Anarchy and Order (Yellow Darkness and Rain Dance)
I am at the age when one is attacked by memories. Lately, I have been remembering the so-called ‘industrial’ Turbine by Petr Fejk (an occasional actor who went on to became the head of Prague Zoo) and David Vávra (an architect, at the time well-known from Sklep Theatre), who were accompanied on stage by Lenka Vychodilová, another member of the Sklep Theatre. Their production took place in November 1988. Turbine was about total anarchy, which accidentally took the form of social criticism. On the City Theatre's stage, covered in a carpet that someone had idiotically ordered to be glued on, huge concrete rings dominated the set. Two men used big hammers to break them, with the concrete debris ripping the carpet, flying into the air, reaching as far as the auditorium, while trashy pop music of the time played in the background. It was unbearable, but also cathartic.
In this article, I will be talking about two other exceptional productions by performers for whom anarchy is a familiar concept.
Anarchism represents one aspect of Petr Nikl’s artistic personality, (also a fine artist and performer): it manifests itself in his improvisations with children, or perhaps in his play with randomness. The toy robotic cockroaches, supervised by Nikl, that spread paint on paper, creating images with their tiny artificial legs, is a highlight of his artistic approach. (I still fail to understand how even these images manage to carry Nikl’s autograph: can toys serve their Masters, as pupils of great painters do?) An opposite aspect of his artistic personality is his perfectionism, which is especially apparent in his paintings and drawings. Both of these aspects are to be found in Yellow Darkness.
Yellow Darkness comes after the ‘black and white melodrama’ I am Your Hare, produced in Archa Theatre in 2011. Or rather, the time frame precedes it. Once again, it refers back to childhood years through an ‘echoing memory’, even if it is dealt with in a more complex way. “I am attempting“, Nikl proclaims on the theatre’s website, “to draw the un-drawable, to communicate the uncommunicable, to perform the un-performable“.
For a better understanding of this production, it’s worth becoming acquainted with Nikl’s illustration-free book in addition to watching the performance on stage. It is a little round book, with a removable circle on the book spine, through which, (and thus through the entire book,) a small blue ring floats in and out. The book contains the lengthy sci-fi poem Drawing the Sun. In the poem the author returns to his childhood and to his memories of his mother, with whom he talks about the sun; about how it can’t be drawn: even though it is thanks to the sun that one is actually able to see in order to draw. “Every colour“, says his mother, “comes from light“. ”Even black?“ he asks. “That is the darkest white“, she responds. In the poem’s subplot (printed in blue), the storyteller undertakes a cosmic journey to a moon called Slidur. He jumps through a wormhole, lands on the moon where he meets a yeti sitting between a camel's humps etc., the storyteller eventually reaches the bronze sphere of the extinguished sun, which he had dreamt about, when he then sees a photograph of his mother from 1942; at that time eighteen years old before he was born. Based on that photograph, he starts to paint a number of sun-drenched portraits of her. “Maybe I was a rabbit at that time. A rabbit that sees in black-and-white.“ This point, at which the rabbit becomes a hare and the poem ends, forms the beginning of the previous production.
Compared to Nikl’s usual concepts, the set design is surprisingly elegant and photogenic, resembling a large, empty, silver-grey box. Before the play begins, we see only a glass ball and a mop, and we hear a melodic humming; sound and light pulsate like breath. Petr Nikl enters in a white overall, buttoned up like a child’s jersey. He wears a little white cap on his head, with a transparent dome over it, like an astronaut’s helmet. Except for the transparent dome on his the head, this is Nikl’s typical costume: it’s just a variation of his other usual ‘childish’ overalls. At this point, Nikl becomes a child-astronaut. “When I was five months old“, he recites in a whisper, half dreamily, “Gagarin was launched into space. Seven years later he flew up again…“
A short excerpt of the poem is performed in the play, while new things are added (for example the Gagarin’s motif). What words suggest, images can convey more accurately. Nikl plays an important part in these scenes; he partially ceases to be himself (the ‘commander’ of the action), and takes on the character of a grown up child, reminiscent of Trnka’s puppets; becoming a citizen in his own universe. In this production, his personal animations of space are limited to a few ‘actions’. These include the one where he pours a stream of tiny balls out of two huge paintbrush handles, simultaneously trying (in vain) to encircle his extending shadow with his two hands.
In these tiny balls, the spectator can see astral bodies, which represent the main topic of the production. A headlight is slowly lowered, representing the setting sun. A torch light is also used to imitate the sun, as is a marble (the very first treasure), a big wheel (part of the set), and a balloon flying above the stage. But reflectors and laser mainly create the cosmic formations, circling in every possible way. A light beam shines through a glass ball, or through the bulb intended to be the astronaut’s helmet, and a red circle shines within a black shadow, a beam draws circles on gauze, and they stay there shining; the colourful structures and ornaments that evoke the galaxies.
