The dynamics of bi-polarism dictate that for every boom, there is a bust; every bust must crash harder than the last, and every boom reach a new zenith, so the energies in the cycle are perpetually shooting towards unprecedented levels, at one end of the spectrum then the other. This generates a certain cultural excitement. There’s urgency in the air. Yet after a while, even urgency palls, and there’s a creeping risk of crisis fatigue in the public domain.
For the performing arts, the challenge of times that declare themselves in crisis may be deceptive. The stage is traditionally a place for storms and the furies, and crisis is a word with classical dramatic resonances, but nothing is to be gained from buying into the psychodramas of bi-polarism. This essay concerns another kind of polarity, expressed through the images of fullness and emptiness, that govern some of the most stringent forms of performance practice.
On Friday October 10, 2008 the Australian share market plunged by over 8.2%, its biggest drop in over two decades, confirming that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was well and truly hitting home. The next day’s headlines were shouters: “World Finance D-Day” ( The Australian); “Firestorm Sweeps World Stockmarkets” (The Age); “Black Friday” (Sydney Morning Herald) (Uren & Stutchbury, Grattan, & Hopwood, all 2008).
The bust side of the boom and bust cycle had been looming for some time, but a few individuals claimed special prescience as to how and when the crash was going to come. Some of these were financial analysts by profession; others practiced the more nuanced art of taking the cultural temperature. Members of the Australasian Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies Association executive might count themselves amongst the latter, since they had the foresight to pick the titleBoom or Bust! for the 2009 annual conference some months before the GFC became evident as such. In the preface to the conference call, an almost metaphysical note was struck, suggestive of fullness and emptiness as radical cosmological alternatives:
As the Canadian environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky recently observed, whenever one sees a skyscraper, one can imagine somewhere a hole at least as big, which furnished the raw materials for the building. The super-pit outside Kalgoorlie is one such reciprocal cavity whose contents facilitate constructions in distant lands, and in Perth itself (Various 2009; Marshall 2011, this volume).
No such starkly literal calculations went into the financial operations that generated by GFC, though the image of looking into a black hole was one of many that caught the imagination of cartoonists. By June, when the Perth conference took place, the roller coaster ride in the media was slowing up, but it was far from clear where it had taken us
Bring It On
During the previous nine months, cultural temperatures had reached fever pitch, and there was a distinct edge of relish amongst journalists at the epicentres of the financial world, with displays of “bring it on” attitude to the inevitable bust that had stricken those captured by the delusion of perpetual boom-time. Peter Gumbel in the October 2008 issue of Time Magazine heralded the looming of a dark era in London, and told the story of how sacked Lehman brothers staff left the empty trading floor with REM’s “End of the World as We Know It” blaring through the PA system, and went to the wine bar opposite to put bottles of Dom Perignon on their melting credit cards (Gumbell 2008, 23; Cujescu 2008, 54). In Harper‘s, former venture capitalist Eric Janzen complained that the cycle of bubble and crash was speeding up. “Nowadays we barely pause between bouts of insanity… As more and more risk pollution rises to the surface”, he forecast, “credit will continue to contract, and the FIRE economy (the security industries of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) will have its first near-death experience … both the production-consumption sector and the FIRE sector know that a debt-inflation Armageddon is nigh…” (Janszen 2008, 44).
The New Yorker created a section titled “Department of Prognostication”, which in February 2009 began with the declaration that “nobody knows anything” and everybody is punting.
We’ve reached the end of a twenty five year cycle, a six year cycle, or the end of nothing. It’s 1929, 1969, 1981, 1990, 1997, or 2001 all over again. … Whatever you call it—”rough patch”, “adjustment process”, “perfect storm”—it’s here. Stuff is happening… the alchemy is coming undone (Paumgarten 2008, 52).
