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Spatial effects, narrative distractions

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson: 2017 PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts

Jo Fong, Wallflower, Quarantine, PuSh Festival Jo Fong, Wallflower, Quarantine, PuSh Festival
photo Simon Banham

As each year passes on the festival circuit, I become more aware of dominant trends. There are styles of human performance that cut across disciplines and there are typical ways of revealing spaces. I enter Wallflower by Quarantine (UK) to discover something underway. People are settling into seats around a thrust configuration. Performer Sonia Hughes is in conversation with DJ Greg Akehurst who has set up his gear at a downstage corner of the playing area. Hughes asks him to search for a song on YouTube but can’t quite remember the title. Both performers casually acknowledge the audience but make no special effort to be heard.

When the track is finally found, Hughes gets herself into the groove and recounts the circumstances in which she originally danced to it. The performance carries on like this with Hughes trading memories and dances with two other performers, and sometimes trading banter with a spectator. The search is genuine, unscripted, ‘for real.’ So is the set: an upstage plywood wall has been left in its rough, store-bought state. The performers are just ‘themselves.’

This is a version of the anti-theatrical, anti-illusionist 'performance of self’ that’s been a staple on the festival circuit for years and traces its lineage to postmodern dance and performance art of the 1960s and 70s, and more recently to the French non-danse movement, lecture-performance and certain strains of documentary theatre. It emphasises the materiality of bodies that are present, and often includes direct address that gestures toward revelation of ‘authentic’ being. It’s been the preferred (but not exclusive) performance style at festivals like PuSh. The scenography in these performances tends to draw attention to the architectural features of a theatre, exposing rather than obscuring the room. In this way a space is allowed to express its bare materiality. This is often aided by a lighting design that favours work-lights, fluorescent tubes, and ‘white’ LEDs that bring out the surface qualities of floors, walls, and performers.

Kimmy Ligtvoet, Steven Michel, Sweat Baby Sweat, PuSh Festival Kimmy Ligtvoet, Steven Michel, Sweat Baby Sweat, PuSh Festival
photo Klaartje Lambrecht

Endurance performance as genre

Sweat Baby Sweat (Belgium/Netherlands) and Folk-S, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (Italy), both contemporary dance works, employ the scenographic tactics described above. Sweat Baby Sweat features two performers—Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel stripped down to tight-fitting underwear—in slow-moving feats of deep core strength. For example, Ligtvoet fastens her legs around Michel’s waist and levers herself up, millimetre by excruciating millimetre, to meet his torso. They are lit by a single amber work-light. This makes the dancers’ skin look very skin-like. There’s a fascinating specimen-like quality to their coupling that continues to intrigue for the duration of the show. The wood grain and black paint of the walls are also affectively wood grained and painted black.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? FOLK-S, PuSh Festival Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? FOLK-S, PuSh Festival
photo Andrea Macchia

Similarly, Folk-S opens with a single light illuminating the upstage-left corner of the theatre. Six performers (five of them ‘real’ Tyrolean “shoe beaters”), barely visible at the darkened centre of the stage, slap out a traditional folk dance on shoe and thigh. The relative darkness focuses my attention on the way the dancers and the large studio produce sound. I listen in a way I don’t normally listen. The lights come up to reveal that the dancers are, astonishingly, blindfolded. They have slap-danced while travelling in a circle, unaided by eyesight. For the next two hours, blindfolds off, they will repeat, in several iterations, the same dance. As explained by one of the performers, the show will end when either the audience or the dancers leave the theatre. Hence another common feature of ‘the real’ at these festivals: genuine physical exhaustion for the dancer, genuine mental exhaustion for the spectator.

This is true of Sweat Baby Sweat: physical effort, rather than virtuosity, is central. Quarantine's Wallflower, too, asks for mental patience from the spectator while the performers struggle for close to two hours to recall past dances. To be clear, these are not the endurance tests of performance art. Neither the shoe beaters, nor the actors, nor the contemporary dancers will go to their physical or mental limits. Endurance performance in these cases is a genre, a performance style associated with the real.

