To enter and exit

Richard Murphet: Festival Forum, Design; Songs of the Wanderers, Cloud Gate Dance Company; Le Pouvoir/Snakesong, Needcompany

Needcompany, Le Pouvoir/Snakesong

Needcompany, Le Pouvoir/Snakesong

Faced, as Jan Lauwers put it in the Festival Forum on design, with the empty screen of the computer, dreaming a starting point, how to enter, how to begin testifying to the disturbance and disruption being caused within me and within the company I keep (strong disagreements abound), faced not simply by any one show but by the sheer monstrous Animal of the Festival itself. Knowing that the moment I enter that first word on the screen I will have made my entrance like a performer onto an empty stage. That breathtaking feeling of actually having to begin the irreversible momentum of the show. Wang Rong-yu, waiting for the rice to begin its unstoppable flow as the eternal wanderers emerge and the red drapes rise. Leda, with the uneasy music enveloping us in the dark, poised to fuck herself with her puppet Zeus, thus beginning the unending human saga of the interplay between eros and death. The American soldier, camera in hand, stepping on to the gravel path outside the Japanese house, about to face the horrors of Hiroshima and with one ejaculation to fertilise a 50 year comi-tragedy of East-West relations. Iyar Wolpe, on the brink of the white cloth stage (screen? page?) of the Bible, opening with those words which are at a soul-point of her race and which seem to speak for so many of the (Judeo-Christian) shows I have seen so far: “My heart is sore pained within me…” It’s there in the names: Burn Sonata, La Tristeza Complice, Snakesong, The Waste Land, Possessed. I appreciated the direct concern in Naomi’s question to Lauwers in the Forum: “Why is your show so painful?” And equally I understood his response (to paraphrase and shorten): “Because the world is a painful place”.

Never was this pain so vivid than when (by chance scheduling) I went, with the wanderers’ song still filling me, to hear the snake’s lament on the destructiveness of power mixed with erotic desire. The very belief system that Songs of the Wanderers, with its final unifying spiral, represented was rent asunder and its loss painfully evident in the disintegrated world of Snakesong. But the need for an aesthetics with which to express this rent and this loss gives rise in the work of both Belgian companies seen here this year to a charged and intense theatricality. It is one which, to use the words of Rudi Laermans in describing Meg Stuart, an artist we saw in the 96 Festival, “inhabits the realm of the uncanny” and is thereby sacred in its own perversely relevant way.

The harmonic completeness of the Taiwanese work, its organic rhythm, with scarcely a step or a move or a shift of tone out of place, the sheer lavish, joyous power of the rice-saturated spectacle, the layers of image and sound are all woven into an impressive, comforting, impermeable texture. It is not a cultural purity that creates the strength and impermeability. The touches of Western modernist expressive dance mixed in with the Eastern ritual journey and the sound track of Georgian folk songs are oddly disjunctive elements. But the artistic force, the accomplishment of the work seemed to me to be one of synthesis. Lin Hwai-min’s previous work Nine Songs is described in the Souvenir Guide as containing “disruptive moment(s)…when the audience is forced to experience a critical estrangement”. I felt no such estrangement in Songs of the Wanderers, from my position in the dress circle watching the map of the journey written into the rice. Here was an example of what Rudi Laermans, in talking from a different angle about the very different work of Meg Stuart, calls an “essential” (stage) image: “these images are so much ‘image’ that they never transform into words…(they) do not affect because of their ‘meaning’ or content, but by their ‘being-an-image’”. And later: “An image cannot be reduced to the metaphorical addition of a number of qualified poses, movements, or gestures. An image always keeps these elements together, and synthesises them into a particular…image”.

The power of a work like Songs of the Wanderers is at times overwhelming, undeniable. But it is for me at one with its limitations. I see it, I hear it, I feel it, I am in awe of it but it remains outside me, choreographed to the point of completion. How do I get in there? Despite Lin’s professed interculturality, this was also a question of cultural difference, of course. Wanderers is at the sacred end of the spectrum. It contains none of the profane late 20th century savvy I witnessed (and recognised) in the Taiwanese work on show at LIFT in London last year. The limitation is not in the work so much as in me—a profane Western voyeur both seduced by and resisting the seduction of Orientalism. I was enormously grateful for the final meditation upon the spiral as time to allow the spell of the work to move through my veins before I re-entered the Adelaide sun to let it sweat out.

Needcompany’s Snakesong/Le Pouvoir demolished all the tenets of artistic form and sensibility upon which Wanderers was based, putting a grenade under the belief in art as a force of synthesis. Snakesong had holes in it open enough to breathe through and deep enough to suicide in. In traditional terms it was undramatic, a-theatrical, inconsistently performed (the acting/performing dualism raised by Keith Gallasch in one of the Festival Forums was here the bloody knife edge upon which the very nature of identity rested), scenographically ‘ugly’, with scant respect for its audience, too loud, too laid back and unresolved thematically. And yet for all this it was liberating, witty, intriguing, confronting, irritating, satisfying, disturbing and with complete respect for its audience’s future.

The image seed from which it evidently grew was that fragment of the Lascaux cave paintings in which a man with a bird’s head and an erect penis lies prone next to the dead body of a bison. What a starting point! There at the birth of Western art is the eroticism of death, the fatality of sex, the paradoxes which have haunted it ever since. Following the opening darkness, the tortuous music and the twisted images of classical myth, the shocking interrogation scene drives hard into these paradoxes with unflaggingly overt histrionics. Did Leda die in sex (the little death) or was her death violent and meaningless. “Did you die (come) together?” The debate powers on and on through double translation. It really matters to them, these investigators, these actors, it is an issue to engage with fully, one important enough to keep chasing through the pain and the boredom, even though they know it is insoluble. It is rare these days to see such raw commitment to an argument on stage. The issue is still crucial enough to make demands on our passions. The myth is still with us, insoluble. We still suffer from it, as the gathering in the contemporary Antwerp scene makes all too clear. The competing egos, the lack of focus, the ache of betrayal, the lack of motive or certain cause, the inability of the characters to work from the heart when the actions needed are so simple and so necessary. The men and the young women are affectless, disengaged, able only to relate through violence and denial. The ‘room’, with its plinths and microphones and objects of a civilisation’s failed history is an empty mix of classical ruins and postmodern kitsch. This is a wasteland of the Millennium. It is little wonder that the extraordinary central woman, whose determination, courage, indomitability and dry dismissive wit is the only whiff of hope in the entire play, ‘dies’ out of it, orders the others off and leaves the mess for us to deal with. Her final wry smile at us is horrifying in its implication.

Needcompany—even the name is a cry for help. “Help me! I’m Belgian!” as the actress in La Tristeza yelled out. ‘Belgian’ in this late 20th century has, through the power of its theatre companies, come to mean ‘human’.

Festival Forum, Design; Songs of the Wanderers, Cloud Gate Dance Company; Le Pouvoir/Snakesong, Needcompany; Adelaide Festival 1998

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 6

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998