The columnist reported putting in a call to James Sinclair, a well-known gold-bug, whose advice was that “by decade’s end we’ll all be living in caves, or, at least, carting worthless paper around in wheelbarrows” and concluded “the geeks have killed us all”. A longer version of this narrative was promoted in the full-page advertisement opposite for Fred Kaplan’s new book, Daydream Believers or How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power.
As the economy took over from the climate crisis in front page news, between October 2008 and March 2009, journalists set up a bidding war of metaphors to declare a contemporary equivalent of the seven plagues. It was a hurricane, an earthquake and a pall of thunderous gloom; then a pandemic, a tsunami, a firestorm and a meltdown. Sometimes it was several of those things in one paragraph. It was D Day, Armageddon and Black Friday. We were crashing the jet plane and driving off a cliff, as a planet-sized bubble exploded in our faces. Gaia was getting her revenge much faster than she ever anticipated. Having spent the full force of their rhetoric in a lead paragraph, writers either had to repeat themselves or search the lower shelves of their stock in trade with effect of producing an odd sort of wind-back, like watching a cartoon in reverse. Following the nose-dive off the cliff, we were hitting the brakes. Assertions of panic led to expressions of nervousness. The catastrophe turned into a disaster and thence to a crisis. Crisis was a word you couldn’t use too often, but evidently the temperature of it was rather unsteady, and clearly unsustainable at fever pitch.
Now it has all gone rather quiet. The growth and recovery script is being dusted off, but it looks a bit the worse for wear and with the stock market bobbing around in a desultory fashion under a glass ceiling, things are getting somewhat boring, from a reporting point of view. With the crisis to end all crises leaking away without ever achieving the promised catastrophe, where is our next global psychodrama to come from?
For those of us who are in the business of cultural rather than financial speculation, there is an interpretative challenge here. By definition, a crisis should be a turning point. The word derives from the Greek Krisis, meaning decision or judgment, and is associated with decisive or determining states of affairs, such as life-threatening illness (Various, Strongsnumbers). Over twenty years ago, the sociologist R.J. Holton was drawing attention to how “crisis” had become business as usual:
Once virtually everything is perceived to be in more or less unending crisis, the possibility arises that we are losing the capacity to discriminate between social pathology or breakdown, on one side, and social normality and social order on the other (1989, 503).
So in order to convince ourselves that the crisis really is a crisis, we have to make it bigger and more dramatic than any other crisis that has been declared in recent memory. It must be global, unprecedented, all-encompassing. Yet still it passes, leaving some doubt as to whether we really are or have been at a turning point.
An Existential Crisis
The stage is traditionally a place for storms and the furies, and if there is widespread cultural hunger for the dramatic, are the performing arts rising to the call? If not, why not? One obvious answer is that the theatre is just not big enough. Compared to the screen, the stage is a medium with poor capacities for rendering the speed and scale of global events. But the stage as a much older medium also carries in its traditions older forms of cultural awareness and, with them, more deeply time-tested ways of responding to the pathologies of the moment. If the pathology takes the form of collective hysteria, with symptoms of acute bi-polarism, it may be better for the stage to provide a space apart from it, a zone in which some alternative is offered—an antidote, even—to the psychodrama of boom-and bust. There is another kind of polarity, expressed through the images of fullness and emptiness that govern some of the most stringent forms of performance practice. Disciplines of emptying out are central to the work of influential directors and performers from widely different cultural traditions, who have in common a conviction that fullness of presence on stage begins with the stripping away of energies that are not sourced in any vital connection with the living moment.
People in the domains of theatre and performance know a few things about the dramaturgy of crisis. It has to do with the progressive build of tension, modulation of pitch, and the sustained management of performance energy. If you just go in at the top and deliver everything you’ve got as an opening gambit, where to from there? Perhaps, contrary to appearances, the crisis we are in is a real one, one that has been building over time, progressively, and far from being over, is unfolding at a pace so gradual as to be hardly perceptible, until, like the scenario of Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King, it reaches a point at which some kind of reckoning must be made.
