Riječke ljetne noći: Penelope / Song of songs

A version of this text was published on vibewire.net.

…practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one's “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.
– Susan Sontag, On Style

I wonder whether love is really as trite a subject as we are often made to think, on the basis that everything has been said. While it is easy and common to view life as a supermarket of choices, better or worse-stocked, one's life as an empty thing to be filled with Content, at its most basic life simply evades this. One's fundamental life experiences are not to be chosen: birth, deaths of parents, having children, illness. Love, of course. The main answer, not only to the incessant proliferation of love-themed artworks, but to the fact that we still readily fall in love, knowing the endpoint of the experiment, it seems to me, is that the problem we are trying to solve is essentially one of style, not content (to use a dated division that, however, is still going strong in theatre). “What new can be said?” we ask about the three-minute love song just like we could ask about a marriage proposal, forgetting that we do not stop falling in love just because we know how it ends. Life is an attempt at formal innovation, not a statement made in the form of life, to paraphrase Sontag yet again. This is why the plots are so few, and the artworks so many; why so many people do the same things all over again.

And if so, I wonder whether dance may not be the purest, crispest realisation of love on stage. Dance which, in itself, has been largely liberated from the struggle of form and content. With inexistent texts the execution is built only out of the performance itself, and a prescribed thing like classical ballet may be the closest in western dance where the rift is even possible, where one can be accused of stylistically disrespecting the content, of hanging a curtain between themselves and their matter of discourse. Everything else is pure expression.

Penelope / Song of Songs (Penelopa / Pjesma nad pjesmama), a diptych on love, is a collaboration between Portuguese ballet ensemble CeDeCe and the National Ballet of Rijeka, with the choreographers swapped. In Penelope, thus, Louis Sousa directs and choreographs HNK dancers, while Staša Zurovac creates Song of Songs on the CeDeCe bodies. The uniting element is music, by Macedonian Marijan Nećak, a semi-classical landscape for a mini orchestra (strings quartet, bass, timpani, clarinet, oboe, horn, trombone, guitar and piano) and a handful of vocal soloists. It is a strangely de-classicalised new classical music, fragmented, contrasting, open to noise yet overwhelmingly melodic.

Sousa may have had a harder job, as Zurovac and Nećak have collaborated in the past and clearly share artistic sensibility. Penelope is a strangely straightforward piece of dance, programmatic in literalised narrative detail. Contemporary ballet is a type of dance this spectator rarely has a chance to see, and always enjoys for its straight lines, its clean technical bravura and near-literary purposefulness, of which Penelope too had plenty. Sousa brings a Portuguese simplicity of means to the mise-en-scène, creating individual tableaux full of grace and strength: gripping birth of Telemachus, the nightly tearing of the daily weaving work, Penelope's mourning after the massacre of suitors and servants. But the narrative, as familiar as it is to us from The Odyssey, is often the invisible key to much trite stage movement, with no purpose other than somewhat obscure story-telling. The soloists, particularly Marta Voinea as the Helen of Troy, fill their straight lines with passion and engagement, yet the mannerism of ballet, of story-telling, keeps the emotional potential of the piece restrained.

If there is a key to this neoclassical exercise, one that may need to be spelled out to an audience less familiar to CeDeCe, Sousa keeps it all to himself. But, I wonder, how purposeful may it seem to a more knowledgeable eye? The subtleties of the second piece, perhaps, would be utterly lost to someone less familiar with his sources.

Song of Songs opens in a mental hospital, and immediately expands its field of reference by jumping from the Bible to the homonymous poem by Janko Polić Kamov, Croatia's most precocious avant-garde author, a raging, nihilistic, pre-expressionist, whose freely structured prose was at complete odds with the early 1900s' preference for harmony, finesse and nobility, and reappraised only in the recent years. The iterative praise to love of the biblical original is transformed into a rhythmic chant of Kamov's lyrics:

The world is dead, my love, and it's so dark in its boredom;
the people are dead, my love, and dreamy is their song,
the silence is insane, my love, and silence is their speech;
look, they're sleepy and yawning is their day's music;
their soul's as empty as the whores' laughter, and their laughter as lifeless as the law;

their sun is as pale as the death candle and the walls are their forest;
it is so desolate, dark, my love, and their days are like their thoughts;

there's no blood in their body and their soul is empty like God.

