Tag Archives: travel

The question of soul

I was struggling, back in Melbourne, to explain what the difference was, when I thought I found it.

“We have a lot of soul.” I told my perplexed friend. “That’s really the best way of putting it. We’re soulful people.”
“What do you mean by soulful?” he asked diplomatically, being of a race that prides itself on not showing emotion. He would gently remind me, later, that it is an integral aspect of every nationality to be lyrical about its own qualities as a people. “How does this soul manifest?”
“It’s like when you read Dostojevski…” I mumbled.

I couldn’t tell him then, except that it was the opposite of sentimentality, that it was a kind of emotional verticality, a layered depth, and that it explained our proclivity to violence. Aggression as a kind of overflow of soul. It was one of the most attractive things about my people, and as such intangible.


“You’ve brought us snow!” is an excited message that arrives to me in email, text and person, as I land into a city snowed under. The traffic halts, life slows down, the children are happy and drivers unhappy – the stockphrase of our daily press.

The tram, stops behind another, opens the doors onto the tiny green wedge before the stop itself, now a perfect patch of untrodden white. As I’m getting off, I hear one in a group of men, serious men, between mid-thirties and mid-forties, tell others, pensively but with a smile:
“Hey, let’s throw ourselves into the snow.”


As I walk into a jewellery store, the shop assistant is showing a set of rings to a lady:
“This one is very particular, isn’t it? I think it would be the best for you, seriously… (pause) Oh, no, not that one, that one is nothing much at all.”


“I was hoping you’d do something more seasonally appropriate!” is how I greet Dunja, having just snapped a photo of her at the main square, drinking from a bottle of water.
“Ah, right, because nobody drinks water in winter.” she smirks. “I can do an elk for you, if you want.”
“Please.” I say.


The man on the tram, who kindly held my bag around the corners till he got off at the train station, was eagerly convincing me that he would carry bags for such a beautiful woman to the bus station too, what’s more, to Rijeka itself!, especially since he was homeless and I was clearly homeful (his phrasing), but eh, unfortunately he had some prior commitments to take care of. I said it was OK.


G has had his first threesome, and I was complaining very loudly that I was never going to get mine, since I was living in a Protestant country now.
“Well haven’t we promised each other one?” he was being very reassuring. “Last year I had a girlfriend, this year you’re committed, but perhaps we’ll be third time lucky.”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t sleep with me this time? Is it because my head is like a pumpkin, huh?” it was early days since I had my wisdom tooth removed, and I looked like a farce.
“No, I wouldn’t. Not because you’re not very cute still, but because the vibrations might make some permanent damage to your jaw.” he grabbed my hand reassuringly.
“You are a disgusting pig.”
“Maybe, but I’m also full of soul.” he winked, and I loved him like only Croats love their friends.


And finally, there was the newspaper article my sister showed me.

I am my own grandfather

We have received a letter in which an unknown young man has recently attempted to avoid military service

Dear Mr Minister, allow me to explain my situation in hope that You may be able to solve my case. I am currently awaiting my call for the military service. I am 23 years old, I am married to a 47-year-old widow who has a 26-year-old daughter. This daughter is married to my father. Marrying my wife’s daughter, my father also became my son-in-law. Meanwhile, my wife is my father’s mother-in-law, and my wife’s daughter is my stepmother. In January, my wife and I have become parents. Our son is a brother to my father’s wife, and my father’s son-in-law. Simultaneously, this child is also my step-uncle, because he is my stepmother’s brother. In May my father’s wife gave birth to a boy. This boy is my brother, because he’s a son of my father’s. At the same time, the child is also my grandson, because he’s my wife’s daughter’s son. Therefore, I am my grandson’s brother, and since someone’s husband is also the father of this child, I am also the stepfather of my wife’s daughter, and her son’s stepbrother. It is therefore clear that I am my own grandfather. I hope I have explained everything. I hope, sir Minister, that You will find it appropriate to relieve me of the duty of military service, because the law states that sons of more than two generations (that is, grandfather and grandson) cannot do the military service at the same time.

Thank You for understanding.