Ben Brantley, reviewing Neil Armfield’s production of this play during its Broadway in March 2009 wrote:
The world described when the play begins should, after all, sound awfully familiar to Americans these days. The once-mighty country over which Berenger rules has become a sadly shrunken empire, drained of its power and youth by expensive wars and neglect of natural resources. The sun has lost 50 to 75 percent of its strength, an immense sinkhole threatens to swallow up pretty much everything that remains, and the royal palace is a royal shambles. The days of balls and lavish expenditure are gone… “The party’s over. People know that but carry on as if they didn’t”.
The sinkhole might appropriately remind us of the Kalgoorlie super-pit. Ionesco’s metaphors have a habit of coming to wherever you are. Exit the King, Brantley concludes, is frightening “because you know that the seedy, power-addled egomaniac onstage, working overtime to dodge his own mortality—is, quite simply, you” (2009). This takes the metaphorics of ending out of the realms of apocalyptic spectacle and places them in an Existential frame.
One of the delusions of the rich and powerful on the earth is that the end of their own life is the end of the world. It’s the Kingdom, Brantley suggests, that is metaphorical. And metaphysical. “The surface joke of the king who wouldn’t die, having already wrecked his country beyond repair, shades into a psychic X-ray of Everyman, refusing to believe in the death that is about to claim him” (Brantley 2009). We’re closer to the universe of Dante than that of Hollywood Apocalypse.
If we are indeed at a perilous juncture in the history of civilization, distinguishing between these two kinds of drama might be one of the challenges of our time. Paradoxically, in order to emerge from the repetition compulsion that takes us through one crisis after another, we may need a different kind of crisis, one that evolves more slowly and actually serves as an effective catalyst for some radical change in direction. A statement released by the Secretary of the United Nations nominated three great “tests” facing the community of nations in 2009: climate change, the world-wide economic crisis and, resulting from the combined effect of these, political turbulence provoked by scarcity of vital resources. Climate change, Ban Ki Moon said, was the greatest of these, “the one truly existential threat” (2008). He repeated the statement at the Davos Forum on January 29th this year. The words echo those of Vaclav Havel, who in an extraordinary opening address to the international delegates at Forum 2000 in Prague in 1997, called for “for something to change in the sphere of the spirit”. The only way “to stop that blind perpetual motion dragging us into hell” he said—meaning, specifically, the hell of environmental destruction—is “an existential revolution”.
This is a crisis in the conditions of existence and, as such, is about the conditions of mind that give rise to our actions and determinations. You don’t have to go to the philosophy books for a gloss on what either Vaclav Havel or Ban Ki Moon means by the term “existential”, but you couldn’t say that it’s exactly catching on. Not yet, at any rate. One writer who’s trying to popularize it is Joshua Cooper Ramo, former foreign editor of Time Magazine, who attracted wide media interest with a new book called The Age of the Unthinkable (2009), in which he characterises the present state of affairs as “an existential crisis of the system”. In a Latelineinterview under the laser-scrutiny of Leigh Sales, he floundered around a bit in his attempts to elaborate, and drew this broadside from Gerard Henderson’s blogsite:
Mr Ramo managed to get through virtually an entire conversation without specifically mentioning anybody or anything …it was all mere words and sound. Most impressive was Ramo’s belief that “what we are facing isn’t a financial crisis but an existential crisis”. Okay then. Let’s pour millions of taxpayer dollars into the creation of an Existential Institute (2009).
Existentialism isn’t a great tool in the game of political football, even if it’s part of an argument that the game needs changing. The word was familiar enough a couple of generations ago, but having gone out of fashion, it sounds arcane and conceptually obscure. Enough so, at least, for those who want to sweep it out of the way. As the Henderson response illustrates, a certain obtuseness comes in when we don’t want to get the meaning of a term that threatens to unsettle some long-term material and cognitive investments.
