Reflections on minimalist, conceptual contemporary performance
by Daria Kaufman
Originally published on , a project of the University of California at Berkeley
Dance Studies Working Group, March 2016 - link
O que fazer daqui para trás (João Fiadeiro, 2015)
“Is there anything more portentous than a deserted microphone onstage?” That's what I wonder for the first few minutes while it sits there like a dangling knife. The curtain is parted and the lights are up, signaling: it has begun. But nothing is happening, and so I imagine everything: what's to come; how I'll feel at the end of the show; how nice it is to just sit here; did I leave the stove on? I become hyper aware of my surroundings. Every belly growl and aroma is magnified, and I sense I'm in the midst of a purposeful, crucial primer.
The first performer charges in from the wings, sprinting and out of breath. The contrast is exhilarating. She is young, thin, late-20s-ish, and Portuguese. I wonder where she's been. She speaks into the microphone in a somewhat hurried, exasperated state, as if every word counts. When she's finished she runs offstage. More silence, but completely different now. The room feels palpably charged with the resonance of the preceding moment.
Time passes. Another exasperated runner enters from the wings and delivers a short monologue. He is also young and in good shape, and from the open, songlike rhythm of his Portuguese, I collect that he's probably Brazilian. Since I'm not fluent enough to understand everything he says, every other code – gesture, facial expression, overall affect – speaks volumes.
It goes on and on like this for an hour, all five performers caught in an endless loop of run-talk-run. When one enters while another is still talking, the latter immediately leaves, sometimes in mid-word. This seems to be an important rule. It creates a collision of narratives, in no way directly related, but nonetheless constantly informing each other, like the game “exquisite corpse.” The genuine exhaustion – the performers are actually running laps around the theater, an insider tells me - renders their speech devoid of decoration or contrivances. Save for the microphone, the stage is totally bare. I feel like I'm watching a choreography of time, a physical theater of memory.
It only ends when someone breaks a rule. One woman stays onstage even though another runner has entered. She quietly backs away from the microphone and remains there while the lights slowly dim. I feel euphoric and contemplative.
Suddenly everywhere is black with people (Marcelo Evelin, 2012)
Five performers form a huddled mass that alternately charges through space, marches in tandem, disintegrates to the floor, and orgiastically writhes. At times they unglue and wander zombie-like through the space, but primarily they bind to each other like amoeba. They are nude and covered in black paint from head to toe, rendering their bodies equally hidden and exposed. Despite their camouflage, I instantly recognize: they are all young.
The performance space is relatively small, its perimeters defined by a hanging rectangle of cold, fluorescent tube lights which sit at roughly hip height. We're all stationed inside the frame together – the mass and the watchers. Every once in a while I hit up against the boundary, causing the whole light structure to sway in the darkness like oscillating lasers, and I become suddenly, irrevocably self-conscious.
As the mass charges to and fro like an agile rugby scrum, a litany of socio-political-economic and psychological inferences flood me: the Occupy Movement, war, urban overcrowding, the Salem Witch Trials, the inner workings of the mind during the course of decision-making, the way cells behave. But I am often forced out of passive watching and rumination. Not once does the mass adjust or cater to anything in its way, so I have to continually move, or get run over. We all do. The whole audience is part of this design of multitude. At times it feels like a ride. At times I feel genuinely in danger. At one point, we are coralled like cattle as the mass forms a running ring around us, forcing us into a smaller and smaller circle into the center of the stage. 'We' are now the spectacle, not 'them.'
It's nearing the end. I can tell they're sweating profusely because the combined aroma of perspiration and body paint is making me feel a little altered. After a physical climax of an ensemble huddle that seems equal parts wrestling, pleading, and fornicating, they melt to the floor and demise. We clap. Feels strange to clap after something resembling death. I feel so alive.
While we were holding it together (Ivana Müller, 2006)
The curtain opens on a tableau of five people, each posed in stillness in some kind of mid-gesture or halfway point. The lights slowly fade out and up. Since this is a common stage device, I expect some reveal with the new illumination, but there's nothing. They are just as we left them. Still, my mind seeks out some confirmation of difference. So I find some... his left finger is lower... she's breathing more from the chest now... I think he changed his gaze slightly... I'm hyper-attuned.
They remain in their respective poses for almost 66 minutes. About halfway through, one man starts visibly trembling from the effort. By the end, several others have joined him in a gradual wave of tremors. The way they are stationed, near enough to be friends yet clearly autonomous, reminds me of Edward Hopper's painting “Nighthawks,” and the way the diner patrons sit at the bar – at once together and alone.