The response of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Croatia followed two weeks later. The report stated:

“The person is permanently relieved of military duty due to suspected psychological shortcomings and mental instability which are a result of a chaotic family situation.”

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Tell me how many laws I’m breaking, I’ll tell you what country you’re from

Drawing and Painting class in ŠPUD.

ŠPUD is Škola Za Primjenjenu Umjetnost i Dizajn, or School of Applied Arts and Design. In the Croatian high school system, divided between the general academic gimnazije, and academically much more lax trade schools, ŠPUD is an oddity. A lair of self-selected weird kids, of an academically suspect, but artistically rigorous curriculum. Not least, it generates a very strong sense of belonging.

“This is the best school ever!” they hail me in the Interior Architecture department. “Well, in Croatia at least.”

Some final works in Grafika.

Chess set made in glass (?) by a student in Interior Architecture.

I am here as a delegate from Australia, and as my sister’s sister. She introduces me to each one of her classmates, and each one shakes my hand. They are finishing up their semester duties, and spend most of their day at school. The school is a maze of classrooms, lockers, bathrooms, workshops and exhibition spaces. They stay overtime and hang around. I come and go; nobody asks (“With your lip ring and hair and camera, you look like one of us”, the students are adamant). Some classrooms have loud music coming out; all the doors are open. I snoop.

Girls bouncing balls during class time.

The graphic design teacher finally comes into the class.

“Am I allowed to be here?” I ask. The girls laugh.
“Just don’t try to take his photo. He won’t like it.”

I am photographing their work, hopping around while he is inspecting their final drawings. The students are sending text messages, talking, arguing, and pulling out their maths homework. The teacher gets to Dora as she is in the middle of an animated conversation with her friend Jasna, and pulls her back onto her chair, holding her by the shoulders.

“Lean back.” he instructs her with a deep voice. “Relax. Breathe. Di-a-phragm!”
She giggles. He looks at me.
“Good morning!” I say. “I am from the Ministry!”
“Good.” he nods. “I’m from New Zagreb.”
We shake hands, too.

Dora’s pencil drawing, next to the original.

Illustration homework.

Discarded jewellery.

Sopija (Josipa) + Hitchcock.

Students during class.

“When’s your recess?” I ask, waiting for a fag break, and unsure of the high school time-table.
“Oh, it’s almost over…” the girls grumble, reassuringly.
“Shall we go out for a fag while we can?”
“Oh god, not now!” they exclaim. “Wait until the recess is over. The first years will be throwing snowballs at everyone!”
Only once the recess is over, am I allowed to go out with them.

Croatian National Theatre, the stronghold of mediocre performance and a very fine building, outside the school window.

A ‘general’ classroom, the sort I had in my non-artistic school. The board, cryptically, says “black and white technique”, followed by “socio-political situation in Croatia” and “struggles between feudalism and the bourgeoisie”.

The next day, I visit the girls in their Graphic Techniques class. They are doing their final linocuts. I like Dora’s.

“No, it’s crap!” she answers. “We have to make five, and this is zero. Zero! An attempt!”
What’s wrong with it?
“Everything! The outline isn’t clear, it shouldn’t have these smudges, and the colour should be more consistent!” she is fixing her design, very concentrated. “I will probably have to stay in for the rest of the day.”
The teacher walks through, and looks at one of the finished works:
“This is very good. The colour is solid, the parquetry floor has turned out great. It wouldn’t hurt if you had more going one here”, she points at the centre of the print, a solid dark bookshelf, “it’s very monotone. This guitar in the centre doesn’t do anything for the composition. But the rest is very good.”
She leaves again.

Graphic Techniques class, with the best linocuts exhibited.

Textured surface that used to be a desk.

Despite the complete lack of disciplinary effort (at the parents’ meeting the day before, some parents complained about teachers leaving the classroom so often), student life is strongly ordered. There doesn’t seem to be more than a very basic code of behaviour in place, but the amount and the level of work they are expected to accomplish is demanding enough to structure their life very firmly around the school. Apart from nine academic subjects (Croatian, English, Music, Mathematics, History, Geography, P.E., History of Art and a choice of Religion/Ethics) they have professional subjects, which vary depending on the department. Grafika (which can be very, very loosely translated as ‘Print’), Dora’s department, has six: Painting and Drawing, Graphic Techniques, Graphic Design, Illustration, Script (which will be followed on by Typography in the years to come) and IT, in which they learn to work with design software.