Oddly enough, headline doom-saying and Hollywood apocalyptics may actually feed into these investments, in that they belong to the bi-polar dynamics of self-dramatization that fuel late capitalist economics. Apocalyptics may be the ultimate form of consumption, because if you consume the end of the world, for the thrill of it, that puts you up there with the Roman Emperors and the Vampire aristocracy. Apocalypse is where the boom and the bust come together in an orgasmic implosion.
The trailer for director Roland Emmerich’s latest earth shattering epic 2012 was going the rounds on the internet for some months before the release date, badged as “Apocalypse porn”. The edited highlights start with a shot of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro, as the outstretched arms begin to crack, then break off and the entire figure plunges over the cliff. Then we get the crumbling of the Vatican, with a crack opening across the roof of the Sistine Chapel, running between the fingertips of God and Adam. There follows a storm of meteorites, and a global tsunami that engulfs the Pentagon and is eventually seen breaking high ground on the Tibetan Alps, where its arrival is greeted by a solitary Buddhist monk.
Why is there something so reassuring about this type of thing? Is it the repetition compulsion, the fact that you can repeat it, do the replay on demand with escalating returns, all to no real consequence and without the slightest interference from the non-existent Existential Institute?
I’ve been quite preoccupied with this call for an Existential crisis from Ban Ki moon—because I think that’s what it amounts to—a kind of call. Certainly in Havel’s wording, that’s what it is—”for something to change in the sphere of the spirit”. For an Existential revolution “to stop that blind perpetual motion dragging us into hell”. It’s the crisis we need to redress the other crises. But there is something callow about just issuing a demand to bring it on. You can point to times in cultural history when there does seem to have been some widespread opening up of the general mood, a surge of revitalizing moral fury, a spirit of innovation, a collective determination to shift the grounds of understanding. But what if it fails to happen? Or at least, fails to happen with sufficient scope and impact to set things on a different course? The problem with this call, much as you might want to endorse it, is that it’s pitched too high.
To make the transition from the scenographic excess of the apocalypse movie to the empty space of the live stage, is to shift to another dimension of human responsiveness. Audiences for Exit the King don’t get to see the vast sinkhole at the centre of the realm, or the dimming orb of the sun presiding over the darkening globe of the earth. Nor is there any effective verbal evocation of these images. Ionesco doesn’t write great stage poetry. Compared to his contemporary Beckett, he is distinctly clunky on the page. Yet he is a genius of stage poetics in other ways. In Exit the King, crisis unfolds as psychical and somatic experience, putting the actor at the centre of the process, as the King shuttles between theatrical hyperactivity and the weariness belonging to a body that is already three quarters given over to death. Geoffrey Rush, of course, manages this double act with a consummate instinct for the broken rhythms on which it turns. If such a performance is not brilliantly supported by the actual lines he has to speak, what the dramatist does provide is a stage environment fraught with strange energies.
Fullness and Emptiness
Ionesco’s strengths are in the poetics of space. The plays are metaphorically driven, but less through language than through the realization of spatial events on stage. Unoccupied chairs accumulate; the scenery shakes as a herd of rhinoceroses thunders past; a corpse grows to Gulliver-like proportions in an offstage room, until a giant foot invades the visible set. These images create a kind of atmospheric pressure, a synaesthetic experience of heaviness and lightness that runs through psycho-somatically through the nervous system. In a forward to the first collected edition of his plays, Ionesco wrote:
Two fundamental states of consciousness are in the genesis of all my plays: sometimes the one, sometimes the other predominates, and sometimes they intertwine. These two original states of consciousness are those evanescence and heaviness; of vacancy and too much presence; of the transparent unreality of the world and its opacity; of light and dense darkness (1966, 226; my translation).
What he describes here is something reminiscent of childhood states of fever, when the physical world starts ring with a lumbering rhythm that can suddenly let you go and leave you floating dizzily in the middle of nowhere. Or vice versa. One of his own touchstones for the experience is an early memory of witnessing heavily booted soldiers beating up an old man in the street, and feeling as if the whole scene, with its wet pavements and reflections of fading light, was saturated with the vibrations of some great lumbering force (Ionesco 1963, 130).