This play of light finds its counterpart in music, which has a computer like sound, buzzing with electricity, but also with ‘Japanese-like’ creaking, tinkling, drumming or banging of gongs.
In particular, images and sound are combined in a distinctive way when the laser lights up the strings of a harp, on which Nikl ‘twangs’. His singing is registered by a graduated circle of light, rising in the middle of the stage, ‘travelling’ in the imaginary grooves of a gramophone, narrowing and widening as a graphic record of the sound.
Thanks to its fundamental use of technology, which creates an impression of perfection, Yellow Darkness feels very contemporary. The only visible ‘little mistake’, that I detected during the show, was a hand,(probably belonging to the ‘pilot’ of a flying object), catching a balloon in semi-darkness. To me, the reaction of the spectators who noticed it, seemed eloquent: they laughed with relief. It is human to make mistakes. And imperfection is anyway, a guiding principle of Petr Nikl. Therefore, the character he embodies has human qualities. Is that a paradox? I don’t think so. It’s typical of him, even after making use of technological approaches in his performance, together with his co-creators to systematically humanise it; and not merely with the use of a sophisticated laser. Neither laser drawings, nor music, are programmed in detail beforehand. David Vrbík and Jan Burian Jr. control them analogically during the production. That's why the images and sounds are slightly different in each re-run.
What results is a piece where even the most technological projection, admired by the audience at the very end, bears the marks of Petr Nikl's craftsmanship; as if he operated the lasers in the same way he operated his robotic-cockroaches. (During the re-runs Yellow Darkness obtained a new ending. On the stage a tiny bonfire built from matches appeared, a laser beam aimed at it and lit it up. Just as the hero in Nikl’s sci-fi poem lights up a bonfire in the extinguished sun.)
Rain Dance 2.0 The second version of Handa Gote’s Rain Dance 2, produced in 2018 differs from the first version, produced in 2010, by just one alteration in the cast: Tomáš Procházka and Jan Dörner are joined by Jan Kalivoda who replaces Robert Smolík. However, according to the creative team, there is a more profound reason for this remake. In their typical spirit of serious mystification they proclaimed that “another attempt to save the world“ was necessary. Thus, if there is still something to save in the comimg years, we can expect new remakes and re-openings of this production, with its imperfection perfected further. Procházka’s team are known to honour do-it-yourself (DIY) practices and aesthetics. In Rain Dance you can clearly see their DIY approach in their various ‘imitations’, as for example in the stroboscopic effect that is achieved by swinging a hand in front of the light source, or the use of a green wine bottle to substitute for the coloured screen of a reflector. However, there is more in Rain Dance that proves its DIY nature; as stated in the programme, “in the production and during its preparation, computers and other devices based on software and containing integrated circuits weren't used.“ This production was originally part of the so called “analog trilogy“ (along with Metal Music and Mr. Roman, both from 2010). In my opinion, this second version should be lined up with Mutus Liber by Handa Gote (2015) and The Depths by Wariot Deal (2018, having an almost identical cast), to form a trilogy of DIY rituals.
Precise consistence is the essence of a ritual, even if its implementation is amateurish. Another characteristic of the ritual is its irrationality, which is exactly what the production's title refers to, however, it doesn’t signify a primitive rainmaking dance. It is actually an expression used in IT slang, that refers to “any ceremonial action taken to correct a hardware problem, where the expectation is that nothing will be accomplished“. This can imply anything from simply switching the computer off and on again, to the more peculiar activities such as the use of ‘incantation’ (the words “Louis Vuitton“ serves as an incantation in this production) or “reading runs on printed circuit boards“. In Rain Dance, the ritual is elevated to a ceremony, aiming at the earlier-mentioned salvation of the world, which must be achieved “even at the cost of using black magic or triangle tinkling“. As Procházka says, regarding the rising aggression in society, it’s necessary to perform this as a ritual of destruction, during which all available things have to be destroyed. And that's exactly what happens.
A huge number of things and instruments are prepared for destruction. It looks like a flea market, where some anonymous, neat freak has carefully sorted out and organised all the junk. Tools resembling machetes and clubs are lined up, together with videotapes, reflectors and projectors. On the ground and on the tables, there are old-fashioned amplifiers, record players, a tape-recorder, a toaster; and so on, and so on. None of it is redundant, since each object and each instrument plays a role. If it were true, as is generally believed, that fewer props equal better theatre, Rain Dance would have to be the most outstanding exception to the rule, at least in my opinion. And this would not be its only exceptional quality. Rain Dance also demonstrates that anarchy and order (as well as joy and asceticism) don’t have to be opposites.
