Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit

Posted: June 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit, Sadler’s Wells, May 31

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit (photo: Michael Slobodian)

‘The accident happened. It has happened. It’s happened’. The past is irrevocable and unchangeable. The past can loop a person in a repetitive rewinding of backward motions; there is no escape. In Betroffenheit, a collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite and theatre director and actor Jonathon Young, this space of no escape is ‘the room’ — the site of trauma. Based on Young’s own experience, the work deals with horror, pain, loss and guilt. Trauma is not an easy subject to engage with, not so much because of its resistance to representation but rather because of its pervasive presence in our culture. Overused and glamorized, trauma has lost meaning and with it the connotations of the experience it designates. As a result, the risk for any artist wanting to engage with the subject is either that of slipping into self-confessional indulgence or in facile generalization or, even worse, universalization. Pite and Young resist these pitfalls. Betroffenheit does not steer from ‘the event’: it is focused on a moment in time and on the individual locked in its repetitive occurrence, constrained within the claustrophobic narrowness of pain and loss. There is no generalizing. It is one man’s experience — performed by Young himself — that isolates and is isolating: ‘The accident happened. It has happened. It’s happened’, repeats Young in his disjointed re-telling of the drama that unravels in his mind and on stage. ‘The room’ cannot be shared. The shock and the encounter to which the title Betroffenheit alludes are his fears, unbidden memories, guilt and survival. They are the ghosts that unremittingly draw him back to that space where the past repeats itself and attempts to get to terms with it are futile. Indeed, as trauma theorist Cathy Caruth observes, belatedness and incomprehensibility are at the heart of the traumatic event and its repetition opens up realms beyond what can be known.

Performatively, Betroffenheit enters such a space of belatedness and incomprehensibility by drawing on and weaving together a broad range of references from art, literature, theatre, psychology, film and dance. The first half is set within a narrow perimeter of false walls, clinical and industrial at the same time that are open on one side − ‘the room’. Voices intrude, personages enter it and lure Young into a disturbing vaudeville acting out, sinuously performed by Pite’s five dancers. The narrow space of ‘the room’ temporarily blasts open into the event — reminiscent of Hollywood’s disaster movies — then the room closes again onto its painful repetition. Pite and Young have set in motion what Jacques Rancière refers to as ‘a complex set of relations between the visible and the invisible’. This unleashes a chain of images, words, and movements that alter each other to convey ‘the sensible texture of an event’ whose forms are disquieting, grotesque, and nightmarish.

This motion continues in the second half, though the register changes. A spotlight defines the empty stage with its single pillar as a rarefied cone of incomprehensibility. If words and strident visual frames seemed to overtake the first part, dance regains its centrality in the second. Visual references are implicit in the moving tableaux of a Renaissance pietà and deposition reminiscent of the suffused rendering of Bill Viola’s slow-down video reenactments of The Passions (2000). Breathing becomes the sensorial punctum (in Barthes’s sense) on which the affective tension of Pite’s choreography unfolds. And breath carries the emotional movement of the work to its conclusion. The event happened, has happened. The event cannot be escaped nor understood. There is no resolution, only the possibility of acceptance. In the final solo by Jermaine Spivey, the spasmodic dance macabre of compulsive fears of the first half mutates into a fluid quietness of motion and emotion which wave through and across each other.

A question remains: where do Pite and Young position the audience in relation to the work? The first half of Betroffenheit makes subtle use of an alienating effect reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Recorded applause cruelly marks the re-enactment of trauma. We are uncomfortably reminded of the spectacle and voyeurism with which horror is so often endowed. In the second half the carefully lit pillar whose shadow lengthens over the auditorium gestures towards another position for the spectator, that of attentive, intelligent and sensitive observance.


Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Posted: October 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 16

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh's Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

I saw Shobana Jeyasingh’s double bill of Material Men and Strange Blooms with a friend who has contributed the following review. I had seen Strange Blooms before and although it is a different cast with some changes to the production I have not written about it again. 

