On the Dark Side of the Mountain (Faith and 4.48 Psychosis)
lady suicides Two productions dealing with the topic of suicide, were presented in the first half of 2014, by theatres focused on contemporary dance and physical theatre. Both productions are the work of mainly female creative teams and they both incorporate autobiographical material.
At Studio Alta, located in Holešovice, one of Prague´s booming artistic neighborhoods, the actresses Ivana Uhlířová and Irena Kristeková collaborated with the producer and director Dominika Andrašková on the staging of 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. This ‘autobiographical poem’ is the final theatre piece by Kane, the internationally renowned British playwright, who committed suicide shortly after it was written.
At Ponec Theatre, a graphic-dance project called Faith created by dancer/performer Miřenka Čechová with the British choreographer (of Czech origin) Andrea Miltnerová comes across as a stage therapy. It starts with an unsettling confession by the dancer, Miřenka Čechová, who says, “This production isn't just about Taťána Juřicová, who commited suicide in 2002. It's really about me, so that I wouldn’t do the same."
■ In her previous, internationally acclaimed production She/He Is Nancy/Joe, Čechová drew on the trans-gender experience of her sister (formerly brother). In Faith she explores "the dark side" of her own devotion to dance, thanks to which she has become one of the most extraordinary dancers in her home country and abroad. But judging from the form and content of this project, she also struggles with feelings of mental anguish, physical burnout, and depression.
The introductory quote above is the only consistent verbal expression in this hour long production, the title of which refers to a quote in the programme "a faith in art which took the place of life". The confession comes from the paralyzing disbelief and astonishment that no matter how talented and successful one is (in the case of principal dancer Taťána Juřicová (1965-2002)), what´s left in the end is just a list of roles and some pictures in archive.
Alongside the graphic concept and the direction the production includes multiple video projections, which are the work of Miřenka Čechová who creates under the label of her company Tantehorse. The stage design, also created by Tantehorse, reflects two different yet coexisting worlds of two dancers. They are like yin and yang, which is reflected in the white and black colour scheme of the production, thus evoking an atmosphere of transience. Unfortunately, the black and white approach has also partially influenced the dramaturgical and directorial concept of the show. The fragments from Čechová´s diaries (1996-97), quoted in the programme, reveal the cruelty of what initially appears to be an enthusiastic self-flagellation in the name of dance. But the stage actions simply illustrate the diary fragments, for example in the form of a monotonous circular walk, during which both dancers (in this case Čechová and Miltnerová) alternate in pushing a mobile board (or little desk). The dancers keep pushing it until they collapse to the ground, visibly devastated and then they get up again and return to the ballet drill which seems to be more an addiction than a joyful expression of faith in the arts.
The board is raised to approximately the level of dancers' waists so that it can also serve as a ballet bar. It is situated on the dark half of the stage at the back, to the left as the audience looks on, the side that is occupied mostly by Miltnerová. This is the darker, colder zone of Čechová's alter-ego, and represents Juřicová's tragic fate, fears, doubts, fatigues, drills etc. The painted black floor and horizon are so shiny that they function as a mirror thus enabling a permanent awareness and control of the body and its movements. At the beginning, Miltnerová lies unmoving in the lengthwise alcove in the back wall and she resembles a worn-out doll; when she starts moving, she looks almost deathly. Her following movements come across as dance of death performed in the flywheel mode. When she is "waking up", she carefully stretches and flexes her legs, then slowly slides down on the floor and then partially in a lying position and partly sitting she moves rhythmically forward on the stage. The overall impression of darkness is enhanced by the music of German band Bohren und der Club of Gore, "the fusion of slow, melancholic doom metal and atmospheric lounge jazz". Then Miltnerová, under her own rigorous verbal command “one-two-three-four", starts practicing basic ballet postures, looking exhausted and somewhat neglected; an impression underlined by tatters in her grey work-out ballet skirt and a tank top stretched out of shape. This figure, balancing on the edge of caricature, contrasts with the action taking place on the other side of the stage where the energy and brightness of the prevailing white reference an active explosive yang.
Apart from the rhythmical counting, Miltnerová accompanies her ballet drill with repeated words from the diaries (in English), both abstract (guilt, faith) and specific (fat). This contrasts the aesthetic sublimity of dance and the bodily ‘earthiness’ necessary to achieve it. Both exercise and commentary speed up, and also the dancer’s breathing culminates in broken, harrowing gasps. At first, the breathing is the only connection between the two areas and their inhabitants: the dancer occupying "the dark side of the mountain", the yin field of death, is starting to lose her breath while her "alter-ego" on the other side of the stage continues to move in the glare of a yang sun, symbolized by the white painted floor merging with a projection of the same colour at the horizon.
