Nomads, part three in an ongoing project that started in Sydney in 2006, by Hans Van den Broeck plus dancers, is exactly the sort of theatre I love, the reason why I endure hours and hours of pretty dancing, of actorly acting, of witty dialogue and realistic set design. Every time I go through a door into a dark space with seats, I hope to see something close to Nomads. It is not the most pleasant theatre. It is, I imagine, tremendously frustrating to many. It is, first, not the kind of theatre that showcases skill: any theatre practitioner – and most theatre-goers, unfortunately, are also theatre-makers – will likely be underwhelmed. It is also not theatre that makes one feel anything much, which will inevitably frustrate any casual audience member. It doesn't tell a story, has no plot, makes no effort to lead the spectator, step by step, into a journey, the logic of each scene, or the sequence thereof, is never explained. It has all the predispositions to be labeled self-indulgent.
But. Just because this type of theatre-making, shall we call it European (although a particular kind of European, it is also not something normally found elsewhere), is not a common type of theatre-making in Australia, doesn't mean we should shun it as opaque et cetera. In fact, let me tell you how we could approach it. We could approach it like a sonata, or an early Renaissance triptych. It is certainly no more than a historical accident that we approach theatre like we approach the pilot episode of a sit-com? With minimal intellectual engagement, and infinite impatience? What if we approach it with an open mind instead, actively thinking our way through, with patience and willingness to adapt our sense of time? What if we are ready to wait, let the theatre take its time to show and tell, ready to do our own bit of work, ready to think?
Hans Van den Broeck, a psychologist by training, may be best known as one of the founding member of Les Ballets C. de la B., a freeform collective of dance extraordinaire. The overriding logic behind the project really appears to be the exploration of the relationship between Hans and the dancers, and his working methodology. At the heart of Settlement, the second stage, just like Nomads, was the very concentrated rehearsal time, two weeks with an assembled group of people, based on a strong concept, and a detailed scenario constructed beforehand. The resulting work is understood as finished, not a work-in-progress. Not unlike a real society, it is the free-form collaboration with an open, complex reality that emerges.
I saw Settlement in Vienna. (To read more about the development, check Frances D'Ath's blogging on the creative process, straight from July 08.) The two performances behave according to a very similar logic, are directly comparable in the questions they ask, and the answers they offer. Both follow very literally the type of coexistence they inquire into, and, while similar, come to very different conclusions. I should have expected: settlers, nomads. While Settlement was a stationary community, a third of the space covered with tents, a brook running past, Nomads follows the performers as they sit down and leave again, sit down and leave; the first was all clogged energetic pores, the second is airy and forgetful. Both shows take the community of dancers, performers, through some typical activities: travelling, sitting down, eating, socialising, entertainment, violence, trauma management. They have some similar preoccupations: both begin with a figure of the outsider joining the group, but while Settlement closes with the outsider still largely isolated from the group, he blends in with the nomads quite quickly. Altogether, Nomads is a much more positive show (although this may be a simplistic way of putting it). It reminds us that the things we have inherited from the millennia of hunting and gathering are the pursuit of ecstasy and the ability to forget. Settlement, instead, dwelled upon the structures that bind us together.
We must not lie for the sake of others
We must respect the loneliness of others
We must combine our thoughts
We only take as much as we can use at any one time
We must look people in the eye at least once every day
We must try to laugh at least once a day
We must say audible things to one that all may share
We can contest a rule if it interferes with our sense of liberty
We should try to wear our pants inside out and back to front
We can take a nap in somebody else’s tent if the tent flap is open
We must be at first considerate
You must have your brush in hand before entering the kitchen area
-excerpt from the Settlement rulebook
I found it a little jejune, comparatively speaking, although this may be a reflection on my personal history. Coming from a federation that fell apart and into a civil war, I grew up in an artistic environment endlessly preoccupied with dissecting the fundaments of society. If there has been an idée fixe in post-Yugoslav art, it has been the question of neighbours turning against one another; the real tangibility of the threads that bind us together; the dubious stability of peace, of order; the illusory harmony of cohabitation. Settlement, in this context, merely scratched the surface of real life.
Nomads opens with performers, ragged up and saddled with boxes, milk crates, backpacks, pacing in a circle. One of them has a small child on her back, which will be discarded before the beginning of the show. From then on, a series of scenes plays out, in the big space of Carriageworks's Bay 8, on the sand, with projections covering one or two walls, and an intermittent soundscape piercing the big space made entirely of concrete, sand and light. There is no strong link between the scenes, no meaning spelled out, just the endless, prolonged, trickling continuty of people and space. It is not theatre for the easily bored and, while aesthetically pleasing, it is poles away from spectacle. It is theatre that lets the mind wander.