One woman stands with her left arm bent, elbow out and hand to the side. She might be pushing someone away, or parting a curtain, or in the process of turning a knob. Another man sits on the floor on his side hip, propped up on one arm with the other extended in front. He might be about to grab a helping hand, or gesturing towards an object in the room. Gradually, one by one, they start imagining out loud potential contexts for their respective positions:
I imagine I am the commander of a special military unit...
I imagine we escaped from the zoo three days ago and we are hungry...
I imagine snow is falling on us. Thick layers of snow...
I imagine not being able to imagine anymore...
I imagine a different position of my arm would have been a better choice...
With each performer's utterance, I inevitably start associating age, nationality, sexual orientation, and more. Mid-20s, gay. Early 40s, Dutch, extroverted. What began as a container for endless identity is now shrinking with each new inflection.
As each statement recontextualizes the tableau, I imagine a series of potential narratives and characters. These stories rain down on the stage, one after another. Sometimes they overlap, so that now I project 'hungry special military unit standing in an escaped zoo covered in snow' onto the scene. It goes on like this - the performers never moving, narratives building, looping and intertwining. An intricate, at times meta-textual, comedic plot unfolds. I feel equally bored and fascinated.
It's nearing the end. The lights dim again and rise on an empty stage. The performers are gone, but their voices continue from offstage, offering more suggestions, more illusions. I feel like the purpose of it all has been to bring me to this point, to not needing them anymore.
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The pieces described were strikingly pared down, fueled by the author's and performers' commitment to a single idea or limitation, and their mutual willingness to plumb its depths within strict, unwavering confines.
These boundaries were often rule-based, almost game-like. Take O que fazemos..., for example: as soon as the next runner enters, the current orator must leave; the piece only ends when someone breaks the first rule; performers must always run except when at the microphone, and so on. Of course, isn't all performance rule-based? (Almost all ballets are based on the law of turn-out; in theater, the script could be seen as the formative 'rule' of the play). Indeed, what is the difference between a game and a performance? These works blur the lines beyond recognition. Since moving to Lisbon in 2014, I've seen work by artists that is less concerned with displaying a specific vocabulary or movement style – to the point where this approach is labelled trite or outdated – and instead, performances are treated as sites for a simple, often single-rule-based structure to reveal certain aesthetics and ideologies as emergent aspects of the game.
As Tim Etchells wrote of Jerome Bel's iconic The Show Must Go On, which is also based on a simple structure governed by the manipulation of a single mandate:
"Ostensibly confining and predictable, the rule in fact creates a new richness of dramaturgical possibility in which the watcher, attuned to the game, its language and limits, becomes sensitised to the smallest variations. Attention correctly focused within a set of crushed parameters, the watcher finds meaning and pleasure in events or changes that might, in a more laissez-faire stagecraft, be too small, stupid or too simple to be recognised."
This hyper-sensitivity also asks me to radically confront my definitions and assumptions about relationships between audiences, performers, and spectacle. For instance in Suddenly..., as much as I was watching the performers, I was also observing my fellow audience members – the way we moved, anticipated action (or failed to), and choreographed ourselves in silent agreement, like the mirrored mass of the one performing. While we were... called my attention to the construct of performance as an experience that is created between the audience and the viewer, as a mutual designing of something not seen, never fully materialized or verified. Thus, ambiguity and uncertainty become tools for mediated meaning-making. I am brought to a state of attention and awakening that lingers long after the final applause. The performance itself is an invitation, a trigger and invocation to view my surroundings, as well as myself, through an altered lens, to gauge the choreography of everyday experience, and to question the confines of “the show.”
I recognize that this kind of mutual design and audience complicity is always at play. The push-and-pull between how much work I choose (or am willing) to do as a viewer and the degree of explicitness that the author affords is an ongoing conversation and point of contestation. The difference I see here, though, is how directly this negotiation is being acknowledged and utilized. No longer implicit, it forms the legible glue of the piece.
The result is a sense, not of a packaged product, but rather a gradually unfolding experience that demands my presence and participation. When I say “participation,” I'm not referring to the kind of oft dread-inducing audience participation that forces me to get on stage or join a sing-along. Instead, this participatory action demands my intelligence. This participation asks: be present, pay attention, learn the rules, and then, we'll play.
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Tim Etchells, The show must go on. (April, 2002). http://www.jeromebel.fr/textsandinterviews/detail/?textInter=the%20show%20must%20go%20on%20-%20tim%20etchells
Photo credits (top to bottom): Patricia Almeida, Sérgio Caddah, Unknown
O que fazer... (in full)
While we were... (in full)
Suddenly everywhere... (trailer)