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push festival

the complicit witness

alex lazaridis ferguson: push festival 2010, vancouver

The Show Must Go On, Jerome Bel The Show Must Go On, Jerome Bel
photo Mussacchio Laniello

Upon hearing this peace anthem by John Lennon do you: (a) mull over the composer’s message; (b) reflect on the diverse mix of your fellow patrons; (c) wave your iPhone in the air and sing along? Most Vancouverites in attendance for Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On chose the last option. The show’s choreographers were disturbed: “Why are they singing?” After all, the show provoked a near riot when it opened in Paris ten years ago, not a love-in.

jerome bel, the show must go on

Bel had made a contemporary dance performance that didn’t feature dancing, at least not the kind usually performed by trained professionals. Instead he put bodies on stage: trained and untrained bodies, bodies of various shapes and sizes meant to represent the bodies in the audience. These onstage bodies moved, stood still, observed, listened and sometimes embraced. Invariably they did these things to the accompaniment of well-known pop songs. To David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” they stood and listened, moving to the beat intermittently. To Roberta Flack singing “Killing Me Softly” they ‘died’ slowly and gently while listening to the singer and watching the audience. Spectators at the Parisian premiere were offended. In Vancouver, the former hippie capital of Canada, Lennon’s song provoked a sing-along. Not only did the spectators sing, they got up and danced whenever there was the hint of a groove in one of the Top-40 hits in rotation. Here was the democracy of meaning-making in action at a postdramatic theatre event. You say ‘contemporary art’, we say ‘dance party.’ The audience had wrested control of the event from the artists.

Bel hadn’t intended things to go this far. In his work as a choreographer he has tried to undermine the idea that the performer, by virtue of her/his expertise and position of power on stage, is somehow better than the spectator. For Bel a performance should mirror the socio-political reality of the audience. As he has argued, there is an historical logic to this. Contemporary dance traces its origins to the court of Louis XIV, the ‘inventor’ of ballet. When the king was in the audience the performance was supposed to reflect the image of its royal patron. After the French Revolution, the execution of the king and the shift to democracy, the performance was supposed to reflect a new patron—the bourgeoisie. That’s pretty much the situation we’re in today: educated, middle-class performers dancing for educated, middle-class patrons. In order to truthfully represent this reality of a performance event among social equals, Bel encourages mutual observation: the performer and spectator watch each other. The privilege of the expert performer is broken down by having her/him do things any spectator could do given a few weeks to rehearse.

The encounter between spectator and performer in The Show Must Go On is stark, comical, often surprising, and sometimes very moving. Bel achieves all this by setting very simple tasks for his performers. In one section they listen carefully to songs on their iPods, and very loudly sing the choruses when they come around. Watching an overweight lawyer (and former dancer) in his 50s intently focused on his iPod while occasionally blurting out “I’ve got the power!” was a truly comic spectacle. In another sequence, the performers’ simple action of walking up to each other and embracing to the theme song from Titanic is both absurd and touching. Often the performers simply stand and watch us. There’s something naked about their watching, and it makes me feel naked—and very present. I think this is how Bel wanted it. But when “Kiss” by Prince starts up, the audience is on its feet, shaking it. This is not what Bel wanted. We were supposed to sit in our seats, listen, watch and behave—like well-trained middle-class citizens?

gisele vienne, jerk

The idea of mutual watching is a conceptual thread running through this year’s PuSh Festival. As executive director Norman Armour puts it, the “act of witnessing or bearing witness” in the shared moment of performance is a thematic concern of many of the shows. It’s also the inevitable result of spatial configurations that foreground the performer-spectator relationship. Sometimes the combination of a very intimate performance space and very uncomfortable subject matter is enough to provoke an encounter of intense co-witnessing. In director Gisele Vienne’s Jerk (France) an audience of about 50 people is crowded onto a very small stack of bleachers in breathing distance of actor Jonathan Capdevielle. The room is painted white and fluoro-lit. In this setting Capdevielle is able to watch audience reactions in detail as he performs gruesome murders of teenage boys in real time with puppets. The script is based on serial murders that occurred in Texas in the 1970s. The lighting and close proximity to the performer leave us nowhere to hide as we are forced to contemplate this disturbing subject through various layers of theatrical mediation that include puppets-as-characters, the actor’s arm-as-puppet and the actor as both ventriloquist and dummy. At times I am forcefully dissociated from my own feelings, which themselves become like puppets to observe: feelings of horror, amusement, disgust and impatience. [See more about Jerk, p32.]