Final works in the Typography class.

Grafika is an elite department, I am told, and so is Arhitektura (which is really Arhitektura Interijera, or Interior Architecture). Theirs is a separate, small building, and my guide is a charming young man called by his surname. (Generally speaking, I find these children both charming and interesting: they are funny, articulate, and independent, which is more than I can say for most Melbourne University students, many years older. During our conversations, I never feel particularly older.)

Final years’ graduating works.

I am intrigued by the fact they do their technical drawing by hand, which my faculty has abandoned – the fact of which some of my colleagues bemourn. Ivek introduces me to one of his teachers, who confirms that they only start working with AutoCAD in third year (out of four).

“But there is no individuality in computer sketches”, she says. “Hand drawings are artistically much more interesting.”

All architecture and design schools seem to have thriving bulletin- and pinboards. We have more than a few in my office alone, and Ivek’s department is no exception:

“I’M BUSY I’M BUSY I’M BUSY…”; in the hand-written explanation above the photo, the girl lauds some competition she travelled to, saying: “I FINALLY LOST MY… CAMERA :)”

The answer, I suspect, is in the problem-solving nature of design, and the multi-step lateral thinking it requires.

“You know what I’ve realised?” my sister tells me on the street that day. “A designer is actually very much like an inventor. He invents new things to solve problems.”

They are making a simple mortise and tenon. The teacher, needless to say, is not there.

“My Australian audience will be dying to know: do you guys get injured?”
“Yeah! Like, she’s injured now…” says Ivek, hugging his friend.
“Just pinched my finger!” she’s protesting, jumping on the spot and shaking her hand.
“No, really injured?”
“Oh, once a week. Once a week someone cuts themselves.”
“No, really injured. As in, someone cuts their finger off?”
They look at me baffled:
“We pay attention to what we’re doing.”
“I’ve heard it happened once, but to someone from Carpentry, many years ago…” the girl helpfully remembers.

I took a photo of the ‘injured’ girl. She hid her face, but it only made her look more aching.

“Look at my mortise and tenon!” one girl jumps in to show. It’s perfect, compared to Ivek’s, which has also chipped.
“Hers is much better.” I point out.
“Yeah, well, I decided I wouldn’t pay anyone to do it for me.” he pouts at the girl, who starts beating him, with joking anger. As I leave, Ivek is shouting: “I wouldn’t get naked just for homework…!”

Since Grafika is the elite department, their toilet is labelled (in free translation) ‘the most elitest water closet’.

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Theatre notes

1. This gentlewoman of fortune wishes to announce she will be landing on Australian soil next Sunday. Regular transmission will be resumed soon after. These last weeks are always spent primarily in transition and motion.

2. Happiness is (…) finding yourself in a city, and being welcomed by a completely unexpected, unannounced and unplanned for puppet theatre festival. Those of you who know me better know that I love puppet theatre more than anything else in the world, including contemporary dance, cheese and pornography; and those of you who know Australia better know that my itch is rarely scratched. Needless to say, I am spending my last small change on abstract puppetry based on Bela Bartok, Russian puppet shows based on Tolstoy, and similar treats. Some writing may ensue, but I will be happy enough to sit, watch and shiver cold happy shivers of a cold turkey temporarily calm.

3. I have seen a lot of very interesting theatre while I was here (much more than could have been deducted from the sporadic commentary I've offered). I've learned to read German and French, and polished my Portuguese, in order to devour the coverage it generated. Meanwhile, Anglophone commentary was mostly concerned with Edinburgh. Quite short-sightedly. Andrew Haydon, a rare English speaker who grasps the extent of the problem, offers an insight in The Guardian theatre blog:

Maybe Britain's position in European theatre is more integrated than it appears, but I would be very surprised. The fact is that Britain is hopelessly isolated. While my European colleagues happily discuss the work of directors from each other's countries, I feel an overwhelming jealousy.