His dramatic expression of this in Rhinoceros (premièred in 1959 at the Schauspielhaus, Düsseldorf) was invested with subsequent experiences of how the spaces of everyday life can be invaded by heavyweight energies that defeat the load-bearing capacities of every day consciousness and communication, so that implosion occurs. Ionesco was living in Romania in the early 1930s when the Iron Guard was on the rise, and many of his friends were seduced by mythologically invested nationalism expounded by the charismatic leader of the movement, Corneliu Codreanu. 1
After clashes with the government, Codreanu was imprisoned and his followers found common ground with the German Nazis. By the start of the second world war, Ionesco was living in Paris, and observed from a relatively safe distance the resurgence of the Iron Guard in Romania, where they became a dominant influence in government through General Antonescu. Antonescu shifted the axis of alliance towards Germany. Geographic distance does not necessarily create psychological distance, and Ionesco remained deeply bound up with political events in his home country, as they went from bad to worse. Rhinoceros is half dream play, half political allegory, and its enduring currency around the world is associated with attempts to address the rise of popular militarism and xenophobia.
There is nothing fake about this kind of crisis, which typically is not identified as such until it is too late, and the energies of oppression are too far advanced to be turned back. The potency of Ionesco’s stage metaphor lies in its focus on the energetics rather than the surface logic of the situation. If fullness tends to be ominous and even macabre in Ionesco’s dramas, emptiness is sometimes associated with a euphoric sense of the lightness of being, but lightness is also evanescence: the polarities converge in the presence of death, which is palpably evoked through the organizing metaphors at that the centre of each play.
The Chairs creates a scenario in which the stage is gradually set up for an audience that never materializes. Each member of it is introduced and provided with a chair, but the chairs remain unoccupied, accumulating until they constitute a vacant mass, staring at the (hopefully) occupied seats in the auditorium. The 1998 production by Théâtre de la Complicité’s artistic director, Simon McBurney (performed first in London, then New York) took on the metaphysics with unembarrassed determination. McBurney doubled the number of chairs specified in the script, and used strange angles and intensities of light to evoke shifts in states of consciousness. Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan as the isolated old couple creating the assembly, were put through stringent constraints in rehearsal, designed to strip them of all their vaudeville flair and focus on the dramatist’s directive that “everything should be exaggerated, excessive, painful, childish, a caricature, without finesse” (McBurney 2010).
Impending destiny is a dominant thematic element in Ionesco’s plays. “I’ve always had a vision, an apocalyptic sense of history”, he said in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy: “I have a sense of the world veering towards catastrophe” (Ionesco 1977, 168; my translation). This stress on sense, on apocalyptics as belonging to an affective and intuitive dimension of human experience, presents an antithesis to the spectacular apocalyptics epitomized in the film 2012, where the end of the world is not really an experience at all, not for anyone (or everyone). The more extreme the events presented in the cinema, the less they have to do with life experience, so that the latter part of the film is taken up with scenes of a small group of individualized dramatis personae flying between crashing skyscrapers, over tidal waves and gaping chasms in the earth. They are not “in” it, at all. Rather, 2012 communicates a radical disconnect between individual life experience and the cultural narrative of global catastrophe that surrounds it. To emerge from this disconnect, we may have to abandon some of the exhilarations of cultural fashioning, and move to a quieter zone where the senses and sensations of physical being occupy centre stage.
Ionesco is not a fashionable resident of this zone, but he is a long term occupant. With their tinge of fatalism, unproblematised universalism and nebulous commitment to “a certain force of irradiation”, his plays sometimes draw a note of impatience from hard-headed contemporary critics (Ionesco 1966, 38). In reviews of major productions such as McBurney’s Chairs, Dominic Cooke’s 2007 Rhinoceros at the Royal Court, or Armfield’s Exit the King, there is the occasional suggestion that the play itself may be past its use-by date, but these are in the minority, and the production rate for Ionesco’s best-known works continues to climb.2 He is one of the most performed playwrights in the world. This is his centenary, and to return to his impassioned writings on the role of the dramatist is to encounter a fiercely energized intelligence, whose call for an Existential crisis gives no quarter to artists of compromise.
