A Penetrating Tango in a Hot Summer Haze
It's difficult to talk about the most intense experiences. It’s even more difficult to write about them. It doesn’t matter whether they result from dance, drama, or whether they are completely personal, and especially when all these experiences are combined. When one witnesses a masterful theatre event, so rich in density of perceptions that it is hard to absorb it all, one can’t help but wish to fully plunge into that experience, to merge with the stage reality which expands massively in all directions, and to give up any effort to keep a distance from the work of art. (On the other hand the creator, if he/she makes some obvious mistake, can “wake” the spectator from such an intense state – so that the intoxication is gone in an instant.) A director has to be aware that balancing on the edge between the message and the “pure” experience isn’t at all easy, the balance is delicate and a spectator (despite being enchanted) stays alert. But when the setup works as it does here, the mutual play between the creators and the audience can be enormously interesting. The programme notes for Constellations II. (A Time for Sharing) by the Spitfire Company, (the second part of the intended multi-genre, dance-art-music trilogy) ask, “How do we create a show so that the spectator will forget what she can see or hear and let herself be carried away by the impact of it all? Does anything like an associative theatre exist? Constellations represents our desire for such a theatre.”
The first part of the Constellations trilogy subtitled Before I Say Yes dealt with the theme of desire in all its possible forms: a desire for joy, for love, sleep, death etc. Alongside the five dancers, there were also musicians, a re-mixer, a conductor, and a cinematographer on the stage, as well as the director of the whole project, Petr Boháč. The actual performance was preceded by an exhibition of conceptual art; and in the style of live cinema the director’s magnified eye was projected onto a screen above the stage; during the show, the performers and musicians often ventured among audiences etc. There really were an abundance of perceptions. The new project by the “Spitfires” is also rich in impressions, but they arise from a more orderly and modest staging. This production gets by with only a ritual circle, a vibrant imaginative soundscape, and three female dancers.
When one enters the theatre space, the stage is almost completely dark: just a massive golden bell shines, hanging to the right of the backdrop. Throughout the show this object forms a clear vanishing point towards which all activity is directed. As the spectators are taking their seats the soundtrack is already playing, even if almost inaudibly at first. In the typical buzz from the audience, a quick rustle of sound is heard now and again; one gets the impression that one has heard a hint of a recorded talk or a tiny buzz of an Argentine tango in the air. It turns out that - in fact - these are fragments of the forthcoming soundtrack - but they disappear as quickly as they appear. Shortly afterwards the sound proves to be the defining element of the production, which becomes evident right from the beginning of the show when the regular beat of a metronome is heard coming from the darkness.
The beats of this mechanical metronome give the opening a clearly pulsating rhythm. The spectator’s imagination is fully engaged trying to figure out what is actually on the stage. From several places on the stage there are a twinkling, stroboscopic, discontinuous strobes of light flashing, and they partly reveal arrows, jabbed irregularly but also in rows on the surface of the stage. They form a circle inside which the performers will dance. In the dim light we recognise the silhouette of the first dancer - Markéta Vacovská, who starts her solo. She enters wearing in a soft flowery dress tied around her neck, her back exposed. She embraces herself and wriggles blissfully. Several rings of the bell resound - it's midnight or maybe already morning (somewhere around the equator?). The atmosphere is lazy, time expands, there’s no rush.
The dancer stretches herself, lifts up her arms (maybe towards the sun, but it’s not obvious), and in a hedonistic way she runs the tip of her nose along the white skin of one of her arms. Little by little, in a leisurely transformation, she starts to offer the whole surface of her body to the imagined warm air. At first she slowly moves closer to the circular border, then she lets her body slide down onto the floor. She bends and “breaks” it until it doesn’t resemble a human creature anymore. We keep losing her in the darkness but she always turns up again somewhere else.