Geumhyung Jeong, Oil Pressure Vibrator, PuSh Festival Geumhyung Jeong, Oil Pressure Vibrator, PuSh Festival
photo Karolina Miernik

Performative lecturer as hermaphrodite

Oil Pressure Vibrator by Geumhyung Jeong (South Korea), a lecture performance in which Jeong sits at a laptop and shows video clips on a large screen, also trades in the affects of the real: the room, the table and the screen are just what they are—institutional grey vinyl surfaces. However, unlike the other shows, self-referentiality is disrupted through ironic narration that asks us to alternate between taking things at face value and searching for other meanings. Jeong recounts a journey of trying to increase her sexual pleasure by becoming an “hermaphrodite.” This unfolds through a series of videos in which her male self usually takes the form of a mask attached to a machine such as a vacuum cleaner, while Jeong-as-human-female lies on the floor letting the mask stimulate her. At the conclusion of each video we return to the unadorned surfaces of the studio and to Jeong’s flat, emotionless narrative. The videos are humorously successful until the metaphor becomes clichéd—an excavator with a phallus-like breaker-tip penetrates a sand-sculpture of a woman reclining in ecstasy. It doesn’t take much effort to decipher and there’s only one conclusion to be had.

Presence/meaning balancing acts

The performances described here exemplify what philosopher Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, in his book Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford University Press, 2003), calls “presence effects” and “meaning effects.” Presence effects arise from the spatial relationships and affects of things that are tangible and (relatively) proximal. Rather than interpreting these things, we take them as sensory experience. Of course “meaning effects”—what we think things stand for (their ‘deeper’ meanings)—cannot be banished, because we live in a culture that privileges interpretation. Oil Pressure Vibrator keeps the spectator oscillating between the two—the sensory and the interpretive—through ironic commentary. Sweat Baby Sweat also makes a move toward irony in its final section when, in karaoke style, popular love songs are played and projected on the upstage wall as the dancers linger below. This shifts my attention from the engrossing materiality of the dancers’ relationships to thinking about the choreographer’s somewhat biological take on romance and heterosexual coupling. I find this kind of ironic commentary facile and reductive. I lose interest in what has otherwise been a compelling performance.

Concord Floral, Brubacher/Spooner/Tannahill, PuSh Festival Concord Floral, Brubacher/Spooner/Tannahill, PuSh Festival
photo Erin Brubacher

Two shows that attempt a middle-ground between spatial affect (the presence effect) and fictional narrative (the meaning effect) are The City and the City by Upintheair Theatre and The Only Animal (Canada) and Concord Floral by Brubacher/Spooner/Tannahill (Canada). The City and the City begins with 60 patrons seated on grey milk crates forming a square around other milk crates arranged in the central playing space. We’ve been given transmitters and are receiving instructions through earbuds. As I listen to a voice talking about a situation in which two cities occupy the same geographical space without knowing each other, half of the spectators get up suddenly and begin walking briskly among the crates. I'm not able to follow the information in my earbuds but I can follow the action.

The balance between spatial affect, 30 people in transit where moments before there had been only inert crates, and the meaning effect—their allegorical status as representations of a state-controlled civilian population—is beautifully accomplished. For the next two hours, however, a stream of text is delivered at an almost unvarying tempo. Individual spectators, following prompts, are called upon to speak parts of the play and take designated positions within scenes, but are not allowed to alter a narrative that races through a dizzying number of story points. The early promise of space-as-main-affect is overwhelmed by a narrative that’s hard to parse. Except in a few inspiring instances, I’m not sure why this play needed such a complex technological and spatial set-up to tell its story.

Concord Floral opens with a huge rectangle of plastic grass on the floor. Wonderfully textured and bright green, it’s very haptic—the visuals evoke sensations of touch. Like the skin of the dancers in Sweat Baby Sweat the grass is very tangible, very right-there. Following a blackout, 10 teenagers appear on the upstage edge of the patch. They are illuminated by that marker of the real, white fluorescent tube lighting. They stare at us, threatening a confrontation. Instead, like The City and the City, we get a play, a ghost story about the cruelty of teenagers and how a particularly naive girl is humiliated by her peers. The fluorescent-lit gaze returns frequently but becomes a mere convention of direct address.

The play is well-crafted if overly symmetrical for my taste (the angst of a teen is directly paralleled by the metaphor of a bird bashing itself repeatedly against a window), but ultimately depends on the psychological-realist quality of the acting, which, given the performers have mostly been recruited from local high schools, is varied. Despite promotional material that claims the youth are demanding “to be seen on their own terms, in a space they have claimed as their own,” it’s hard to see how this is anything other than a play with teen actors representing fictional characters. Both Concord Floral and The City and the City give a nod to spatial affect but seem to prefer the interpretive pleasures of fictional narrative.

2017 PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Vancouver, Canada, 16 Jan-5 Feb

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Alex Lazaridis Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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