class performer to match the drama of those super-charged images. Dodge’s performance, as well as live-feed projections of him onto the photographs, obscures the source material… and the issue. By fusing the various testimonies into one fictional character, who does Photog ultimately serve, the work of the photographers or the artistry of Boca del Lupo? And if it’s the latter, how well does Boca’s work stand up to the artistry of the photographers? To me it seems a mismatch.
Winners and Losers
||James Long, Marcus Youssef, Winners and Losers|
photo Simon Hayter
Like Boca del Lupo, James Long (Theatre Replacement) and Marcus Youssef (Neworld Theatre) default to psychological realism as they offer a confessional of privilege in our society of haves and have-nots. Flanked on either side of a rough wooden table, the two play a question-and-answer game: one of them names a topic (“being an only child”) or celebrity figure (Tom Cruise) and they debate its status as a “winner” or “loser.” The topics get personal. Sort of. Long and Youssef perform stage versions of themselves each can live with, but these fictionalised portraits don’t match the implied intent of the piece, which seems to be to create a public forum in which the two artists offer up their authentic selves as examples of self-serving combatants in a dog-eat-dog capitalist system. Instead they fall back on performing carefully rehearsed routines as if occurring for the first time. This includes an obviously choreographed and not very dangerous-looking wrestling match (why not a real wrestling match with an unplanned outcome?). Similarly, at the closing of the show they pretend their partnership has been irreparably damaged: “It’s over!” they say in unison. Of course we know full well the two are about to embark on a national tour. The show’s pretence of self-revelation looks like a con, but not the kind of rigorous aesthetic con that asserts its own truth.
The biggest problem with Winners and Losers is its politics. If this is a show about the cost of privilege in our society, it offers only the upside. The two performers serve up a bit of liberal guilt mixed with a lot of self-justification, and ‘confess’ to having family incomes of $100,000 or more. They lack a foil in the form of, say, an undocumented immigrant labourer or a single working parent who can’t afford daycare. The truly disenfranchised have no voice in a work that professes to embrace “the ruthless logic of capitalism.” In this show, everyone’s a winner, baby.
||Tim Crouch, I Malvolio |
photo Bruce Dalzell Atherton
Moving away from the ‘genuine’ biography, Tim Crouch (UK) gives us a villainous first-person fiction of a fictional villain. Malvolio, the ludicrous, shamed and much-loved fool of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, returns from the dungeons of Illyria to turn the tables on those who have most revelled in his downfall—the audience. In the delicious sado-masochistic exercise to come Crouch invites us to mock him, then punishes us for it. Back and forth he expertly works us while demanding retribution for wrongs we have inflicted on Malvolio over the past 500 years.
I felt some relief in this production, lacking as it was in any claims to documentary truth (and perhaps implicitly critiquing such performances through its playful appropriation of autobiographical performance). That it felt as true as anything else I’d seen is due to Crouch’s virtuosity. His work is immaculately structured, while remaining open to spontaneous impulses. In other words, he sure knows how to work a crowd. His work with the text is also masterful—he has enviable range, colour and specificity. And perhaps it is in I, Malvolio that we really get to see the “ruthless logic of capitalism.” Malvolio, believing he is uniquely necessary to those he serves, and tricked into thinking his master is in love with him, discovers he is nothing more than a lackey, as replaceable as any small cog in a system where romantic love is the preserve of those who can afford such indulgences.
Still Standing You
||Pieter Ampe, Guilherme Garrido, Still Standing You|
photo Phile Deprez
Contemporary dance is often about the dancer as both subject and object of performance. The personal story is already ‘written’ on the body. Jérôme Bel achieves this with his stripped down presentations of unadorned performers. Pieter Ampe (Belgium) and Guilherme Garrido (Portugal) go for even fuller exposure in Still Standing You. Drawing on the playful and masochistic games of their boyhoods, the two men put on cartoonish alter egos (dinosaurs, exotic birds), ride each other, hit each other, and get naked. The serious/comic manner in which they up the ante of consenting physical abuse makes you wonder how far they will go. Pretty far. It doesn’t take long before each has a grip on the other’s foreskin and is testing its elasticity with corkscrew twists and painful elongations. Now that’s an exposé. If Winners and Losers is about the socio-economic factors that fracture the relationship of two theatre buddies, this show is about the socio-physical extremes to which two dance buddies will go in search of a deeper bond. (See also Tim Atack’s review of the duo’s 2010 performance of Still Standing You
at In Between Time in Bristol)
||Wu Hsing-Kuo, King Lear|
photo Dirk Bleicker
Wu Hsing-Kuo of Contemporary Legend Theatre (Taiwan) uses King Lear as an analogue of his troubled relationship with his former opera master. Wu had been severely criticised for trying to update the conventions of Peking Opera. To Wu’s regret, he and his master never reconciled. In this solo show he purges his demons, focusing on the father-son relationships in Lear, and minimising the role of the daughters. In Act III Cordelia becomes a stand-in for Wu’s master, and it is through her that he makes his apologies and purges his guilt. Unfortunately, minimising the role of the daughters in Lear leaves us with the familiar father-son tropes Hollywood relentlessly subjects us to, from Star Wars to The Lion King. I prefer the complex considerations of Lear’s daughters who are forced to deal with their father’s juvenile sense of entitlement, both in the original play, and in She She Pop’s feminist reworking of it.
PuSh international Performing Arts Festival 2013, artistic director Norman Armour, Jan 15-Feb 3, Vancouver, http://pushfestival.ca
This article originally appeared as part of RT's Online e-dition May 15, 2013
RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 16-17
© Alex Lazaridis Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org
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