On mainland Europe, work tours. It doesn't tour exhaustively, but work that proves popular is as likely to be seen in Tallinn, Berlin or Bratislava, as The History Boys was in Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham. It is shocking to think that, along with my colleague Rose Fenton, I could be one of only a handful of Britons who will ever see some of this work. While everyone else talks about the work of “the most important directors working in Europe” – Alvis Hermanis, Jan Klata and Stefan Kaegi – I sit in mute astonishment at the fact that most of the names mentioned have never, to the best of my knowledge, had productions staged in Britain. At the same time, British names are highly conspicuous by their absence. Our writers are doing OK, but then, in any mainland European theatre deemed worthy of consideration, writers don't count half as much as directors.

Melbourne International Theatre Festival, for all the richness of its 2008 program, shows the same aloofness for the wealth of innovation currently happening outside the small Anglophone world. It is fine (and economically sound) to bring Cynthia Hopkins and a bucketful of Tim Crouch, and it's absolutely tremendous how much support Edmunds offers to the local artists. But it's a sort of program that feeds our belief that the world is small, uniform and safe, when in fact it's brimming with powerful, courageous, often violent experimentation.

4. Most importantly, I've come to realise how badly Australia fares in terms of cultivating broad theatre discourse. (Newspaper coverage, of course, is inadequate across the board. Although it's been a shock to realise that, in a small country like Croatia (4.5 million souls), even local newspapers will regularly offer two pages of fairly decent art coverage daily.)

What's more worrying is that Australia has no platform for serious, regular theatre discussions. Apart from RealTime, a bi-monthly magazine covering a range of media and performance arts, there is no serious publication devoting space to discussion of contemporary theatre practice in the country – of which there is much to discuss. That same Croatia, with a much smaller and much less active theatre scene, and infinitely less money for the arts, can somehow support two magazines dedicated to theatre only, one for contemporary dance, and a range of more generally-focussed arts bi-weeklies.

Book publishing is another problem Australia needs to solve. I have been stocking up on books of all kinds: playtexts, theory, interviews and collected essays. While I'm reading a two-volume collection of interviews on new theatre with the key new-theatre-makers in Croatia (often very funny, as they offer gossip, praise and criticism for each other), and organising a delivery to follow me to Melbourne, I am sure that it would be possible to run a series of similarly in-depth, inquisitive yet chatty interviews with Luke Mullins, Simon Stone, Brian Lipson, not to mention comparative giants such as Andrews or Kosky (whose ABC interview was a disappointingly slack, arts-uninterested piece).

While it's certain that Croatia has, for a long time, had a strong theory without adequate practice, it's also certain that the vivacity of the theoretical debates has helped generate a lot of the fascinating developments in the current theatre-making. In Australia, I wonder, how much more could be happening if brave experiments resonated more widely, if only the discussions and responses they generated could be channeled through an appropriate medium? As things are now, it seems certain that every break-through is muted by the small echo chamber it has at disposal. And the tyranny of distance.

Day-to-day newspaper and magazine criticism is not an adequate tool to support the national scene: it is conceived as, and works as, primarily a consumer guide. In order to follow through-lines of formal or philosophical inquiry that a company or a director develop, in order to discuss paradigm shifts and collective changes of direction, in order to propose and denounce poetics and systems of interpretation, in order to argue, we would need a place to come together in peace. Blogs, I need to disagree with Alison, are not enough to fill this gaping hole. Blogs are personal spaces, not meeting points.

5. All of which reminds me: my article on Eurokaz festival in Zagreb is now available, in print and online, in RealTime 86, and can be accessed here.

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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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on form and theatre; vignette

My most cherished discovery has been a generation of very young Croatian theatre-makers, absolutely fearless. This year, Gordana Vnuk, the iron lady of Eurokaz and an uncompromising believer in new forms of expression, pulled out these kids that haven't even graduated yet, and what beautiful things they have shown. I have seen so much brave, crushing, beautiful form on Eurokaz 2008, so much of it absolutely riveting.

Point one. Marina Petkovic.

