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.


Phoenix Dance Theatre: Mixed Programme 2014

Posted: December 1st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Phoenix Dance Theatre: Mixed Programme 2014
Phoenix Dance Theatre in Darshan Singh Bhuller's Mapping (photo: Tony Nandi)

Phoenix Dance Theatre in Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Mapping (photo: Tony Nandi)

Phoenix Dance Theatre, Mixed programme, Linbury Studio Theatre, November 27

 

Christopher Bruce opens Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Mixed programme 2014 with Shift, choreographed to the last movement of Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift. Although Bruce cuts this movement from its musical context he makes something complete and beautiful within it. In the present critical environment where length is an issue, it is too short. In its brief eight minutes Bruce creates a suite of lyrical dances for six dancers in 40’s costumes (from Bruce’s own wardrobe) like a letter written home in an effusive, youthful handwriting: Dear Mum and Dad, guess what we did today… There is that breathless quality of pure enjoyment mixed with images of daily toil that flow effortlessly through the dancers’ bodies as if the choreography was made on them (Bruce created Shift in 2007 and it has only just entered the Phoenix repertory). It doesn’t harm the piece either that the lighting is by John B Read who illuminates the movement as if from the inside. There’s another shade of Bruce in his next work, Shadows, to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for violin and piano. “To me, many of Arvo Pärt’s compositions evoke images of a European history and tradition steeped in over a thousand years of human experience and, frequently, suffering. These themes, and particularly the turbulence of twentieth century events, have influenced my reaction to his work.” In giving his reactions to the music colour and form (aided again by Read’s lighting), Bruce makes the music visible. Shadows describes the effect of an unseen external menace on the members of a family of four. There is a sense of sympathy and compassion, and in choosing Sam Vaherlehto as the father, Sandrine Monin as the mother, Vanessa Vince Pang as the daughter and Andreas Grimaldier as the son Bruce confers his emotional understanding with confidence. ‘The poetry is in the pity’ wrote Wilfred Owen in a preface to his war poems and in Shadows both the choreography and the music are in the tragedy of impending upheaval.

The same cannot be said for Ivgi & Greben’s Document. Set to music by Tom Parkinson the work purports to ‘see five dancers grappling with the darkest aspects of human emotion.’ I am taking a wild guess here, but I don’t think either Uri Ivgi or Johan Greben have experienced the darkest aspects of human emotion closely enough to begin to choreograph them. Instead we see an approximation of what they imagine it might look like which resembles uncannily the vision of other choreographers searching for a similarly degenerate scenario. The dancers work really hard making the shapes but Document fails to reach beneath the surface.

I should confess that I have just finished performing a piece that Darshan Singh Bhuller choreographed recently for Gravity & Levity called Rites of War, so some of his preoccupations in Mapping like the radio-controlled device and the camera on stage projecting live images on to a screen are familiar. According to Bhuller, the work is inspired by his father’s move from East to West, though travel is only suggested in the opening. The musical mapping follows a parallel trajectory though the choreography is firmly in the west. Bhuller loves clean shapes and it is no surprise that he chooses Ben Mitchell to carve out a lovely arabesque line as he strides like a colossus over the tiny blue globe that races around and through his legs. Circles form a predominant theme in Mapping and in the centre of the sweeping, swirling forms is Sam Vaherlehto as a young explorer with camera in hand (perhaps Bhuller sending selfies to his father) quoting from the nuptial pyramid in Nijinska’s Les Noces. Vaherlehto seems to draw around him the other solos (Monin in particular has a lovely lyrical quality), duets and trios like a benevolent progenitor. He also has a sense of humour and thinks up a wonderful game. Laying down a line of white tape, he instructs his friends to lie on the floor with their feet or hands or heads on the tape. It would not be that interesting for the audience but a camera is placed high above the stage so the floor becomes vertical in its projection on the screen (see Tony Nandi’s photograph above). The game turns into a flight of fancy that sees dancers tumbling impossibly through the air to land effortlessly on their feet and hands, an acrobatic illusion that has the audience in thrall. The whole episode has a high feel-good factor mapping perhaps Bhuller’s own return from west to east.