Miřenka Čechová enters the stage wearing only white underwear and a black and white striped hoodie. She is barefoot, her legs are exposed and long dark hair cascades down her back. Hair plays an important part in the production: it contrasts with the surrounding whiteness and the dancer often incorporates it into her movements.
Čechová starts by crossing the white stage diagonally towards the audience, her expression sorrowful, accompanied by a soundtrack of a subdued city hum from the speakers. After the opening verbal confession, she takes of her hoodie and standing in underwear is exposed physically. The theatrical mechanisms of ‘soul diving’ seem to be rather ostentatious and instead of conveying an experience of theatrical complexity, simply demonstrate the inner torment superficially.
At first the abstract black and white projections evoke a tiled wall, possibly the square holes of wire fence, and they are possibly supposed to symbolize the coldness of strictly set boundaries, maybe even of a trap. Using movement Čechová starts a dialogue with the projected images as she did in her previous production She/He is Nancy/Joe. Because of the subtle figure and the similar colour scheme (white, grey, black), her body at times seems to dissolve into the projected images, as if slowly disappearing into nature. She is "devoured" by the ancient cracked brickwork or disappears into leaves. Sentimentally straightforward images prevail in the projections: fallen leaves, leaves floating on water, tree foliage, animated so that the images are slightly breaking up as if something kept getting stuck in the camera during the recording. This is the same with the projected blades of grass, into which Čechová´s long limbs turn during her dance; every now and then, in the flow of movement they softly break as if for a brief moment the body refuses to comply and an strong inborn rebellion is allowed to come to the surface. The necessity of taming the body is shown in a scene of unexpected and naturalistic aggression expressed in the feverish rubbing and patting of the thighs accompanied by desperation in the face of the dancer. And when the body becomes more an enemy then a friend,(in her student´s diaries, she mentions getting a lower grade because of weight gain) it is necessary to "get rid of it": by nervous hateful jerking of her underwear: standing at the edge of the stage with her back towards the audience, it is as if the performer is trying to "shed her skin".
The projection of natural images corresponds with the occasional grotesque beastliness in the movements, for example when Čechová slides in a frenzy onto the floor, moving forward and backwards with her legs folded under her body, resembling a confused legless creature with a penetrating incredulous stare. These tremors of frenetic energy, including the moment when she frantically prepares for the drill, pulling on the white tights, fastening the knee pads, stretching and flexing her body, alternate with the moments of graphic installation, when she sits motionless facing the screen, her back to the audience, her paralyzed shadow reflecting the flickering images of depressing natural themes.
Apart from the vocal breathing and sporadic synchronicity of movement in both dancers, only two physical connections between their worlds occur during the production. The first one comes when Čechová, after an apparent hesitation, leaves her relatively safe "whiteness" and jumps into the "darkness" on the other half of the stage; onto the board (acting as a ballet bar) being walked around by the tormented ‘past´; in the form of the tired ballerina. The second connection comes at the end of the show, when Čechová literally carries the ‘ballet past’ into her present in the white section. There, she stands the ballerina face to the screen and lifts her arms into a broken gesture as if she were an overgrown mechanical toy. Now, Čechová is the other dancers "puppeteer", pushing her up from behind. Then a projection of an old-fashioned lace curtain appears. While both dancers face the projection, a list of Taťána Juřicová roles during the 1980s and 1990s is read from the speakers. The list and the production end at the year of her death.
■ At a former warehouse, now a pleasant theatre space, Studio Alta, the second female creative team have staged 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane (1971-1999), a play rarely produced in Czech theatres. In the original version, it is a dramatic poem reflecting the writer´s clinical depression, in a series of the autobiographical notes. The dialogue is divided among three characters without specifying gender and only partly indicating how it is to be divided among the speakers.
At Alta, this miniature stage production (lasting just over 40 minutes) presented with two actresses and two chairs was created in a space formed mainly by the lighting design and the play of shadows, thus softly emphasizing one of the recurring lines from the text, “Remember the light and believe the light".
Here too, as in Faith, shades of white, grey and black prevail, their variations evoking abstract art photographs or a virtual world. On the pale coloured floor there are five luminous pillar lamps made from wire mesh, arranged in a circle. In the space they create a variable effect similar to a luminous cobweb, evoking the atmosphere of cemeteries where in flickering candlelight the figures of mourners appear as shadows.