In order to tear ourselves from the habitual, to free ourselves of the mental idleness which disguises the strangeness of the real, we must receive a kind of blow on the head. There can be no art, no theatre without a virginity of the spirit, a new consciousness of existential reality. We must proceed to a dislocation of reality in order to operate its reintegration (Ionesco 1962, 8).
If we’re in need of an effective gloss on generic calls for an “existential crisis”, this is not a bad place to start: it’s a wake-up call, directed at consciousness itself, in the form of a demand foraskesis.
Practices of askesis derive from Platonic ideas of training and exercise designed to evacuate self-determined orientations in favour of a larger goal. In other words, they involve disciplines of emptying out and cleansing. Ionesco’s call for “virginity of spirit” reflects his engagement with mystical writings from Christian, Buddhist and Jewish traditions. More immediately, its cultural orientations are linked with those of twentieth century European writers and artists who have adopted or been given the badge of “Existentialism” because of their raw engagement with questions of being and nothingness. There is an obvious association between European Existentialism and the experience of living through the two world wars, and their aftermath in Eastern Europe. Those who speak from that experience are drawing renewed attention, and offer connections to non-western traditions of thought and expression that have become internationalized in the post-war era.
Perhaps, contrary to obsessive media assertions, we have not reached the twenty first century yet, and may better position ourselves in the shifting grounds of our time if we stop “going forward” in all directions and see ourselves instead as part of the long twentieth century. Sometimes you have to stop in order to be able to think. If you are going to take anything in, you must have some emptiness in you.
The Tale of a Zen Principle
2012 has its quieter moments, and in one of them, a young monk at the monastery high in the Tibetan Alps fronts up to the Roshi with a leading question about where things are heading. The Roshi is slowly pouring tea, and as the novice expands on what and why he needs to know, the tea cup fills, then overflows. At this point, the questioner stops, to draw his teacher’s notice to the little accident. Of course, he has fallen into a trap that has been set for him, and cops the reprimand that is his due. How can he expect to learn anything, when he is already so full of himself? There’s simply no space in which to lodge new insight.
And here I must acknowledge a bizarre synchronicity. During the June ADSA conference, I told a version of this story myself. It’s a classic Zen story I came across some years ago, and I find it sometimes presents itself with a demand to be included in whatever it is I’m working on. This time, it seemed like the perfect way to express what was the matter with 2012—on the basis of what I had learned from the trailers on the internet. The film was still several months off its release date, and I had—could have had—no idea that the story actually features in it. I used the allegory to make the point about the pathologies of Hollywood apocalyptics: they are the symptom of a culture that is just too full of itself.
The Zen principle of Ma or emptiness figures centrally in Butoh traditions of performance. In the words of Tadashi Endo, it is “the space between things”, and a performing artist works with it to make the non-visible visible (1999-2009). Endo’s life as a performer has been divided between Europe, where he directs a Butoh Festival and a dance theatre in Gottingen, and a base in Japan, where he concentrates on teaching the disciplines of Ma. To communicate Ma is to stand on the brink of death, to occupy the space between being alive and being dead. There, the void opens up and an extraordinary intensity of expression floods in.
In 1991, Endo created a solo performance entitled Ma . It has been presented in Tokyo, Paris, Edinburgh, Argentina and Norway, and remains his definitive work. Every action unfolds in time with visionary isolation and intensity, making extraordinary demands on the performer. Evolving in defined stages from infancy through phases of mood and consciousness, it communicates changing states of the body as an organism, and an environment in itself. Stage 10 “opens your new body and your new house and leads you to new ways, new journeys, and new dreams, to [a] new ethic”. Emptiness offers the promise of new kinds of fullness, through a renewal of energy in tune with the currents of the natural world. As an exit strategy from the boom and bust cycle, it could hardly be improved upon, but no illusions are offered as to its accessibility.
