Perception in Performance
Josef Nadj: Les Philosophes GDA Oct 4th to 8th 2005
Pascal Houbin/Dominique Boivin The Place Nov 11th adn 12th 2005
Perception of performance has long been a keen point for discussion amongst theorists of human behaviour. The pre-requisites to understanding a performance may include familiarity of the performance space, information about the show and its actors, and the genre of art that one chooses to view. This prior knowledge leads to the attachment of familiar symbols to the performance elicited by past experience. Novelty in the new performance is then partially coloured by the expectations of an audience that demands the production to follow a predetermined course with minor variations. Then what happens when the expected familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar and new?
Two productions performed as part of the Dance Umbrella Festival made me reflect on how gestures and storytelling from different cultures can affect our analysis of its performance at the moment of perception.
French choreographer, Josef Nadj presented “Les Philosophes” inspired by the works of Bruno Schulz at the Greenwich Dance Agency (GDA) between the 4th and 8th of October. GDA has an open black box/dance space which when redesigned transports a show to live in a world separated from reality. With “Les Philosophes”, the mind and eye had to absorb three distinct worlds within an hour and fifty minutes. The sensation of moving into the black hole of the mind was experimented with speed, space and the play between camera and live performance. As the audience, we were led to view a circular gallery with screened sections of the show. What initially seemed like photographs were in fact extremely slow movement in real time. Once the eye registered that difference, the gallery viewing transformed into a 360degree film box. Within the circular gallery was an inner space with a large cube in the center used as a film screen with live music played inside. The movement of the five characters on screen was set in real time in an outdoor location giving us a partially familiar setting of a somber funerary mood complemented by a coffin and costumes of black suits and bowler hats. The unraveling of the story however revealed a disjointedness of the greater parts of the performance. This sensation impinged upon the mind the memory of similar movements recently viewed (in the gallery) to try and form the links as a continuum of the story. The surreal world of timing and movement on the screen was shattered by the final world of live performance, which altered reality through the current states of the perception. The visualization of a real performer in real space and time allowed the mind to accept the liveness of it as being fantastical and instead attaching a linearity and reality to the storytelling on the screen. If this was the intention of Josef Nadj, then his craft of theatre efficiently begins and ends with the inversion of reality in his cycle of make believe.
Pascal Houbin and Dominique Boivin, two leading artists from France performed “Bonte Divine”, an interpretation of The Letters of Abelard and Heloise at The Place on Oct 11th as part of the Dance Umbrella festival and France Moves, a celebration of French art in London.
Symbolism, a common feature of the rituals of medieval times played a significant factor in the socio-cultural behaviour of the people circumscribed by it. 11th century France witnessed a period of change and intellectual discourse, leading to the formation of universities to witness the confluence of great minds influencing the future generations of society. The uniqueness of this work created by two great soloists was in deconstructing the formalization of traditional rituals. Visually, the symbols of 11th century medieval France were converted into everyday implements varying in size from a child’s plaything to magnified images of letters on an illuminated screen.
While time was rendered slow and lengthy testing our patience in “Les Philosophes”, the rapidity of movement and storytelling in “Bonte Divine” made one feel frantic in amassing deep discourses in a ’quick-change’ interpretation of The Letters. As if immersed in an intensive course of the history of medieval France, the rush of information left one wishing for a singular moment to breathe and digest what the eye had absorbed thus far. The message was clear: one was required only to take in moments and peaks of the larger and heavier volumes of time and allow momentary touches of everyday living to help us ruminate over the questions of life in our own time. To bring lightness to heavier discourses from the past requires a skill that can bring simplicity and humour while touching the darkest regions. This simultaneously created two timings, that of the performance with its rapid timing and the other being the spectator’s analyses of the performance by extending one’s own time while perceiving the show. The stage was converted into a laboratory where two performers wearing neutral, black suits travelled through places, periods of time, life situations and sketching historical facts with a very matter-of-fact attitude. This allowed us as the audience to access older rituals in an informal way endearing us to timeless literature.
As in “Les Philosophes”, the inversion of reality in “Bonte Divine” was a tool used to deceive the eye into believing the make-believe and to view familiar symbols as displaced from their normal roles. One such moment that struck me was the use of a goldfish in a tank on a projector to depict the way Heloise felt trapped in her changing life. The untrained goldfish naturally feeling claustrophobic in a tank of water with bright lights streaming into it revealed in a larger projected image emotions of uneasiness and a sense of being trapped during life hardest moments. At that moment we lost sight of the dancer and gave the fish the role of the protagonist empathizing with common human suffering. We had allowed what we just perceived to redefine the role of a familiar symbol, the fish, into a new role, the performer. Both Dominque and Pascal share a uniqueness that permitted one to also break gender roles between them and take the literality out of the text and story. Forced into compressed time in performance, the chaos of the information provided by the two artists actually gave us more space to look for deeper meanings and leave with a questioning than an over-saturated mind. The lack of obsession over detailing had in fact made us believe that this was a shared moment for just an hour leaving us with unlimited time after the performance to continue constructing the details through our own interpretations based on the symbols accrued thus far.
The two performances allowed us to reflect upon our reflections through perception; “Les Philosophes”, testing us with the use of prolonged time and “Bonte Divine”, for the lack of time to register details. The extremities of the use of timing in the two performances made us, the spectator, reflect on our modes of judgment between analysis based on prior information and the challenge of immediate perception during the moment of performance.