Black box. Four actors wearing black. They describe exactly who they are, what they do. I am Gertrude. From here to here is my bed. It has four pillows on it. I sleep here alone, when I'm not performing my marital duties, in which case my husband, the king, sleeps here too. There is a double door here, a window over here, and a long red curtain covering it. I am wearing a white nightgown. I am Hamlet. I am wearing black, with a dagger hanging here. I am Polonius. I am hiding behind this curtain.

Gertrude and Hamlet sit down, chair to chair, holding pages of Shakespeare's text, reading as neutrally as they described the setting, the costumes. Hamlet gets up, stabs Polonius, and comes back. Gertrude, still neutrally: Oh what you have done? Argument; neutrally. Meanwhile, Polonius is dying in a most naturalistic way, shaking and curling on the floor. About five minutes. Hamlet is getting upset: he stammers, misreads his lines, sweats, has to repeat the words multiple times. Slowly, minutes passing, Polonius drags himself to the two chairs, grips Hamlet's leg. Hamlet chokes, tries to shake him off, still reading from the pages, very upset. Gertrude gets up, pulls, sits on Polonius, keeps reading. Both very upset now: words are mangled, phrases interrupted, repeated. Sweat. Polonius dies. It takes them time, cooperation and physical combinatorics to carry him out, through the double door. End.

Point two. Same performance.

Claudius, Gertrude and Horatio describe the setting of a ceremonial hall in great detail, each focusing on the parts that matter the most. This is my throne, because I am the king. Here hangs my portrait, 7×7m… No, 9×9. My throne is made out of gold, with a big sphere here, all covered in gems. My throne is a bit smaller. It's made out of wood. It has a golden sphere here. My portrait hangs with the king's. 6×6m. The hall is really big and spherical. If I stood here , and the actor leaves the performance space through the side door, walks out in the middle of the courtyard, I would be in the centre of the room. It feels good and comfy, like a church. Here is where Hamlet and I used to play when we were little. Now we're not allowed anymore. Then Ophelia. There is a river flowing through here. Break. She creates, with words, a natural landscape on top of the ceremonial hall. She describes her daydreaming in the forest. End.

This is all fantastic to watch. The rise or fall of this kind of theatre – of any kind of theatre, I believe – is in the extent to which they can engage their audience. Not merely for entertainment value: engagement improves attention, concentration, focus. Yet to qualify why something is engaging theatre, and something else fails to engage, is near-impossible. Finally, Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it was a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secret of the universe.

I am sure that these two essays did not attempt to give the answers I found. They were results of a workshop around Gavella, a Croatian theatre theorist and maker, whose writings I have never read. The first was almost certainly not a critique of text-based performance as promulgated in Anglophone countries, although it was the single most powerful critique I have ever seen. The second could not have been a reply to the West End Whingers, regarding the absolute mimicry of life in the direction of the ugly one by Ramin Gray, performed at the Royal Court in London. It may have been a demonstration of how little theatre needs to create setting, a mise-en-scéne, and how easily the audience can juggle in mind multiple, contradictory sets of signs, but it probably responded to Gavella instead. And yet, I cannot forget these two scenes. They were simple, minimalist, and unforgettable.

My sister, a 14-year-old with no experience of experimental theatre, not only sat through the 120 minutes of this black narrativeless experiment, but excitedly quoted moments from the performance days later.

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Biennale di Venezia: 6. Festival Internazionale di Danza Moderna

A slightly different version of this text has appeared on vibewire.net.

Wayne McGregor / Random Dance Company. Photo: Ravi Deepres.

1. dance in is the air

It is impossible to adequately explain the artichoke-like nature of Venice, with its layers beneath layers: paths for American tourists, paths for Italian tourists, paths for cultural tourists, paths for temporary residents, paths for real Venetians (those rare creatures). The path to Biennale is hardly close to the heart of this strange city: ensconced in Arsenale, the gigantic medieval shipyard in Castello, the poor and least picturesque of the six sestieri, where most inhabitants live oblivious to the two-week clamour of the cultural elite attending the dances. Going through the maze of makeshift laneways within this enormous industrial emptiness framed with the tall Arsenale walls, one cannot help noticing that highbrow culture today is a restricted-access good, just like the wealth within this phenomenally important shipyard once was. Walled away from this city, Biennale della Danza Contemporanea is a curiously generic, place-unspecific, mid-Italian / pan-European event, its audience all high heels, expensive clothes, melange of accents. Despite the tentative Choreographic Collison, a workshop with young local choreographers, now in its second year, it feels very much like the local people have nothing to do at this Biennale. Coming out into the bleak calle [street] outside, containing nothing but a single, generic, Bangladeshi-run bar serving pasta and mediocre coffee, one could be in an industrial anywhere in Europe.

