Politics, Performance and Ethics

Posted: November 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Politics, Performance and Ethics

Politics, Performance and Ethics, Aberystwyth, November 7, 2014

Pablo Picasso's Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937

In the latter part of 2014 I was performing in a production by Darshan Singh Bhuller and Lindsay Butcher called Rites of War. Before a show in Aberystwyth I was invited to participate in a presentation around themes of war and performance, to which I contributed this text that I re-discovered recently. 

As Remembrance Day approaches I am conscious we commemorate not those politicians who sleepwalked us into the war (to use a phrase from the title of Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the first world war) but those who suffered as a result. It is the lives of individuals caught up in conflicts over which they have no control (even in a democracy) that suffer most the devastating consequences of warfare. This is why Rites of War, in which I am presently performing, is based on the story of two soldiers in wars one hundred years apart: the last soldier to die in the so-called Great War and a British casualty in the recent Afghan War. War correspondent, David Loyn, who contributed to the shaping of the work, has written a book about a country he knows well. It is called Butcher & Bolt, and is subtitled Two hundred years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan. 200 years is a long time, and the butchering and bolting that has gone on in those 200 years is unthinkable. Why is it still going on? To my mind it is not because of the soldiers and fighters who are there but because of the politicians who sent them there. War and politics, from time immemorial, are indelibly linked: I’m sure Carl von Clausewitz was not the first to understand that “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.”

The frustration of powerlessness in the face of political machinations has inspired many a creator/performer to shake up the status quo. How do you get there? Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who on August 7, 1984 set up a tension wire and walked between the Twin Towers just before they were completed, has written, ‘The creator must be an outlaw. Not a criminal outlaw, but rather a poet who cultivates intellectual rebellion. The difference between a bank job and an illegal high-wire walk is paramount: the aerial crossing does not steal anything; it offers an ephemeral gift, one that delights and inspires.’ There is a lot in this short quote: intellectual rebellion, ephemeral gift, delight and inspiration. This is what performance is all about. It is a catalyst at best, mere entertainment at least. All great artists use their art to sublimate their material, however distressing the subject. Bob Dylan’s protest songs, Wilfred Owen’s poetry, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Don McCullin’s war photography, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage, Kurt Joos’ The Green Table, all deal with the consequences of man’s catastrophic inhumanity to man, but they are all upgraded by the public (who gratefully receive the gift) from protest to high art. It is as if the art form, by removing itself from the immediacy of the unimaginable context, has neutralized it. (Photography may be the one art/performance that retains the immediate horror of its subject because the photographer behind the lens is present).

The story of a WW1 chaplain, Geoffrey Stoddert Kennedy, otherwise known as Woodbine Willie for the cigarettes he would give out to those he helped in the trenches, is telling. He was loved and highly respected among the troops for his doggerel poetry, humour and compassion. But after the war when he applied his ideas to the political (socialist) arena, he was reviled. Employing ethics as a shining sword, he had crossed the line between performance and politics.

Have you noticed how bad politicians are at acting? They can’t bridge the gap between politics and performance. What one expects of actors in performance is conviction in what they say and do and a correspondence between word and gesture (mime is the most revealing). Politicians want to convince you with their words, but their eyes and gestures so often betray their insincerity. You can even hear it on the radio. They are hiding. A performance that hides is a failure. A politician uses hiding as a necessary ingredient of success. In a highly mediatized era, lying (or dissembling or prevarication or misinformation) is a means of survival. We want to see justice in the world but it is rarely in the political sphere we see it; we go to the theatre for that, not for the justice itself but as a mirror of what we want to see.

The situation between Israelis and Palestinians (in the political sphere) is intolerable. I saw recently a performance in Italy by Hillel Kogan, an Israeli choreographer, who made a piece called We Love Arabs. It is a duet with himself and an Arab dancer, Adi Boutros. It is satirical, funny and touching and it ends with them offering a hummus sacrament to the audience. It makes you feel that with a change of heart, a change of perspective, peace between Israel and Palestine is possible. It is an inspiration, a poetic act of rebellion. In the lead up to the festival Italian police were calling the organisers each day to find out where Kogan and Boutros were staying, their airline schedule and when they would arrive at the theatre. At the theatre police checked our bags. This is real life politics crossing the line into performance.

A performance can juxtapose elements that in real life may be far apart in order to make a point. Theatre can condense time to bring the beginning and the end closer together. Rites of War compresses 100 years of war. Theatre that lasts 100 years becomes politics.

Humour in all its forms is a trenchant weapon in performance. From the court jester to the circus clown to the stand-up comic to Private Eye, humour is used to tell the truth in such a way as to be palatable, even to the authorities targeted, because it is a pressure valve that lets off steam through laughter.

I would like to finish with mention of dance, not only because I am a dancer but because dance, being a non-verbal form of performance conveys imagery that is full of emotional power because it is the human body that is the instrument. As Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in a 2006 TED talk, “As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads…’ But, he points out with characteristic wit, “We are not brains on a stick; we are embodied…Our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically, is of fundamental importance in our sense of self.’