Kamp, Hotel Moderne Kamp, Hotel Moderne
photo Herman Helle
hotel moderne, kamp

Kamp by Hotel Moderne (Rotterdam) is performed at the Roundhouse, a larger space that offers a little more distance from which to witness yet another horror, the genocide at Auschwitz. The concentration camp is presented as a scale model that covers the large stage area. Three puppeteers move hundreds of Jewish inmates through the assembly-line of mass murder, complete with rail terminal, sleeping quarters, officers’ mess, watch towers, supply trucks and the infamous gas chambers. The scale model gives the audience not a bird’s eye view but the one you’d have if you were a CEO taken up on a catwalk by a plant manager who wanted to give you a better look at the factory’s workings. From this perspective, the human figurines, while individually crafted, are made generic by their uniforms, whether prisoner or guard issue. The obliteration of individual character in the context of a militaristic ideology that classifies human beings according to perceived evolutionary type is in itself worth an essay.

Let me briefly note that when asked by a patron why the Nazi guards were given more menacing features than the Jewish prisoners, the artists suggested the perception of difference was all in the uniforms; they hadn’t differentiated between guard and inmate when making the figurines. We’re able to see the figurines in some detail thanks to a tiny hand-held camera the puppeteers use to film many of the sequences. The images that appear on an upstage screen have a gritty, hand-held, journalistic immediacy to them. Even with these close-ups we never lose sight of the fact that we’re witnessing a slaughterhouse in operation. Neither the puppeteers nor the prison figures look back at us from a perspective that is particular or unique. They, and we, have been depersonalised. We have become industry. We have become utility in the service of mechanistic eugenics and skewed Darwinian ideology.

ahke theatre, white cabin

From organised genocide to creative chaos: White Cabin by Ahke Theatre (St Petersburg) offers a life-affirming counterpoint to Kamp, but sit in the front row at your peril. A large, bearded man in partial whiteface, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a pork pie hat, might splatter you with red wine as he empties a bottle over himself or sprays it onto his fellow performers. Bits of newspaper, floating like tiny airships on fire, might make you their landing pad. This is not participatory theatre but, like Jerk, the intimacy of the venue puts the audience dangerously close to the action—and the action is non-stop, carnivalesque and enticing despite the hazards. Who knows why the two large men and the medium-sized woman do hand-stands on tables, try to hang themselves or pour milk on their naked backs? And who cares? Each image unfolds like a live painting featuring playful demons from a world that crosses Russian folklore with 19th-century artist’s garret. Watching them makes me want to knock back some vodka and throw some wine and paint around for myself.

Then something truly wonderful happens. Three large panels of white fabric are dropped across the front of the prop-littered stage. Each has a large window cut out of its centre. The first panel has the biggest window, the third the smallest. It feels a bit like a puppet theatre within a puppet theatre, while also carrying the suggestion of a series of Russian nesting dolls. The performers variously enter the front, middle or back windows and create brief tableaux or moving scenes—they fight, smoke cigars and one of them commits symbolic suicide by holding plastic bags of water to his body and slashing them open with a knife. Because these scenes take place in the shallow space between one window and the next, a visual tension is created by the three-dimensionality of the performers’ bodies against the flatness imposed by the window frames. This perspective is made more disorienting by the two-dimensional paintings and photographs that are projected onto the white fabric. Because these images are usually in zoom-in or zoom-out mode, they give us the feeling of alternately falling into or out of the windows. Sometimes the zooming stops and we are overwhelmed by something else, like the scene in which the performer’s newspaper catches fire: the live fire is matched by a video projection of flame that covers the entire canvas, momentarily creating the impression that the set is actually burning.

what are the rules here?

But it’s an illusion. In all the performances I’ve described so far the artists have carefully shaped their illusions. Even Jerome Bel. Especially Bel. Despite the fact that some of his performers are untrained—non-experts, you might call them—the overall construction of The Show Must Go On is as brilliantly crafted and manipulative as the most revered canonical works of Western dramatic literature. Bel spent two years making his show. We spend less than two hours trying to figure out the extent of our agency— are the performers inviting us to take part bodily, or just mentally? How much freedom do we have to affect the outcome of the event? What are the rules here?

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll Best Before, Rimini Protokoll
courtesy the artists and the PuSh festival
rimini protokoll, best before

Enter Rimini Protokoll for a dose of genuine interactivity [see RT91, p18]. The Berlin Company’s new work Best Before was commissioned by PuSh and created in Vancouver. It features what Rimini calls “experts of daily life”—non-actors from various walks of life. These “experts”—a flagger, an ex-finance minister, a computer game tester and a game programmer—are connected by the fact that two of them worked at Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest producers of video games, and three of them drove past the flagger on their way to work each day. So the idea of a daily journey (travel to work) is connected to the idea of something under construction (the site around which the flagger is directing traffic), and both of these are connected to the metaphor of life as a video game you win or lose.