The theme to this year’s Biennale, directed by Ismael Ivo, is Beauty, understood in the least cynical, least sardonic way. “Today beauty is used to promote the trade, the commercialization of the image”, says Ivo, adding: “It is thus not an expression of an interior virtue, but a purely external manifestation.” His is a provocation to rethink aesthetic pleasure, taking into consideration our emotive, energetic responses to beauty.

2. francesca harper

The dangers of the theme are best exemplified by Francesca Harper’s Fragile Stone Theory 2K8 / Interactive Feast, a compilation piece created specially for Biennale, on the theme of the relationship of a person to beauty, freedom and anxiety that a female artist feels in relation, again, to beauty. A mixed-media piece, Fragile Stone would have worked infinitely better if there was more dancing, and less of everything else. Harper’s dancers are a beautiful group, svelte, strong and precise, and the second act, exclusively danced, was a pleasure to behold. Not enough, however, to shake us awake after the endless first act, which was a burlesque of a kind, a headless melange of live signing, video performance, short bursts of dancing interrupted by conceptualising fluff. Too much of the time was filled with inspirational songs, snippets of autobiographical cocooning, and well-meaning messages, to realise the concentrated energy that a dance work needs.

Francesca Harper Project. Photo credits: La Biennale di Venezia.

Fragile Stone Theory was an attempt at fusing two very different kinds of energy: the liberated, empowering r’n’b of a strong-minded African-American woman, and contemporary dance that works its magic best when restricted, when struggling to find the way out, when in pain. The combination is always forced, and Fragile Stone Theory ended up resembling a rock concert way too much (a similar mistake was made by Robert Wilson in The Temptations of St Anthony, also filled with simplistic messages). When not achingly literal, when aiming to be an aesthetic knock-out, contemporary dance is fundamentally an art of condensed abstraction, and there is nothing evasive, nothing in any way indirect in the kind of music that Harper performs. While the monochrome, feminine strength of Duet, Trio and Solo, complete with bondage-like costumes, led towards a strong-minded exploration of the concept of beauty, the overall effect was deflated by the literalness of the large part of the performance.

3. wayne mcgregor

I first encountered Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company in 2003, when they performed Nemesis at the Dance Week Festival in Zagreb. A bit of a geek choreographer, in the widely anticipated Entity McGregor has teamed up with neuroscientists and cognitive scientists to explore the relationship between the brain and the moving body. The piece developed from the idea of an artificial intelligence that assumes the choreographing role, a software that generates movement through independent thought.

There are visible preoccupations in the piece with the random, accidental nature of movement, yet defined and born by naturally occurring mathematical equilibrium and order. The performance opens and closes with a Muybridge-like video of a running greyhound, a strange and beautiful perpetuum mobile, enchanting in its rhythmic repetitiveness. Mathematical formulas and laws are referenced in the sparse video projected onto the three wings of Patrick Burnier's construction enclosing the set, reminiscent of Leonardo’s machines. Two music choices, a modern classical piece by Joby Talbot, performed by the Navarra Quartet (sadly, not live in this performance), and the electronic clubscape of Jon Hopkins, are both products of creative processes fuelled by the appreciation of randomness as much as the alignment with strict mathematical rules. Burnier's costumes are decorated with their own DNA codes.

Eadweard Muybridge: Woman with a Bucket

However, Random also dance a terrific dance: it is possible to be blissfully unaware of these intellectual preoccupations and still enjoy the performance. McGregor’s signature vocabulary has not changed since 2003: it is still a dance concentrated firmly in the hips, shoulders, ankles and wrists. It has by now been consolidated into a system, paradoxically not dissimilar from the classical vocabulary. Trios are prevalent over duets, quartets and loose group movement abound. 60 minutes of this diptych are filled to the brim, and the space absolutely activated, with rapid movement, dense arrangement of limbs into most exquisitely unexpected combinations, bodies arching, contorting, kicking, curling, coiling, closely conversing with the music.