Someone of European heritage might look instead towards the traditions of askesis, or the via negativa, of which Grotowski is an inspired theatrical exponent, but Zen influence, channelled through Butoh, has been far more widespread in the domains of theatre and performance. Zen in the west is as much an art-world phenomenon as a religion, and has become a reference point for certain disciplines that might also be linked with European spiritual traditions. One of its most fertile and enduring offshoots began in the United States in the 1930s, through the mediation of Nancy Wilson Ross, and with John Cage as one of its more high profile disseminators. Wilson Ross studied at the Bauhaus in the early 30s, and combined an awareness of some of harder edged directions in theatre with a growing interest in Buddhist philosophy. When she returned to America, she became associated with the innovative arts program at the Cornish School in Seattle, where Martha Graham came under her influence, and also John Cage. The Wilson Ross archive at Texas University includes correspondence with Cage, Michael Chekhov, Merce Cunningham, Wassily Kandinsky, J.K. Glabraith, Martha Graham, Allen Ginsberg, Walter Gropius, Lewis Mumford, John D. Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gary Snyder, Studs Terkel, Gore Vidal and Thornton Wilder. Amidst the list of names is a concentrated who’s who of the Black Mountain College renaissance that flowered a decade later. They served as catalytic mentors to the next generation of stage minimalists, whose experiments sometimes led them in widely different directions (see Harris 1987).
Zen influence in the creative arts draws from a stringent and distinctly Japanese tradition, but once it is thrown into the melting pot of modernist aesthetics, divergent energies are sparked. A kind of diaspora occurs, especially through the influence of Cage and Graham. I’ll finish with an account of two productions that have genealogical links with the quasi-Zen renaissance of the Cornish School.
The first is Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider, premièred in Hamburg in March 1990. Wilson’s early career was profoundly influenced by the Japanese American designer Isamu Noguchi, who created stage designs for Martha Graham, and who continued to deepen his own connection to Zen through return trips to study temple gardens in Japan. Wilson’s enduring connection to Noguchi’s aesthetic was demonstrated in a tribute installation he created at the Design Museum in 2001, a Zen garden composition of silver and black lava sand. Other installations incorporated elements from Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s Herodiade (created in 1944).
In The Black Rider, it is as if Wilson has fed the elongated curves and spikes of these abstract sculptural forms through Dr. Caligari’s cabinet, into an Expressionist nightmare world, suffused with breathtaking intensities of colour and light. The Black Rider is based on a German folktale about Wilhelm, a clerk from the town who falls in love with the daughter of a champion huntsman from the forest. The huntsman won’t have a bar of the marriage suit unless Wilhelm can pass a shooting test, but poor Wilhelm hardly knows one end of a gun from the other. That’s when the devil comes in to the picture, offering some advice, and a bargain. He must have the right bullets—magic ones, each one shone and polished with his personal blessing. The deal is that the bullets will hit whatever aim he chooses, until he gets to the last one. With that one, the target will be the devil’s choice.
It is a classic fatal narrative, and in Wilson’s treatment, the folk-tale pathos, fed through an Expressionist aesthetic, is turned into a drama of starkly Existential dimensions. On an empty stage, there is a sense of human destiny stripped of individualized experience and suspended in an atmosphere of confused forces, where nothing and no-one can hold any kind of orientation that makes sense. Free will is the devil’s delusion. In the tradition of Appia and Wieland Wagner, Wilson understands how vacancy has a magnifying effect on the human figure.