The metronome continues to tick, there is slightly more of light, but it adds up inadequately. Now the surface inside the circle resembles water and the arrows are reminiscent of reeds. If the black floor surface is now a lake, then the limbs of the dancer (folded in an inventive way under her torso) are “disappearing” in its depth. As the spectator tries to perceive the 3D trail left by the dancer, it appears to be twisting, strange and unpredictable - but during the sequence that follows the dancer straightens this disorganised path. After an examination of the space, she positions herself next to the fringe of arrows and attunes her movements perfectly with the sound: lying down on her back, she reflects the ticking of the metronome with a regular, exact bending of her knees and the repeated drawing of her torso towards her heels. At the same time she “leads” the spectator’s eye along the circle/clock face with exact machine-style caterpillar movements, as if her body was the seconds-hand of a clock. The ticking intensifies, the banging becomes fiercer. Now the theme is time and its passing. The light remains stroboscopic, so it’s still almost impossible to focus on the objects on the stage. But there is no doubt that another dancer - Kristina Šajtošová - has entered the scene, and also the musical score starts to grow. Now there are several metronomes ticking: their sounds splinter against each other, they echo and mirror themselves. Similarly, the two female dancers sometimes move in synchronicity, while at other times they go against each other in their motions, until their arms obsessively swing to all sides. Their bodies transform continually, but in a rather austere way. They remain standing and allow their permanently vibrating arms to slide down towards the ground, and they intertwine their bodies so many times that they resemble a bizarre female centaur. At that point it’s impossible to say where one limb ends and another starts - from under their costumes the deathly-looking white connections of their outstretched calves gleam.
The twinkling of the cool light disappears, “the chaotic metronome fugue” ends, and a warm, golden light reveals the performer (Vacovská again) who - stretched on her side along the reeds - is setting another metronome. Her head propped and rested on her palm, she contentedly watches it. Maybe it’s dawn, maybe it’s getting closer to noon, and finally a melody starts to wake up in the soundtrack: we can hear horns with their lucid, but at the same time slightly hazy sound. As if the horns were lazily stretching up like both girls. On the right side, a simple wooden staircase appears in the light. It leads towards the bell from which the third performer now slowly descends on the stage - Cecile da Costa, the new winner of the title The Dancer of the Year 2018, awarded by The Czech Dance Platform. The air is heavier now, the eyelids blink and the stage landscape becomes heavily somnambulistic.
The director and scenographer, Petr Boháč says: “The idea for the stage design for the second Constellations came to me twenty years ago near Panama City. For a few months, I had lived in the centre of a village near a small church. It kind of felt like no man’s land: just the church, a swishing meadow of grass and the church bell which chimed every hour. In such situations one doesn’t know whether he is dreaming or he happens to be a part of someone else's dream.” If the theme of the first Constellations was desire in all its forms, in this case it’s dizziness, both private and shared, anchored in a single moment. The potential melancholy of the impressions are always immediately pushed away by some preposterous detail, sometimes in the form of a small provocation (through the staircase a glimpse of the dancer’s calf stirs the spectator’s imagination as well as the instep circling tantalisingly, before it disappears again), at other times it develops into an independent scene (like Kristina Šajtošová’s tango, her body “pierced”, in fact surrounded by several arrows, and her movements controlled by exclamations from her two colleagues as if it were a ballet lesson). Most of the time it feels like we are watching choreography, created by all three dancers, through a milk glass. And the grotesqueness symbolises the choreographic punctuation - in the scenic dancing haze it adds more “pungent” and austere elements, which makes it more “sensational”.
Much like in the first Constellations the director works again with choruses of close body formations. The girls mutually bury their faces in each other’s heads, they entangle in each other’s hair, and with regular pendulum-like movements they simulate the bell. At other times they circle the stage in a flowing chorus like a cyclone, which regardless of its organic nature still follows a subliminal rhythm. And similar to the first Constellations, here also an imaginary mood-filter changes with the aid of the dance, the lighting and the music within the individual sequences. At one point the dancers resemble a triple Alice (from Lewis Carroll) – and they evoke surreal creatures that explore the world, and from these explorations great joy, tenderness, but also shamelessness are born. But the burning clock-face, around which they slowly circle, quickly turns into a magnetic field which the performers hit in a devilish crazy movement like a bunch of metal filings. It becomes more and more difficult for them to regulate and control the electricity in their bodies. Now the soundtrack reminds us of a Romanian wedding; the flared chiffon, satin and rich red dresses swirl through the air, while the surrounding arrows rise up so ominously that we fear they will tear the excited bodies of the dancers. In comparison to the first Constellations, despite the provocations, there is no need to lure anyone; the characters are above any showing off - it’s sufficient for them to dive fully into the present moment and in the best sense of word to “enjoy” it.