In the phenomenal first half, lithe, androgynous bodies seem to bounce back and forth from the thoughtless, inhumane particles into feeling, touching creatures seeking comfort of another human being in a series of groping, tender, desexualised duets. The second part is more legible, but less engaging. Bodies, sexualised back by the stripping of their unisex singlets into black underwear, undergo a series of transformations: from brainless, unconscious blubber into individualised bodies, connecting with one another on an instinctive level, gaining apparent consciousness and re-connecting with genuine emotion, separating to finally achieve intelligence. Entity closes as the monophonic, glorious frenzy of our data-streamed, hyperactive present. The final images of these re-humanized bodies, dancing each one to its own logic connected the chaos of brainless matter to the chaos of a thousand souls, yet the overall effect was somewhat flat, somewhat tiring, no doubt also due to the monotone electronic white noise.

Where McGregor excels is the minute choreographic detail: the exquisite duets, both asexual and emotionally needy (there is no more sexual tension in his male/female duets than there is in the fine-grained interaction he creates between two male bodies); and the complex relationships between the dancers on stage. One moment, a motionless duet in the background of a solo: man lying down, his head in her lap; in another, the power balance of two dancers disrupted by the third, merely standing on the stage. The all-female group seems to perform a rapid, randomized shuffle of movement, every so often settling into one classical feminine pose, as if directed by an accelerating, virus-infected computer; and finally, a rapt, frantic duet is paused for a mere second, and a soft kiss exchanged.

Wayne McGregor / Random Dance Company. Photo: John Ross.

This is Beauty with capital B, for sure. It is, also, a spectacle. However brutal, the slick and shiny surface of Entity is never broken by anything as disruptive as a mistake, a question. From beginning to the end, it is a harsh, yet unfliching statement on human relationships.

4. the beast within

There is no more uncertainty in McGregor’s worldview filled with smooth, young androids than there is in Francesca Harper’s comforting song-and-dance. What Biennale Danza presents with these two pieces is a set of clinically precise pictures of what we may find beautiful, asking us to feel more widely, perhaps, but certainly to suspend judgement. Gliding along the canals of this beautiful city, among other beautiful, stylish theatre-goers, it is easy to do so, and yet flatter ourselves to be doing something courageous, something daring. We are shielded not only from the multiple quotidian problems Venice faces, not only from the social reality of this troubled country, but from the entire remaining world. Kicking the mounds of rubbish piling up along the sides of the Venetian street as I walk home, it strikes me all as somewhat indulgent.

6. Festival Internazionale di Danza Contemporanea. Venice, 14-29 June 2008. www.labiennale.org.

Fragile Stone Theory 2K8 / Interactive Feast. Artistic project, direction and choreography: Francesca Harper. Video: Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty. Music: Wynne Bennett and Francesca Harper. Performers: Francesca Harper, Hattie Mae Williams, Josh Johnson, Julius Hollingsworth, Clement Mensah, Dominique Rosales, Giulia Fedeli. Dramaturgy: Julius Hollingsworth. Costumes: David Grevengoed, Gabi Mai, Carmen Wren. The Francesca Harper Project, June 19-20; Teatro Piccolo Arsenale;

Entity. Concept/ Direction: Wayne McGregor. Choreography: Wayne McGregor in collaboration with the dancers: Neil Fleming Brown, Catarina Carvalho, Agnès López Rio, Paolo Mangiola, Angel Martinez Hernandez, Anh Ngoc Nguyen, Anna Nowak, Maxime Thomas, Antoine Vereecken, Jessica M Wright. Original Music 1: Joby Talbot, performed by Navarra Quartet. Original Music 2: Jon Hopkins, performed by Jon Hopkins. Lighting Design: Lucy Carter. Digital Video Design: Ravi Deepres. Set / costumes: Patrick Burnier. June 20-22; Teatro alle tese – Arsenale; 6. Festival Internazionale di Danza Contemporanea, Venice.

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