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bakchai bakchai
photo Danny Willems
IT’S USEFUL TO THINK ABOUT THE BODY AS A SITE OF CULTURAL INSCRIPTION. ARTISTS EXPLOIT RECOGNIZABLE SYMBOLS TO EFFICIENTLY COMMUNICATE AN IDEA TO AN AUDIENCE. A THIN, BROWN-HAIRED PERFORMER WEARING NOTHING BUT A CLOTH AROUND HIS GROIN AND A CROWN OF THORNS BECOMES SHORTHAND FOR ‘JESUS’. BUT IF, AS IN THE FAMOUS EXAMPLE OF P.#06 BY SOCIETAS RAFFAELLO SANZIO, THREE CARS FALL OUT OF THE SKY BEHIND JESUS, AND JESUS GETS INTO ONE, AND IF THE BACK END (AND ONLY THE BACK END) OF A HORSE PROTRUDES FROM A DOOR IN THE STAGE-LEFT WALL, THE STAGE SYMBOLS BECOME VERY HARD TO READ. PUT TOGETHER LIKE THIS, WHAT CAN THEY MEAN?

Contrary to script-centric theories of performance that treat stage elements as texts to be deciphered by spectator-readers, many theatre artists insist on the unreadable material presence of the performer—they foreground the body in such a way that the spectator is invited to confront a performer-body as a thing-in-itself, a body you encounter with your own body. At this year’s Het Theaterfestival, a showcase of cutting-edge Flemish and Dutch theatre that takes place in Belgium, more than a few of the shows exploited the body versus word dichotomy.

bakchai

In Bakchai, a free adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, performer-creator Jan Decorte (De Roovers, Belgium) stretches the tension between the readable and unreadable to the breaking point. His stroke of genius is casting Benny Claessens as the god Dionysus. We’re first introduced to Claessens as a marble-white leg that sticks out from behind two rough pieces of plywood tacked up at centrestage. The leg is huge and clearly belongs to an obese individual. Downstage three other performers, including Decorte, play the other central characters from Euripides’ tragedy. The large, unmoving leg might be the limb of a giant. With fearful anticipation I await the appearance of a massive god-body that will devastate the playing field.

Eventually Claessens emerges—naked and with hair dyed gold. He looks like an oversized cherub. At first he has his back to us. Across his shoulder blades is written, in gothic characters, the word ‘body’. This textual signifier is pointing out the thing it signifies, but by nature of being attached to the thing it signifies can’t be separated from it. The body represents itself; so it doesn’t really represent at all, it just is itself. Signifier and sign collapse into one. Of course, Decorte didn’t have to spell it out for us. There’s no denying the body-ness of Claessens’ body.

From the ancient Greek perspective Dionysus comes from exotic, decadent Asia. The sheer mass of Claessens makes the point: there’s too much of him, how did he get to be so big? Surely this is a product of the excess of the East. But the actor isn’t Asian. He’s about as white as they come. So the racial categories are destabilized. Transforming the eastern ‘darkie’ into a western ‘whitie’ highlights the hypocrisy of the western view (ancient or modern) of the Asian as ‘other’ and uncivilized. But even these cultural symbols lose their relevance in the continuing encounter between the spectators and the overpowering presence of the performer. It’s not just his size and nakedness; Claessens is the ultimate tease. He makes a show of being embarrassed by his nudity while playfully manipulating our voyeuristic impulses; he adopts a subordinate role but works it so expertly there’s no doubt about who’s in control of the encounter. With his coy, cherubic teasing, Claessens might be the ultimate child-god in a universe that defies adult rationality. It seems Decorte uses Euripides play to create a childlike game in which the life and death passions of the non-Dionysian characters are made to look ridiculously adult. What’s the queen got up her bum? Why can’t everyone just relax and get some perspective? At least Benny Claessens is having fun. We’re having fun watching him do his thing.

unfold

A number of years ago you might have seen something like Oleanna by David Mamet or a Shakespeare at this festival but they’ve been rare during the four-year directorship of Don Verboven who’s overseen a deliberate shift towards performance that doesn’t privilege the written word. This has provoked accusations of elitism. Turning away from more conventional forms has been seen as a bar to accessibility. The question for an adventurous programmer like Verboven (and the three-member juries that make the selections each year) becomes, “How far can you stretch an audience, and when do you know if you’ve gone too far?” There’s no obvious answer.

