Evasive Dance of The Pupils
During his presentation at Archa Theatre, the composer, director and theatre visionary Heiner Goebbels proclaimed that for him the theatre is a place for encountering something unknown, strange, and distant. He says that the nature of theatre is “to breathe that which is beyond understanding” - the quotation is from the script of his 2004 project, exotically called Eraritjaritjaka, based on texts by Elias Canetti - a mixture of music, voices, movement, art design and video projections. Within the Czech context, for more than two decades the Berg Orchestra members have manifested a similar tendency towards crossing the boundaries between these different art disciplines. This distinguished chamber music ensemble, led by founder and conductor Peter Vrábel, specialises in music from the 20th and 21st centuries. They have already successfully presented music-theatrical works by Goebbels several times: for instance, the experimental project Schwarz auf Weiss, which had its Czech premiere in 2009 directed by SKUTR, and the stage concert Songs of Wars I Have Seen, which explored the diary entries of Gertrude Stein, and was produced in 2015 at the prestigious Prague Spring International Music Festival. In the former production musicians became performers, the boundary between stage and auditorium blurred and the proximity the musical experience was conveyed to the audience directly. In the latter production the musicians didn’t mingle with the audience, they became part of a specific multimedia composition, which combined theatre, concert and stage reading.
Now the “Bergs” have merged their artistic talents with the Spitfire Company, one of the most outstanding contemporary physical theatre groups, and in the fall of 2016 they presented their joint multi-genre project Constellations I. Before I Say Yes. On the stage eight musicians), five dancers, a re-mixer, a conductor and the director meet to create a joint music-dance event linked by the main motif of desire. Analogous to a symphony, the evening is divided into five movements which serve as an imaginary filter for the main theme: they are called Euphoria (desire for joy), Euthanasia (desire to die), Eros (desire for the other), Insomnia (desire to sleep) and Causa Finalis. In their austere program notes the writers claim that “There is no interpretation, but - as if that wasn’t enough – there is only a constellation formed of thousands more constellations reminiscent of a thousand impressions of glints on water”, which offers a rich interpretive freedom to the spectator. The number in the title suggests that it's the first part of an intended multi-genre trilogy by the Spitfire Company, so far the largest project it has undertaken. The co-production with the European Centre for the Arts in Dresden, Hellerau, where it received its German premiere, also proves the considerable ambition of the project. The author of the concept, its director, stage designer, choreographer and even one of the performers, is the artistic director of Spitfire Company, Petr Boháč. Supposedly the inspiration for this abstract stage composition came from the work of Jackson Pollock, and the paintings by Joan Miró from a series (also) called Constellations.
In a certain sense, Boháč has transferred the logic of Miró’s surreal canvases to three dimensions; he has made them move and given them sound. He has turned this logic into a perception of space, an order of interpretation, and an overall concept of choreography. Stars and moons are typical elements of Miró’s paintings from the Constellations series, and the stage design reflects this – with its ambient lighting design – showing the night as almost a cosmic landscape. Other emblematic Miró’s elements, the curves of female body, were materialised by the bodies of the dancers and musicians. A central feature of the staging (as in Miró’s art pieces) has become the human eye, which takes many different forms in the Ponec theatre. And lastly: as in Miró’s paintings a peculiar musical score is evoked by the many subtle graphic elements in black ink. This was most thoroughly transferred to 3D by the live orchestra and the omnipresent, invisible “soundscape”. In this production, the Spitfire Company worked with regular collaborators Markéta Vacovská who participated as co-creator of choreography, and Miřenka Čechová as dramaturge. And Michal Nejtek composed the music, which without doubt becomes the most distinctive link of the whole evening.
The whole approximately 75-minute long show is preceded by an exhibition (the Japanese conceptualist Takao Kanemachi is listed as the creator of the visual art), probably so as not to deprive the audience of any shortage of perceptions. It opens an hour before the show and takes place on the stage. On entering the theatre, the spectator actually enters a specific gallery space. The lights are dimmed and only the particular art pieces on the stage are illuminated (the stage design is by Martin Špetlík). A diagonal serves as a unifying scenographic strategy: on a traditional black dance floor a transparent shiny panel is installed diagonally. It resembles the surface of water according to the program notes, casting glints on the participants and mirroring everything that happens on the stage. To the left of the backdrop hangs a projection screen (also diagonally) from which spectators are observed by a male face with a hipster beard (he is later identified as one of the dancers). The musical instruments are distributed in the back around the mirror space and all the musicians are in black - they blend with the dark stage curtains and become part of the set (in the best sense of the word). Some of them have already taken their places; others come to the stage and start tuning their instruments. The choreographed chaos of performers, who walk among the art works, mingles with the organic, un-coordinated chaos of the audience. Among them we identify Petr Boháč, who carefully lies down on one of the artworks. A camera is installed above his face, which streams a live macro close-up of his eye on the projection screen during the entire performance. Generally now, the stage resembles a movie set: the scene evoking a backstage, which is full of technical components; there are reflectors, cameras and music stands with scores everywhere. The transition from the informal buzz of the audience and other faint noises in the auditorium into the performance is actually almost undetectable. An omnipresent overlapping of perceptions combined with their indistinctness is one of the characteristic features of the production.