This is a melodrama—consciously overblown to accommodate massive sensory indulgences—and a work of black humour, riddled with the driest kinds of irony. It may have an Existential flavour, but it operates at several removes from philosophy in earnest. It is not an invitation to despair—or, for that matter, to sit down with Boethius and seek consolation in ascetic meditations. Its co-authors are Tom Waits and William Burroughs—recovering between them from assorted forms of delinquency and a homicidal mishap—and both seem to be in the business of survival, not in some purgatively transformed environment, but in the given state of the world. For all its fantastical elements and its wild career through a succession of virtuoso performance moments,The Black Rider keeps hold of the reins on something energized by the realities of physical life.
All manner of tragedies and horrors occur without the world ending, even if it does sometimes seem as if the devil himself had gained control. Fagaala is the word for genocide in the Wolof language of Senegal, and is the title of a dance work devised and directed by Germaine Acogny, first performed in 2003. Acogny, known as “the African Martha Graham”, is one of the leading figures in the renaissance known as Movement Revolution Africa. She is co-founder and artistic director of the Company Jant-Bi, which is based in Senegal and runs a training program for African dance students through its École des Sables. The dancers are strongly connected to traditional African dance forms, but the works Acogny creates with them involve international collaborations and have been toured throughout the world.
Fagaala was performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2005, and during the season Acogny found time to make a visit to the University of Western Sydney where I work, to offer a workshop for the dance students being trained by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. Cameron Dalman and Acogny met in New York as students of Martha Graham, and have maintained an association ever since. They share an enduring commitment to the interweave of indigenous dance with modern experiment (see Roberts 2005).
Acogny has a tall, imposing presence, and spent most of the time in the workshop trying to incite the students to a fuller sense of their own physicality. She focused on two shimmy movements, one with the chest—called the “sun shimmy”—and one with the bottom—the moon. Either way, none of our students could quite get the full planet, but were immediately seduced as members of the company began to demonstrate. Soon everyone was having a party, and the ebullient mood might have convinced us that partying was what this was really all about. On this occasion, Acogny’s approach to fullness betrayed none of the sinister weight with which Ionesco invests it. Fullness and emptiness only reveal their sterner aspects when they encounter each other.
In performance, the dancers of Jant-Bi tap into fearsome registers of energy as they demonstrate what it can mean to take fullness into the body. Acogny’s choreography is counterpointed by that of Kota Yamazaki, a guest collaborator for Fagaala, and in some underlying sense, is a bringing together of polarised aesthetics of fullness and emptiness. Yamazaki is a Butoh trained performer, who achieves vast forms of stillness through the amplified body shapes in which the Jant-Bi dancers specialize.
Fagaala is, as its title signals, about genocide. In preparation for the work, Acogny interviewed survivors of the Rwanda massacre, and acknowledges a defining influence from a novel entitledMurambi or The Book of Bones, by Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop. Murambi insists on the even-handedness of violence, refusing to accord a different moral status to victims and perpetrators, even those who performed the worst atrocities. Whatever are the limits of human nature, those are the limits of your own nature. In the aftermath of the killings, an old man addresses a group of survivors:
You have suffered but that doesn’t make you any better than those that made you suffer. They are people like you and me. Evil is within each one of us (2006, 164).
That is not an easy proposition to swallow. Some kind of askesis is required for its ingestion—a total cleaning out of personality-based ideas about moral nature. And to perform Fagaala meant embodying massive energies, violent in their grip on life and death. Yamazaki is aware that Butoh came out of the devastation of post-war Japan—”the understanding of this trauma is one of the factors building my unconscious world” he says (Company Jant-Bi 2007).
Fagaala enacts “devastation”, returning to this word its full and strange force, containing as it does the Latin vastus (empty)—and vastare (to lay waste). Devastation evacuates us. Askesis is not for the faint hearted, and the dramaturgies of bi-polarism operate somewhere that is heavily screened off from the psychical space where it occurs.
If we’ve made a shambles of the planet, we may have to come to terms with a rather shambolic set of options in our attempts to find a way to the future—that is, if the predicted apocalypse of 2012 fails to deliver. What most certainly won’t help us is the repetition compulsion of bi-polarism, with its locked-in logics and its hyperbolic metaphors.
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