In a time when borders are closed and fences built, Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men feels both poignant and topical. In the note to the performance, Jeyasingh reminds us that the abolition of slavery in 1833 caused a wave of migration from the Indian subcontinent as European colonies sought cheap labour. Inspired by such a long history of migrant displacement, Material Men is a reflection on the ways in which cultural memories transmigrate across places and generations and how individuals mediate, absorb, long for or reject them; how memories — whether integrated or suppressed — contribute to forge individual identities. How the past, which is both historical and mnemonic, roots and haunts us at the same time. Choreographed for two male dancers on an original score by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (played on stage by the Smith Quartet) with sound design by Leafcutter John, the piece opens with Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran slowly entering the stage wrapped together in an orange silk sari. The account of their own family stories of migration can be heard in the background. The sari that ties the dancers together is like the fabric of histories and memories that weave shared pasts across times and places. It is the fabric that binds cultural, social and individual identities, the material with which each of us has to deal. It is ‘the continuous thread’ — as Marcel Proust writes — ‘through which selfhood is sewn into the fabric of a lifetime’s experience’.

As they unwrap themselves from the sari and release it, Subramaniam and Bahoran display their different bodies and responses to the fabric of the past that links them. Tall and elegant, Subramaniam is trained in the classical bharatanatyam tradition. He is bare foot, and wears traditional make-up and jewelry. Shorter and slighter, wearing shoes and knee pads, Bahoran exudes tense physicality: he is a hip-hop dancer. These differences are indicative of the distinct styles of dance and modes of performing that Material Men bring together. Bharatanatyam is a highly formal dance that has been transmitted and refined across the centuries; hip-hop comes from street performance and a subversive mixing of influences from rock to Afro-American dance. Jeyasingh’s choreography seamlessly weaves these two types of dance into a complex tapestry of patterns that seems to follow an intersecting of symmetries and asymmetries as she elaborates the quintessentially distilled and minutely precise movements of bharatanatyam with the hybrid dynamics of hip-hop. Hence, hands and feet positions are mirrored and at the same time fractured, extended and taken in new directions as one dancer responds to the other in a physical dialogue that constantly draws upon a canopy of contrasting movements from which transpire no less conflicting feelings and emotions. Joy, tenderness, antagonism and suppressed rage intersect as limbs and gestural patterns crisscross. Subramaniam and Bahoran may be said to encounter in each other the stranger that according to Julia Kristeva we all carry within us and which forms us from histories of psychic, cultural and historical migration. The dancers variously accommodate and contend with each other, and with the ‘stranger’ that each of them reflects back to the other.

From this encounter, visual and figurative forms emerge and disappear and in-between, in the interstices between sequences, moments of stillness are perceptible, as if they were ‘formless’ spaces, gaps saturated with possibilities and contradictions. It is in such dynamic flow of movement and stillness, of tension between form and formlessness that the transcultural features of the piece become palpable. Like the pleats with which Subramaniam carefully folds the sari, the layers are many and complex. Labels such as classical and pop, traditional and contemporary are reductive for what is a reconfiguration of the significance of dance movement as a medium that conveys the deeply embodied affect of cultural trajectories, backgrounds and individual histories. The work and the quest within it, however, are never nostalgic. The cultural allusions proper to bharatanatyam and hip-hop are conducive to the present, to the highly individualized interpretation that the dancers and choreographer confer on them by generating new synergies, overlapping rhythms and gestures. The piece concludes in a slow sequence in which Subramaniam and Bahoran move sideways off stage, one next to other, the arms parallel to the floor, half squatting. The movement feels endless as if melting into infinity, as if harmony and balance between pasts and presents, histories and memories were possible. As if continuity and reciprocity were not estranged by inner or outer boundaries.

Jeyasingh’s Material Men is a thought-provoking work. And Subramaniam and Bahoran are both superb performers.

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