Together with Rimini’s artistic directors, the experts have created a game the whole audience can play at once. Each spectator is given an Xbox-type controller to create and manipulate an avatar on the huge screen that stretches across the back of the stage. Around 200 spectators take part, through their avatars, in practical decision-making such as finding a mate, buying a house, choosing a candidate, supporting military spending and voting on abortion rights. As the title suggests, Best Before is a show about life choices and about taking stock of those choices before your ‘due date’ comes up. When contentious issues are introduced, interaction jumps from the screen to the seats where spectators get into playful or heated arguments. Unlike Bel in The Show Must Go On, Rimini seems to relish these outbreaks. And they’ve given the audience coherent parameters—they provide a playing field, rules and a worthy opponent. The company also risks having these parameters redefined by the spectators. In this sense the spectator-performer relationship is truly levelled.

As in The Show Must Go On, this levelling is made clearer by the fact that the performers are untrained actors. The truth-and-consequence on-screen game is counterpointed by the stories of the experts who talk about life choices that led them to their current circumstances. Each story has its own peculiarity: a woman gives up journalism to direct traffic; a man goes from finance minister to night club owner; another man claws his way through the hierarchy at Electronic Arts only to be ‘rationalised’ out of a job. The experts’ lack of expertise in theatre works against the self-assured authorial coherence of a typical theatre performance. As performance theorist Florian Malzacher writes, “A Rimini performance is never perfect, nor should it be. At the point where the performers become practiced enough to feel secure, begin to build their roles and to act, the piece loses more than just its charm. Insecurity and fragility are the defining moments of what is understood by many to be authenticity. Yet such moments where timing, tension, empathy and presence disappear are also agonising.” These moments make you “feel uncomfortable as an audience member. You suffer too for a moment, feel embarrassed or touched by the efforts of performers who cannot protect themselves through acquired techniques” (Florian Malzacher,”Dramaturgies of care and insecurity”, M Dreysse, F Malzacher ed, Experts of the everday, the theatre of Rimini Protokoll. Berlin: Alexander Verlag Berlin, 2008).

situating the spectator

Each of the shows I’ve considered asks the spectator to situate her/himself in relation to the performers themselves, and not just in relation to a fiction or an ‘elsewhere’ the performers may be representing. Each event provides a thematic and aesthetic frame in which we meet and reflect on who we might be to each other. In these situations the artists avoid setting themselves up as authorities. Canadian installation artist Vera Frenkel writes that the postmodern artist seeks to undermine the possibility of her/his own charismatic authority and permits us to not “believe so readily in the other as the keeper of our treasure and our disease” (cited in Philip Auslander, From acting to performance, Routledge, London and NY, 1997).

The role of the spectator has shifted from decipherer-of-meaning to co-creator of the theatrical event. Another way to put it is to say that interpretation has been subordinated to encounter, and that it is in the energy of the encounter that meaning is created, rather than having meaning encoded in the event beforehand by the artist. The idea of mutual witnessing probably doesn’t do this justice, since witnessing privileges looking, and looking implies distance between the watcher and the watched. If there is a common goal to many of this year’s PuSh performances it is to break down that distance. The common strategy of levelling the playing field is used in other shows at this year’s PuSh I haven’t mentioned, like Poetics: a ballet brut by Nature Theater of Oklahoma (NY), in which four non-dancers awkwardly perform an entire choreography made up of everyday movements—another version of non-expert performance in an expertly created frame. As cognitive science has shown, spectators tend to respond kinetically to what they are watching. Even though it may not be apparent, a spectator responds to movement neuro-muscularly. If this year’s PuSh is about witnessing, we are witnessing with our whole bodies, so to speak. Often the bodies on stage are as diverse as the bodies in the seats. Thanks to the artists willingly relinquishing control (and even sometimes when they’re not) it’s almost a meeting of equals.

This particular kind of risk-taking is only part of what made this year’s PuSh Festival so remarkable. While past incarnations have featured leading lights of international theatre such as Societas Rafaello Sanzio (Italy), Back to Back (Australia) and Forced Entertainment (UK), this year’s program has been the most insistently cutting edge from start to finish. PuSh has also helped push Vancouver from bystander to participant in the greater creative flows of world theatre. In doing so it has helped local companies to successfully show their wares nationally and internationally, as in the case of Theatre Replacement’s now infamous Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut (2008). Now in its fifth outing, PuSh has taken its place among the best theatre festivals of its kind.

PuSh International Performing Arts Festival 2010: Jerome Bel, The Show Must Go On; Gisele Vienne, Jerk; Hotel Moderne, Kamp; Ahke Theatre, White Cabin; Rimini Protokoll, Best Before; Vancouver, Jan 20-Feb 6; for full production credits go to

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 2-3

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

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