Kane wrote the play shortly before her death, it is her last text. Although it describes her struggles, the effort to cure herself with the help of therapy or medicine, the effort to understand the workings of her own mind, the atmosphere of the play represents more of an ‘after the battle’ inner state when the decision to commit suicide has already been made. In a way, it is a cruel epilogue, a bitter tormenting ‘comedy’ for others who will understand its real meaning after the suicide. It seems that the creative team, actresses Ivana Uhlířová and Irena Kristeková with the director Dominika Andrašková decided to bring this dark irony in the text into the light.
Both performers are dressed in neutral unfeminine costumes of dark pants, and plain grey men’s shirts. The text, in its English original, is projected above the stage on a back wall throughout the show, which in this production is described a series of conflicts between the exclusively female characters in various situations with the relationship between patient-therapist being the main leitmotif.
The almost naturalistic moments of dialogue from ‘the therapist office’ alternate with some ironic-grotesque scenes (for example the mutual assurance of a good outcome: You´ll be alright/ No, you´ll be alright). The ideas don’t gain body through speech but through movement. The assurance of a good outcome culminates on the floor in an agony of tangled bodies, oscillating between eroticism and repulsion. This effort to get to the ‘core of things’ ends in an image of bodily deformation, although it starts with a well-behaved scene of sitting on diagonally situated chairs in spotlights. In an effort to ‘get closer as two humans’ both performers gradually move their chairs around, climb on them, knock them over and tangle themselves in their constructions.
The emptiness of words is evoked by the repetition of lines, for example when therapist says something to her patient and subsequently the patient says the same to the therapist with the same credibility but a change of meaning. Thus, a logical and reasonable suggestion by one comes across as irony when repeated by the other. It gives evidence of the futility of well meaning advice in dealing with the mental states about which Sarah Kane writes.
Effort to stave off disaster turns into a comic absurdity, for example in an exchange when the patient refuses to take her medication: I won´t be able to think. I won´t be able to work./ Nothing will interfere with your work like suicide.
Generally, Uhlířová's acting is marked by inner unrest, which appears as a variety of small neurotic gestures; as if her permanent inner oscillation, her energetic vibrations ‘radiate’ through the almost empty space, filling it with an atmosphere of rebellious helplessness. At the beginning she is like a provoking child whose blackmailing negativism seems to be "invincible", and therefore it is hard to react to it. The list of suicidal methods and the pragmatic analysis of their implementation are inadvertently funny, as if a stubborn child (even Uhlířová's dark bangs are pinned in a carelessly childlike manner) is defending her decisions in an every possible way. At the same time, there is a desperate effort to test the possibility of the promised rescue.
Throughout the show, Kristeková plays characters who are ‘on the defensive’. She fends off an attack by her ‘team-mate’, with a quick circular walk around the five light pillars. The accusations and reproaches aimed at her gradually get worse until she is cornered like an animal. Being unable to stand the pressure anymore, she sends her partner to hell, spitting pieces of cookie nervously munched while walking. The majority of the most heightened emotional scenes relate to the inner states of Kristeková's ‘characters’ (even if the expression ‘voices’ is a more accurate description for this play): the counselors
and mediators, who advise and search for solutions over and over, until they themselves break down. In her moves which at times appear uncontrollable, Kristeková can be piercingly aggressive; and in her fits of self-scolding she turns into an emotionally compulsive monster.
The show tapers off and somewhat involuntarily ends as an epilogue to a tragedy. At the horizon, on the right side of the stage from the audience, there is a door. When it opens, it reveals a narrow space between the door and the back wall. With a small trick, the patient traps the therapist there, almost as though in a vertical coffin. Before Kristeková manages to get back through the backstage and returns via the main door, Uhlířová collects the light pillars. At the very end, separated by the performance space, two human beings face each other: the first one resigned, her expression somewhat unsuitably relieved; the second one holding the light pillars in her arms like the rolled up scroll of a finished life, her silent face apologetically guilty.
Faith, concept, video and directed by Miřenka Čechová, choreography and interpretation Miřenka Čechová, Andrea Miltnerová, music Bohren und der Club of Gore, sound design Matouš Hekela, light design Martin Špetlík, stage design Tantehorse, costumes Judith Hansen, Ponec Theatre, premiere February 17, 2014
Sarah Kane: 4.48 Psychosis, translated by Jitka Sloupová, concept and directed by Dominika Andrašková, movement advisor Irina Andreeva, stage design Venuše Tesnerová, sound design Darya Samokhvalova, Studio Alta, premiere October 4, 2013
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 2, volume 2014
translated by Blanka Křivánková