The piece does not attempt to locate its figuration in Kamov's intensely short and tragic life, yet it resonates very strongly with the themes of his rather autobiographical oeuvre: unrequited love to his best friend's wife, the possible illicit child, his desperate refusal to denounce his love, his pain and his radicalism to the comfy morality and the vapid lifestyle of the fin-de-siécle middle-class Austria-Hungary, down to his untimely death in a Barcelona hospital in 1910, at the age of 24. Song of Songs rejects any plot other than the infinite tragedy of love, any characters other than the collective lost to reason.

Zurovac's choreography is highly responsive to Nećak's music, blending over and echoing the musical variations, the motifs. Both develop in a counterpoint between abstraction and articulation of concepts, following an impressionist logic that stresses the felt, the emotional over the logical and the rational. CeDeCe dancers respond with enthusiasm to Zurovac's movement, developed in filigree detail yet potent and focused, grotesque yet often rather pretty: a pas de quatre of madwomen, a duet of The Lost Ones, the final persistent loneliness of the Little Girl, who tears a feathery white pillow on the dancers only to end the show curled up on a still warm, empty bed. Choreographically, it is rich in contrast: unison groupwork interrupted by lone soloists, duets merging into mass chaos, unbridled orgy of thrown limbs and gentle, restrained motion. It is both resolutely bleak and bursting with ecstatic energy. Lovers lose each other among the deranged bodies, wander off and on stage in their bare white insanity: they are alone in mass and alone when together. It is love as a nightmare, wringing out all the emotional detritus with the nihilist urge and desperate grip akin to Kamov's writing. There is nothing in this madness that isn't enormous pain, it says, yet they would not give it up for anything in the world. Even as their agony is presented as an entrapment, an illusion resisting disillusion, Song of Songs shows the emotional landscape of love with enormous compassion. Ultimately, it returns to another one of Kamov's thoughts:

I lay naked before a woman and we both remained cold, for we felt neither shame nor passion… The shame that broke one mankind into two sexes was dead and – to the new temple, to the hospital, where all people are brothers!

The formal intelligence of the choreography comes with a fierce emotional skeleton that in this case deserves to be called romantic. Not merely the romance of love-as-madness, the eternal allure of the lost mind. Watching the performance, I was reminded of literary impressions of Goethe, of Wagner. The forceful delivery of unashamed emotion must have felt as intoxicating as it did to me. (The audience, for the sake of reporting, was rather delirious.)

Where this diptych fails is in the way Penelope, with its cool perfectionism, driven by narrative and uninterested in but most formalised of emotion, seems somewhat oblivious to the secret understanding between Kamov, Nećak and Zurovac. Song of Songs, on the other hand, is dramaturgically as uninterested in plot, character or metaphor as it is attentive to all senses: the visual free association of costume and mise-en-scène; the close relation to music; the textures of movement, from hard to soft, full and deep to lithe and fragile; the freewheeling emotion. (Love, I have said already, is an underrated subject.) The result is a sensual and emotional feast of the highest order, a dance for dance gluttons.

Penelope / Song of Songs premiered on 8th July 2008 on Riječke ljetne noći, in Tvornica papira Hartera, Rijeka, Croatia.

Penelope. Choreographer and director: Louis Sousa. Costumes: Sandra Dekanić. With: Paula Rus, Andrei Kőteles, Marta Voinea, Ashatbek Yuzupzhanov, Kristina Kaplan, Irina Kőteles, Anka Popa, Sabina Voinea, Roberto Barbosa Pereita Junior, Svebor Zgurić, Vladimir de Freitas Rosa.

Song of Songs. Choreographer and director: Staša Zurovac. With: Benjamin Duran, Catarina Correia, Haruka Fukuizum, Camila Moreira, Erica Gawley, Joana Puntel, Vanessa Vieira, Alia Crutcher, André Zachery, Miguel Areias, Marco La Perna.

Music: Marjan Nećak. Set Design: Žorž Draušnik. Costumes: Joao Taborda. Lighting design: Boris Blidar and Antonio Rodrigues.

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