The fact that everything on the stage plays a part, doesn’t mean that it gets to play the same part a second time. On the contrary, for some items, it’s practically a one-off stage appearance. For example, in the prologue there is a lamp that resembles an ugly vase - I would guess the half-century old home-made work of some enthusiast. When one of its bulbs goes out, Dörner, whose expression-free face misleadingly suggests a stoic, unscrews the bulb and smashes it cholerically against the wall. When the second bulb goes out, he throws the entire lamp against the wall. The lamp's moment of fame is over, and it is replaced by a lamp of similar ‘charm’ in future plays. Dörner takes a picture of the words written on a board above the stage, announcing that Our Swaggerers, the classical Czech drama, is on today. He then grabs a mop with a long handle and wipes out the wording, then uses a chalk on the long handle to writes a new announcement, which is the real title of the production. He might as well have left the previous title up there: as the angry destructtion of the recenty used instruments suggest: we are in for a festival full of ‘swagger’.
What happens next in the show is announced in Czech-English, in an amplified flat voice, with annoying punctuality. According to this, “The first third of the production describes the problems of modern society and it is about an individual's effort to keep her integrity in a changing world. The second third will prove that reality is worse than what we thought. The final, third, teaches us that defeat is also victory, even if just a small one”. During this recitation, Dörner smokes, drinks wine and idly browses through a magazine. Meanwhile the rest of the performers, dressed in t-shirts with the logos of hard-rock bands, demonstrate vicious rowdiness by hitting the flying plastic food chain-store bags with sticks. They put one of the bags on Kalivoda’s head. He then slowly unravels an audiotape through a hole, cut in the bag at level of his mouth. And we, the spectators… although we were told in detail what was coming, stare in disbelief when all that was “promised“ is really and very thoroughly delivered; in a perfect and simultaneously flawed way.
All the music and singing are faulty, both recorded and live, it has the quality of the sound similar to that of an old train station announcement. It makes no difference if you are listening to a badly recorded Marlene Dietrich singing Blowing in the Wind, or Procházka singing live Krawftwerk’s We are the Robots. It is just as painful as the problems mentioned in Kalivoda’s rhetoric: the extinction of species, xenophobia, racism. However, human nature has a strange ability to adapt to anything, from the extinction of species to that horrible sound. Therefore - put in a trendier way - one can “enjoy“ for instance a very dark version of the hippie song Lay Down by Melanie Safka in Dörner’s interpretation, with the accompaniment of a Spanish guitar (decorated with the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists), while Procházka plays a solo on a kids-size electric guitar. There is probably no need to mention that the musical instruments are then flung away. Destruction is crucial; therefore even the magic circle is composed of junk, of which crushed videotapes constitute the main ingredient, hacked to pieces by prehistoric-looking axes and machetes. To intensify the feeling of danger, Kalivoda sets fire to a paper mask on his head, which slowly burns away, as flaming pieces of it fly off.
In the end, naked from the waist up, Procházka is ‘decorated’ with paints that are splattered onto him through stencils, forming the logos of various corporations. In this ‘sporty outfit’, he runs around like a champion, until he becomes totally exhausted. This act is accompanied by Queen’s We Are the Champions, which re-plays several times, with a light delay that creates a raucous echo, and with an symbolic projection of all three protagonists posing as members of an indigenous tribe. They are naked except for long sheaths on their genitals (in Papua they are called ‘koteka’).
If you are completely puzzled by all this, it’s fine. On the contrary, it would be strange if it were all clear to you. However, if you think you have detected a critique of consumer society in Rain Dance, I assure you that even if there are such hints, such as banknotes hanging from a drier, lifted up like a monstrance, there is nothing as shallow as this. If Czech theatre critics are quick to label certain slightly untidy and wild productions as punk, here they would be spot on. It is not a coincidence that the legendary song Anarchy in The U. K. by the Sex Pistols is heard in Rain Dance, interpreted by Dörner. (Á propos: The band Crass, first in the line of the anarcho-punk movement, also promoted DIY ideas in their lyrics.)
What is the meaning then? It’s an anarchistic, wild, and at the same time joyful, liberating and non-restraining production. Just remember how refreshing punk felt during the time of musical flatness, (ranging from a conformist pop kitsch to academically snobbish jazz rock). God knows that we need punk more than ever. Otherwise we will never save the world.
Petr Nikl: Yellow Darkness (a colourful melodrama), movement, manipulation and singing by P. Nikl, sound and laser interaction by David Vrbík, music by Jan Burian ml., flying objects by Ondřej Eremiáš, light design by Patrik Sedlák, Archa Theatre, premiere September 21, 2018
Rain Dance 2.0, prepared by Jan Dörner, Tomáš Procházka, Robert Smolík, Jan Kalivoda and Jonáš Svatoš, Handa Gote research & development, renewed premiere January 1, 2018 in Venus in Švehlovka Theatre
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 4, volume 2019
translated by Blanka Křivánková