I think goes some way to explain the power of performance. Performance can reconnect an audience with their sense of self, create a dialogue, inspire, perhaps to intellectual rebellion. It may also explain why politicians are not keen to support dance in our educational curriculum.


Hillel Kogan: We Love Arabs

Posted: August 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

Hillel Kogan, We Love Arabs, Teatro Enrico Cecchetti, Civitanova Marche, August 9

I was very kindly invited to attend one of the two weekends of Civitanova Danza by its director, Gilberto Santini. After an afternoon panel discussion on Dance and Audience, there were three evening performances in three different theatres.

HIllel Kogan and Adi Boutros in We Love Arabs (photo: Gadi Dagon)

Hillel Kogan and Adi Boutros in We Love Arabs (photo: Gadi Dagon)

There is a police presence in the theatre this evening which is unusual for a dance festival but not surprising given the subject and timing of the performance: We Love Arabs treats in choreographic form coexistence between an Israeli and an Arab. What better moment for this carefully modulated, sardonic work by Hillel Kogan in which the only casualties are our preconceptions.

The stage is small and Kogan is alone in the light, looking down, balancing on one leg while the other hovers in counterbalance. It is a stance that reflects perfectly the precarious nature of Kogan’s proposal. He breaks off abruptly to share his thoughts with the audience, talking slowly with long, hesitant pauses. This is cerebral choreography and the very tortuousness of the argument is a vehicle for an ironic — to the point of absurdity — exposé of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He speaks in English with a translation into Italian projected on to the backdrop (which perhaps makes Kogan’s delivery even slower to accommodate the delayed reactions of the audience). ‘Where we stand in space defines the way we move,’ he suggests. The problem is there are some parts of the space that ‘I feel are rejecting me. They are not me…it is not a pleasant feeling at all.’ His introverted movement phrases explore the stage while reflecting his internal thought process until he distills it in a startling conclusion: ‘The space that is not me belongs to an Arab…It frightens me…What can I do with that as an element?’ Adi Boutros answers the question with his entrance, thus initiating the choreographic resolution.

After introductions, Kogan, who asks all the questions and answers most of them — he is the only one with a microphone — carries on his banter, unaware (in his stage persona) that he is constantly tying himself up in irony. Boutros answers when required, more with his eyes than with his voice, his willingness to participate leading Kogan further towards crossing the barriers he tries to impose. ‘We have to identify one another,’ says Kogan, getting Boutros to draw a Star of David on his t-shirt. ‘That’s funny that you start with the downward triangle,’ he balks. In return he draws a crescent shape on Boutros’ forehead. ‘What did you draw on me? Boutros asks. ‘It’s like a brioche on top of a minaret. ‘But I’m a Christian.’ Next Kogan divides the stage with an ‘imaginary big wall’ so that each will have his own space: ‘You are on one side and I am on the other but we are equal facing the wall. You understand?’ Kogan gives Boutros the directive to mirror his movements that he then delivers at breakneck speed. ‘Good, good,’ concedes Kogan. ‘Let’s try some improvisation. What kind of improvisation have you done?’ ‘Contact improvisation’ replies Boutros. ‘No… no contact’ responds Kogan quickly. ‘No, show me who you are. It’s like an identity card in movement…very nice, but don’t show me what dancer you are but what person you are. You understand the difference?’

Up until now Kogan keeps his distance from Boutros, but the distance is diminishing, the façade is dropping. ‘We are now going to explore objects from daily life.’ He takes a knife and fork, gives Boutros the knife and keeps the fork. They improvise around each other and end up in a ballroom pose, forehead against forehead, hand on the other’s waist, Boutros’ knife raised behind Kogan’s back, the fork at Boutros’ waist. Kogan defuses the image by taking the knife in his mouth and puts the fork in Boutros’ mouth. ‘Now we are going to explore something else…It’s about responsibility….I want to work with hummus, because that for me is the symbol of being Israeli… but (on reflection) it comes from you.’ Kogan pastes hummus on his own face before doing the same for Boutros. You sense they are beginning to enjoy each other’s company. ‘The last part is a dream,’ explains Kogan. The Andante to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 starts up and smoke is fired on to the stage. Irony gives way to allegory. The two engage in a slow-motion homoerotic battle in which Boutros ends up at the top end of a press-up while Kogan niftily inserts his body under him and turns over to face him. They roll over and Kogan pulls Boutros down to him. There is another fluff of smoke and they run around the stage lifting each other with a contagious sense of exhilaration. Boutros upturns Kogan, holding him round the waist as he looks at us through his legs. ‘Put me down on the edge of the stage,’ directs Kogan. They descend into the audience, holding hands and joining with members of the front row. Kogan asks the soundman to crank up the Mozart to emotional dream level while Boutros fetches the bowl of hummus and Kogan fetches some pita. It’s as over-the-top in its emotion as the earlier irony was over-the-top in its starkness. They break bread, share the hummus with each other then offer pieces to the audience, a simple communion with a Jew and an Arab and the public. Now that’s a dream.