A title on the screen announces the first movement, Euphoria. The artworks are gradually carried to the sides of the stage, the percussions now start to play, and among the last spectators who haven’t taken their seats in auditorium yet, the first performer (Inga Mikshina) begins her dance in the centre of now empty stage. She wriggles on the “parquet”, headphones in her ears. The percussionist is tuning to her rhythm; otherwise there is silence. The conductor stands in the auditorium, in the aisle between the spectators, waits and then slowly starts to instruct the musicians. Progressively other dancers proceed to the centre of the stage - they all have headphones on, each of them clearly dancing to her/his own music, immersed in their own micro-worlds. An emergent polyrhythm and poly-melodiousness enables the spectator to tune herself to anything she wants. From the very beginning the structure of the performance is “ragged”, and in an effort to describe the verbal activity on the stage, fine art associations come to mind: both the music and the movement remind one of the unpredictable, mutually permeating and asynchronous trajectories of Pollock’s paintings. During the slow passing of time in the show the musically kinetic structures, comprised also by silence and stasis, gradually start to compete.
The acoustic and visual motifs mutually interrupt, and pretty soon it is clear that there is no way to follow everything. More and more often there is a swoosh of sound in the air from the brass section, which literally “tickles” the spectator’s ear - the horn and the trombone function as provocations, bringing enjoyment to life in the dancers’ bodies (as well as to the spectators).
Now every move is clearly improvised: a simple and individualised rhythmic stamping progressively deepens into a more specific pattern. One after another (but never in synchronicity) the performers start to turn around in a breath-taking dervish-like ecstasy, closing their eyes blissfully, and sniffing. Euphoria makes them pulse a regular rhythm into the space, set by the music in headphones, which contrasts with the acoustic chaos created at the same time by the live orchestra. But even from this dissonant noise fragmentation an imaginary arch of harmonic melody springs up here and there. A growing joy frees the dancers from the ground, and the limited space isn’t enough anymore and they start to expand (towards the musicians and to the aisle in the auditorium). Most of the performers are recent graduates of The Duncan Centre Conservatory: energetic, long-haired Inga Miksina with a femme fatale charisma, mysterious wild-girl Kristýna Šajtošová, girly Ekaterina Plechková in her innocent-looking polka-dot dress, the somewhat disturbing weirdo with the penetrating gaze Roman Zotov, and the aforementioned tall, poker-faced “hipster” Martin Šalanda. Freedom, ease and cheerfulness dominate the stage now: the long hair of the female dancers flies in the air, all the performers blissfully indulge in an intoxication which governs their bodies. From the projection screen above, all activity is constantly “supervised” by a demiurge's giant eye, which regardless of its seemingly ordinary behaviour repeatedly draws one’s attention: it stares unblinkingly straight ahead, blinks, focuses, for a little while it roams all over, then it focuses on a single point again - and each quiver of the eyebrows or tiny wrinkle is visible. I am very much aware that “authenticity” is an overused and grossly misused term in contemporary theatre terminology, but in the case of Boháč’s performance it fits perfectly.
In terms of lighting, the musicians are surrounded by warm golden shades, while the dancers moved around in purely cool ones; but suddenly the atmosphere changes. Both light and music start to give way to shadows and anxious sounds, the giant eye shuts and starts to tear - Euthanasia begins. One of the performers (Martin Šalanda) wheels a metal infusion rack onto the stage, while elsewhere a marimba player pushes his instrument respectfully like a hospital bed. The stage darkens substantially: the dancers are slowly only lit by an organic light structure. Musically, a sound “haze” begins to spread around, in which tones overlap so anxiously that one has a lump in one’s throat. Gradually it settles on a single tone and its pulsation evokes a heart rate monitor. The rhythm of the heart measures time without compromise, and sets a pace and character of extremely compressed and inhibited movements - the dancers jiggle slightly and linger in an unsettling, almost indistinct vibration. The entire choreography is linked by an expression of life essence through minimalist movements, among which the natural pulsation and rhythm of the human body prevail.