The stage in full light radiates mugginess, heat, and a burning blaze. The actual dance is then hard to capture in words. The mood on the stage is strongly hypnotic, it stuns all the senses, but the spectator gives in happily - and if she tries to keep at least a minimal verbalised memory in her mind, the next stage image immediately covers it with great force. As if the director has tried to craftily prevent a reviewer from writing about it and putting the experience into words. Well, in their program notes the creators admit that they were inspired by the French Impressionists and by Jackson Pollock, whose works would be difficult to translate from a visual to a verbal code. And the mixture of colours, sounds and motions in the second Constellations proves this. The simple stage design has a subliminal acoustic effect - even when it stays “mute”, it evokes an acoustic impression, namely swishing cornfields. Certainly the light design by Jiří Šmirek (also awarded at this year’s Czech Dance Platform ceremony) deserves the attention: apart from the stroboscopic sequences at the very beginning which turn the performers into puppet-like characters resembling ones from animated cartoons, it also includes effects like the light islands in the middle of a night forest, and twinkling murkiness in which branches of invisible trees cast their shadows. And acoustic composition by Martin Tvrdík (also known as Bonus) represents a separate chapter. The sound in his interpretation functions as a “performer” in a way: it “whips” the ticking metronomes, it literally “walks around” the stage, “blows” through the various parts of the show, and vibrates not just the dancers’ bodies in an imaginary corn field, but also our eardrums. The phased portions of sound pulse in regular beats and - among other things - evoke wind blasting above a cornfield. Come to think of it, there are very few particular sounds in this acoustic landscape: here and there a mosquito buzzes, at other times birds chirp, but this is all very quick, and is usually just a suggestion (certainly not a sound safari).
The choreography gradually progresses from a cold darkness to a hot midday: one girl lies on her side, her back towards the audience, and time passes. In between, another one wades through the reeds. The third one twists her hips and “flutters about” the stage like a peculiar dragonfly. In each moment, they are all fully immersed in their movements, hair falling on their faces, their bodies controlled by an electrifying restlessness.
The time passes slowly but the bodies pulsate: this permanent oscillation is the most distinct in Markéta Vacovská’s solo, with which the choreography culminates. Her body starts to vibrate - at first just her solar plexus, but gradually the vibration possesses everything, until the dancer shakes in regular spasms like an epileptic clockwork creature. A harmonica chirps in the air, then clarinets sound, but all of that is as quick as a streak of lightning in the sky. And rightly so: this is literally the calm before the storm when the smoke machine blows a substantial amount of smoke into the space, creating a thundercloud above the scene (shortly after that it will also serve as fog hovering over the night landscape). The dancer moves in an obsessive way and makes her body tremble as if her heart was to fly out of her chest any minute. Analogous to durational performance or endurance art, which require extreme stamina and constraint from a performer, the dancer fights her own physics. The sound and light thunderstorm brings relief, calms all the senses, and revives the lost tranquillity.
At the beginning of my essay, I wrote about the density of perceptions - but how many of those are objectively observed stage impulses versus subjective associations? In the case of dance productions of a similar nature such a balance is hard to summarise. But that’s not really important. Petr Boháč and his team approach time as a theatre material: they make the spectator feel its passing drop by drop, or they overflow her with the lava of time compression as in the scene of the summer thunderstorm or in the final mash-up of previously witnessed scenes, putting each next to the other several times - the body stopped in space, ticking (and also evasive) physical obsession, as well as a dancer lying nearby on her stomach, her calves oscillating in space like the seconds hands of a Swiss watch. In their movements, the three performers mirror the three metronomic pendulums, which were the starting point of the soundtrack. And how little is actually enough to create an intense theatre experience? For me personally the most beautiful image was the one in which one of the girls walked extremely slowly and completely ordinarily across the stage. The light was descending onto her hair and the highlighted outlines of her arms - we actually saw a silhouette illuminated with three contra lights. Slow motion; time standing still and the body in a permanent, even if almost imperceptible vibrating motion. It was pure theatre minimalism. The second Constellations is a powerfully hypnotic event.
Spitfire Company: Constellations II. (Time for Sharing), concept, direction and stage design Petr Boháč, choreography by Cecile de Costa, Kristina Šajtošová and Markéta Vacovská, light design by Jiří Šmirk, costumes by Miřenka Čechová, music by David Kolár, Yellow Swans, Colin Stetson and Martin Tvrdý, assistant stage design Jan Tomšů, produced by Petra Hanzlíková, project management Barbora Repická and Ludmila Vacková, Spitfire Company, co-produced by TANEC PRAHA / PONEC the dance venue, preview as work in progress 27.2.2018 (Theater de Nieuwe Vorst, Tilburg, Nederlands), premiere 12.3.2018 at Ponec Theatre.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 3, volume 2018
translated by Blanka Křivánková