lingering + spatialising + listening

Alex Ferguson: PuSh Festival, Vancouver

Yasser and Rabih Mroué, Riding on a Cloud

Yasser and Rabih Mroué, Riding on a Cloud

Yasser and Rabih Mroué, Riding on a Cloud

In recent years contemporary performance has seen a renewed interest in tactile perception. Theorists talk of lingering in the texture of what you see. Artists create new ways to experience time and the materiality of a performance space. Sound designers speak of hearing with your whole body. The shows that affected me most at this year’s PuSh Festival had these qualities of lingering, of spatial tactility and deep listening.

Le Temps scellé (France)

Textural repetition structures the choreography of Le Temps scellé by Compagnie Nacera Belaza (France). A figure, a woman, ethereal in the dim light, spins gently over and over again. It’s a quiet turning that promises nothing but self-involved action. She never stops, so I can’t get a fix on her, only on the motion. The near darkness gives her a grainy quality, as in an under-exposed video. Looping samples of recorded vocals (gospel?) and North African drumming swirl through a number of speakers placed around the room, contributing to the subtle sense of vertigo. Sometimes I feel I can see a second ghostly figure at the very edge of available light. This turns out to be more than an apparition. She seems to be the twin of the first woman—the same braided hair, fluent body and loose fitting clothes—and joins her. Together they spiral through the space. I enter a slightly altered state. Eventually the dance subsides, but the turning continues within me for some time.

Eternal (USA)

Eternal by Daniel Fish (USA) offers repetition of a starker kind. We watch two video screens hung next to each other. On the left: the face and upper body of a woman in a red sleeveless top against a white wall. On the right: a man in a pale striped shirt. Although they’ve been recorded in the same room they seem confined to their respective frames, unable to cross over to each other. The impression of isolation is reinforced by Fish’s decision to have the actors’ eyelines turned slightly out, away from each other, rather than the traditional manner of having them look in toward each other. This creates room for audience inclusion—not literally, but I do feel like I’m getting between two people who keep missing each other. For two hours the actors cycle through the same five-minute scene, taken from the end of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): “I’m not perfect,” “I can’t see anything I don’t like about you,” “But you will.” While attempting variations of rhythm and tone, the actors endure the delights and tortures of repetition. I ride waves of interest and boredom.

Repetition gives way to analysis: as the woman and man play out a middle-aged mating ritual I suspect their behaviour is simply the by-product of our evolutionary machinery. I then ponder their socio-economic backgrounds. Who are these two white, seemingly middle-class New Yorkers, and why should I suffer them? Sometimes the actors’ faces twist or crumple into the weirdest shapes. The woman cries and gets mascara on her cheeks. The man’s grey stubble seems to grow longer. Analysis gives way to self consciousness: how am I supposed to behave in the face of this? How much longer can I stand it? Then it’s over. It’s been frustrating and intriguing. After 23 repetitions of the same scene I feel a sense of accomplishment. (Watch an excerpt posted by the artist.)

Adriano and Raimondo Cortese, Intimacy

Adriano and Raimondo Cortese, Intimacy

Adriano and Raimondo Cortese, Intimacy

Intimacy (Australia)

Intimacy by Ranters Theatre (Australia) begins with one man gently asking another about his life. “So you’re a history teacher. Do you like history?” “Not so much the teaching of it anymore.” After a number of exchanges the two men turn to the audience. They seem to be listening as much as looking. We look back, perhaps mulling over the questions and reflecting on our own lives. Or maybe we’re just observing the two men more intently. There’s something in the way they’ve opened the space that invites closeness. This reflects Ranters’ practice of developing a show through a process of deep improvisation. It depends on the level of ‘nakedness’ each performer brings to the exercise. The resulting nuance of interpersonal exchange in Intimacy leads to surprise after surprise: confessions of self-harm, of paranoid deceit and quiet suffering.

The very notion of personal revelation is, however, put in doubt. The performers don’t tell their own stories but stories others have shared with them. In the talkback, director-performer Adriano Cortese says, “It’s really about us.” What does it mean when an actor reveals himself through someone else’s story: “this is me, this isn’t me”? Not being able to know for sure is as it should be. To make someone else fit what is familiar to you is to confine them to your own projections. Anyway, how well can you really know someone? Maybe you can only know the feeling of them.

Riding on a Cloud (Lebanon)

Rabih Mroué (Lebanon) returns to PuSh, this time with his brother Yasser, in Riding on a Cloud. Yasser’s is a story of surviving a sniper attack during the Lebanese civil war. A bullet in the brain has left him partially paralysed and unable to recognise things or people in pictures, including himself. Yasser reclaims his past and takes control of his present by making videos that reflect the way he now sees images—less defined, washes of colour rather than precise figures, transformations of light. There’s usually no inherent story to the videos. Instead they provide a variety of textures: ways of seeing, but also of feeling the world.

Yasser, however, finds it hard to escape a personal narrative that turns on the before-and-after of the sniper event. Director Rabih Mroué challenges this narrative: as a reading of history, personal or societal, it’s too narrowly causal. It ignores too much. On the one hand we watch Yasser on stage fatalistically playing the contents of a stack of about 20 DVDs, one leading to the next—each one a video he’s made since recovering from the attack. On the other hand we are told that Yasser’s story is banal, unimportant, one of many such stories. The sniper’s action can’t be the singular cause of his current situation. It was part of a complex network of actions. And the effects on Yasser’s life are part of a broad spectrum of consequences. It was never a certainty he would live or die, suffer from aphasia, make art videos, marry the woman he married or perform Riding on a Cloud.

Charles Demers, Leftovers

Charles Demers, Leftovers

Charles Demers, Leftovers

Leftovers (Canada)

Unlike the works described above, Leftovers by Neworld Theatre (Canada) isn’t concerned with texture, space or theatrical form. It is, however, a sharp critique of capitalism by avowed socialist, former communist and stand-up comedian Charles Demers. With satirical wit and self-deprecating charm, Demers reminds us of a time when concepts like universal health care, the welfare state and old age pensions weren’t shorthand for weakness of character. In one incisive passage he describes how pension cheques and the Medicare system allowed his family to survive the ordeal of his mother’s struggle with cancer. Point well made.

But while Leftovers is an entertaining and intelligent critique of capitalism, it isn’t a great critique of bourgeois theatre. In the latter part of the show Demers and director Marcus Youssef fall into the trap of collapsing the political into the domestic. Sentimentality becomes the dominant note when Demers seeks hope for the future in the birth of his daughter. Family videos, snapshots and a quavering voice unnecessarily soften his previously cutting political rhetoric. Having said that, I loved seeing Neworld return to a theatre of aggressive political satire. It’s what they do best.

PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Vancouver, 19 Jan-7 Feb

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016

© Alex Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 February 2016