While there are no weak scenes in the 90 minutes of Nomads, some stand out as exceptionally potent. Once the walking circle has broken into a chain reaction of simple movements, a collective dance that the wandering outsider can join in, a makeshift settlement is established. Like a vulture, a peddler appears, offering Con-fession! Con-fession!, setting up his trolley with a microphone, a dividing screen, and a blinding light. One has sinned because she has stolen, food, clothes, thoughts and dreams. Return the box, he tells her. Nomads are not allowed to hoard. Another one falls in love with the priest. Visibly disconcerted, he tells her that there is a sacred vow, and leaves. Nikki Heywood, curious, takes his place. She too leaves after a story of a man who doesn't get laid, unable to work around the experience. While there is nothing more to this sequence, the travelling shrink packs up and leaves, there is an entire essay in it on the exclusion of professions from quotidian life, on the need to distance those who filter the detritus of normality. From executioners, entertainers and fortune-tellers to the burakumin.
The nomads turn the performance into a fashion show, with a moment of obvious analogy with Settlement: people exchanging clothes, again and again and again. There is homogenisation within the group, but also joyous collectivity, in this long dress-up-and-down. At the same time, with pictures projected on the wall, and the role-playing of the catwalk costuming, with nomads, gypsies, witches and cowboys impersonated, it is a bit of a satire on role-playing. It energises the audience, and it takes a bit of effort to calm down afterwards, continue with the slowness that's so characteristic of the show.
While Settlement had little to say on intimacy, or private life of others (whatever happened, happened inside the tents), Nomads gives a long thought to sleep, with long chains of hugging, on one hip, then the other. The chain is broken and remade as the group turns upside down, left to right, sits and shifts in discomfort. There is a need for comfort and a need for space that are clashing within this scene, like they clash when one shares a bed with another person, that exist on stage as presence, not representation. And then, the performance mutates into one of the most curious, most enigmatic parts of Nomads: a woman lies on the mattress. Within moments, other members of the community shake her off, and a careful, consensual battle for the mattress begins. With the music getting louder and louder, people push and pull the mattress in different directions, jumping on it, sneaking a few minutes of lying down, before they're shaken off by others, who don't necessarily try to steal it for themselves, just limit the time anyone gets on.
At the time, I was absolutely intent on reading it as an illustration of drug-bound communities. Managing the mattress, limiting everyone's time to minimal, seemed to be a perfect illustration of, say, acid-dropping circles, keeping in check by not allowing anyone, not even oneself, too much time unaccountable. Now, however, as I'm thinking about it more, it also appears to be a simple principle of managing commons, a scarcity. At the same time, the spinning blanket dervishes remind us that the pursuit of ectasy, trance, is something we have inherited from our nomadic past, and that major religions have sprung up in the desert for a reason. The scene closes with Lizzie Thomson, held up high on a mattress by everyone else, drawing a red door in the projected desert landscape, and knocking (it's a loud, miked knock). Joe, let me out!, she says. I'm ready! Joe, if you let me out, I'll let you in!
In the immediate aftermath, the performers, drenched in loud, energetic music, yet visibly exhausted, turn to walking into a wall. It seems clear that they're chasing a flickering projection, which disappears before they can come close, and it also seems clear that the music is meant to invigorate them, make them persist, rather than illustrate the mood. There is not a tremendous deal of conviction in the way they hit the wall, again and again. What makes it more poignant, however, is the shift that happens as they start leaving things. They walk into the wall with flowers, and leave the crushed flowers by the wall. Chair, leave. Water bottle, leave. Like the road shrines to the victims of car accidents, like the flowers left for victims of suicide bombers, so are these little souvenirs to violence, martyrdom, scattered by the wall.
I will not disclose the ending, strangely funny and unexpectedly beautiful, although I could keep rambling on each long scene in this magnificent performance. There is a lot in a show like Nomads, and any attempt to analyse, I feel, kills the magnificent, slow and mature vagueness with which it paints images on those enormous, concrete walls. It is very airy theatre, of the kind that can really disorientate, confuse and frustrate the audience member that wants to be touched or entertained. It is not immersive, with the music video logic, like much of the home-grown non-narrative theatre. It is quietly visual, slow and uneventful, and pleases mainly to the extent to which one can fill the evening with thought. There is an echo of Brecht here: a thinking and smoking spectator, where smoking was precisely the a sign of dispassionate contemplation. But it is also Wilsonian, perhaps: intermissions at your discretion without the signposting. It is worth suspending your expectations, and allowing yourself the discursive and observational freedom normally reserved for classical music or a modernist novel, and just let the images, concepts and stories wash over you, before deciding what it means.
Nomads. Directed by Hans Van den Broeck. Performers/collaborators: Kathy Cogill, Nikki Heywood, Rowan Marchingo, Tony Osborne, Lizzie Thomson, Vicki van Hout, Nalina Wait, Anuschka van Oppen, Joe Jurd. Video design Sam James. Sound design James Brown. Lighting design Sydney Bouhaniche. Project convenors Nikki Heywood and Rowan Marchingo. Production manager Jenn Blake. Residency showing at Performance Space, Sydney, 27 – 29 November 2008.