Unfold by kabinet K (Belgium) was so far removed from traditional models of theatre and dance that it was unclassifiable. Yet it was one of the most loved shows at the festival. It begins with a young girl standing with her back to us before a gauze curtain that stretches across the stage. She contemplates a column of postcards, letters, and old photographs hanging on the fabric. Behind the gauze another child appears at a microphone reciting a poem in Flemish. Then the first child exits and reappears at a sewing machine behind the gauze. It looks like she’s stitching the postcards into a strip of the same fabric. Not being a speaker of Flemish, I don’t know what the child at the microphone is saying, but about a minute into the poem laughter just sort of falls out of the audience. There’s something very genuine and relaxed about this collective response. Together, the voice of the child, the scenographic elements and the audience’s waterfall of laughter conspire to open me up to the performance event. I don’t know why I’m so full of delight and easy anticipation, but I immediately feel that with kabinet K I’m in good hands.

Images continue to appear and disappear behind the gauze: an adult male carries one of the children across the space, another man performs a brief duet with a third child; eventually the gauze is pulled away and the two men and three children create a tableau. Are they a family of sorts? One of the men picks up an electric guitar and sings a ballad, while the girl returns to the sewing machine. We enjoy a guitar and sewing machine duet. The individuals break off into tasks such as drawing a picture of a house with windows that float away from it or making a tent from a large piece of white cloth on the floor.

One of the highlights is watching the children perform a contemporary dance trio. The technique and choreography are such that the children’s bodies aren’t distorted in the way they are in ballet and some other dance techniques. The movement seems very natural to them, unforced and yet performed by the children with aesthetic focus. It’s the most enjoyable contemporary dance I’ve seen in a while.

There’s a tender balance between the two men and three children: the impression is of a functioning group that has the creative tools and understanding to deal with what comes, including crisis—although there is no crisis presented. Unfold engages us without the necessity of dramatic conflict or even of the angst or cynicism common to so many contemporary dance performances. Children and adults move, invent and sing. To me it feels pre- rather than post-dramatic. It’s as if the children haven’t yet internalized the forms of traditional dramatic structure. Is Unfold about something? The program notes say, “It’s about not being able to understand, and still being happy.”

iraqi ghosts

Maybe not understanding requires a certain kind of spectator—not an elite patron, but one who doesn’t need textual or verbal logic to have a significant performance experience. Brilliantly crafted dialogue, or even brilliantly excerpted text, can prompt a transcendent experience for a spectator. But of course words can get in the way. “Too many words,” was a frequently uttered criticism of Iraqi ghosts (Irakese geesten) by Mokhallad Rasem (Belgium). Part fable, part autobiography, Iraqi ghosts is a wild anti-war rant by five artists, three of whom are survivors of the recent invasion of Iraq. The scenes are presented in Arabic, Flemish and English. Too often they are followed by unnecessary verbal commentary. Occasionally this works in the artists’ favour: a dinner scene, in which non-stop verbiage in Arabic is punctuated by the mutilation of several melons and other parts of the meal, takes an everyday ritual to the heights of hysteria.

For me, Iraqi ghosts was most engaging when the talking stopped completely: in what felt like the eerie silence after a bombing, disoriented figures—actors with large masks over their heads—wandered the stage, dazedly trying to help one another up. The masks had grotesque and mournful expressions

They were bald and elderly, as if the trauma of war had fast-forwarded the aging process. For the first time I shifted from watching someone’s loss to feeling it. Maybe this is the genius of the piece: to bombard us with words so that in their aftermath we sit in horrified silence.

springville

If this edition of the festival needed an answer to the accusation of elitism, Springville by Miet Warlop (Belgium) was it. Instead of a text-driven story, Warlop presents a wordless landscape—by which I mean a large cardboard house on a bare stage. For the duration of the show, Buster Keaton-like antics are performed by a dining room table with human legs, a box that acts like a pet, a man with a double-length torso and the house itself, which gets up, cracks in half to reveal a smaller styrofoam house within. It’s a delightful hour of controlled chaos. As fellow writer Alexander Schackenburg put it, “It’s about nothing, and you miss nothing.” Springville is the best of early cartoon animation brought into the 3D world of the stage.


Het Theaterfestival, Antwerp, Belgium, Aug 26-Sept 4; www.theaterfestival.be

Vancouver-based writer, actor and director Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is part of an international theatre journalism exchange. He and two European journalists are investigating the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (Canada), PAZZ (Germany) and Het Theaterfestival (Belgium). Articles by the writers are appearing in Urban Mag (Belgium), RealTime (Australia), Plank Magazine (Vancouver) and a forthcoming website dedicated to the project called Performulations (Germany).

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg.

© Alex Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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