A title announces the third part - Eros. A transition into warmer shades of light follows, and a subtle change in expression alters the movement of an ailing mortal frame in one of the dancers (Kristina Šajtošová) from desolate to sensual. The performer slowly lifts her head, flings it back slightly and lets her long curls slide over her face. In the meantime, Roman Zotov ceremonially brings a horse saddle on the stage, places it on a chair for a flute player and makes her sit on it. Then he watches her with admiration as she synchronises her movements with the female dancer. The sensuality increases, as well as the humour and zest: here and there a crazy looking performer (Zotov again) runs wildly around the undulating women, and makes a quick delirious movement which is also reflected in the music. A dissonant sound frenzy reminiscent of a midsummer night’s soundtrack asks for the spectator's attention with increasing persistence, enclosing her from all sides, and compressing a broad auditory range of various moods, intensities and durations. The suggestive interactions between the performers become more frequent until we watch an eloquent, initiatory, orgasmic duet (Martin Šalanda and Ekaterina Plechková). The action culminates in the group of performers putting on silver, motorbike helmets and looping in a repetitive pattern of motion.
With onset of Insomnia the director’s eye on the screen starts to blink sleepily. The vibrations of a restless mind are projected in the twinkling and rather obsessive movements, remotely evocative of a relentless clock ticking in a dusky bedroom. The space is soaked in a peculiar acoustic mixture of specific night sounds, where even the faintest murmur seems to be obnoxiously loud. Erratic rustling, distant humming, a passing car or a rumble in the heating, all these simple and unintended sounds that John Cage loves so much, are created intentionally in this case. It’s as if the creative team tried to reconstruct the soundtrack of an insomniac’s mind. The evasiveness, restlessness and elusive brain activity, which prevent one from sleeping, are reflected in the dancers’ movements, which also create tiny acoustic commotions: for example the featherweight performer (Zotov) “flies” on the stage, his moves resembling a Latin American dance. He balances on his tiptoes and wriggles his hips tirelessly until his feet “squeak” with a high pitch on the floor.
At last, Causa Finalis merges all the musical, dance and light motifs from the previous movements. Joy blends with sensuality and anxiety, and at this point the mostly individualised physical expressions transform to more a colourful style. Suddenly there is “more” dance, it asserts itself forcefully and its opulence measures up to the music.
From the beginning to the end, Constellations I., co-created by the Berg Orchestra, the Spitfire Company and Michal Nejtek, plays with an (a)symmetry of acoustic and visual elements in space and time, and with the possibilities of stage formations, while incorporating dancers and musicians, and lastly plays with the audiences’ expectations. It’s not possible to state clearly whether we are at a theatre show, a music concert or an art opening - and actually it doesn’t matter that much. What matters though is that the spectator, hit by an avalanche of perceptions, is gradually overtaken by a peculiar multimedia cosmos, progressively filled with a contagious sensation of bliss. All the participants, led by trio Boháč-Vrábel-Nejtek, have succeeded in creating a masterful euphoric event, which inundates all the senses. It is intoxicatingly liberating to experience it first hand.
Spitfire Company & Berg Orchestra: Constellations I. Before I Say Yes, concept, direction and stage design Petr Boháč, choreography by Markéta Vacovská and P. Boháč, dramaturgy by Miřenka Čechová, music by Michal Nejtek, musical preparation by BERG Orchestra, conducted by Peter Vrábel, light design by Martin Špetlík, sound by Eliška Bejčková, produced by Bezhlaví z.s. (Spitfire Company), co-produced by TANEC PRAHA / PONEC the dance venue, and BERG orchestra, in partnership with Hellerau - European Centre for the Arts Dresden and Dansmakers Amsterdam, premiere November 29, 2016 at Ponec Theatre.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 1, volume 2017
translated by Blanka Křivánková
) Marko Ferenc (volin), Jan Keller (cello and bass guitar), Jana Holmanová (piano / keyboard), Zuzana Bandúrová (flute), Kiryl Tseliapniou (clarinet and bass clarinet), Štěpánka Balcarová (horn), Štěpán Janoušek (trombone), Anton Ždanovič (percussion and marimba) - and finally Petr Tchý / Jan Faix (live electronics).