What we can’t talk about
Observation les ateliers C de la B, July 2018
by Ellen Stynen
het leven ligt veel dieper dan verwacht
als lakens weggeschoven onder een matras
verborgen onder vele lagen grond
is zeker weten dat het denken zich
zoals het water
dus hoger boort en boven komt
daar waar ik zat te wachten en gulzig dronk
Eric De Volder
I love tekst. I can relate to it. I can decipher it, understand it, correct it, repeat it, learn it by heart. I discover the story, taste the words, I make links, I understand the references. Dance, however, is different. Most of the time, I have nothing to hold on to. Dance can touch me deeply, even more than theatre, but don’t ask me to explain it. And yet here I am.
Henry James said: ‘Painters have a great distrust of those who write about pictures.’ Flaubert said: ‘Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity. You won’t find a single good painting in all the museums of the world which needs a commentary. The more text there is in the gallery guide, the worse the picture.’ Degas believed that ‘words are not necessary: you say humph, hé, ha, and everything has been said.’ Matisse said: ‘Artists should have their tongues cut out.’ (Julian Barnes)
The unspeakable. The unsayable. The unthinkable. “If you can’t say it, sing it’, Eric De Volder said when he and composer Dick van der Harts made “Diep in het bos” Deep in the woods, a music theatre performance about Marc Dutroux. Music is through its abstractness and directness thé key to the unsayable. Can a body too?
What can I expect? A supersensory, mystic experience, a longing for what can be said or not? An attempt to open our eyes to a forgotten or hidden trauma? A joyful looking forward to a destination that will never be reached? Or a sudden insight, a revelation, a glimpse of an absolute inner truth?
None of these places can be found, they don’t exist, but I know where they should be – especially now – and … I find something! (Paul Celan)
3 July, kabinet k
It is steaming hot when I arrive at S18, but the heat does not seem to bother any of the 14 girls in the Kabinet k workshop. Joke is just explaining that half of them need to keep their eyes closed during the next assignment and that they should allow to be manipulated by the other half. A girl with glasses already squeezes her eyes real tight during the explanation. I look. I already completely forgot about ‘the uspeakable’. I think this exercise is about trust. Trusting the other and getting to know your own body. One girl walks around perkily, another looks like carrying a heavy load. Joke calls one of the ‘blind’ girls: her task is done, someone else will take her place. I am moved by the way she leaves the floor: just a moment ago she was fully concentrated on the exercise, now she opens her eyes and gambols cheerfully to the side. This is a game. And yet, what happens on stage is very special: the dedication and care of the children while doing the assignment is very touching by moments. This quality is not happening by itself. ‘Stay tender’, Kwint has to say at some point.
Their feet are pitch black. One is doing cartwheel, another is yawning. One girl with a bob seems to need reassurance from Joke and Kwint now and again. Another girl hides behind the curtain. During a big group improvisation, a ‘blind’ girl is put with her forehead against the wall, her accompanier leans against her with her back. While playing, they make sometimes beautiful, poetic images. Even when nothing happens, there is a lot to see, Kwint and joke tell me afterwards.
A variation. The children now don’t have to let them guide by somebody’s hands, but by sounds. In preparation, they all shut their eyes and say what they want to hear. One of the girls farts. Joke and Kwint show how they should lead each other by sounds through the space. In the toilet room, the girl with glasses is singing out loud.
Finally, they do not have to react anymore on each other’s voice but on music. How does your body respond to the sounds coming from the speakers, Joke explains. It dances, one says in a cheeky way. A great assignment to look at. One time they are allowed to use the whole body, then only the head, or their mouth and tongue, or just the fingers. Then with one arm that pulls them in the space. Then two arms that start dialoguing with the other arms they come across. Then they have to follow one person from the group. Fabrizio Cassol’s music is indicating the rhythm. It is still bloody hot, but I would love to join them.
In science, human knowledge follows the steps of an endless stairway: old insights are replaced by new ones on the basis of discoveries. An artistic insight, however, stands over and over again by itself as a different and unique image of the world, as a hieroglyph of absolute truth. It presents itself as a revelation, a briefly inflaming, yet passionate longing for an intuitive insight in all the world’s laws of nature: its beauty and its ugliness, its compassion and cruelty, its infinity and boundaries (Andrei Tarkovski)
5 July, Nicolas Vladyslav, Ido Batash § Bérengère Bodin
I know in advance that this is bad plan: I want to visit 4 workshops in a single day.
When I arrive in the Antiekzolder, Nicolas has just given an assignment. I don’t know what it is and I start looking without having a clue. One after the other, the dancers cross the floor, turning around their axis, twisted by the chest or shoulder, pulled from the diaphragm. Most of them have the eyes closed. I have hardly entered this place and I am already elsewhere. It’s strange actually. The dancers seemed locked in themselves, they are on a highly personal quest to which I cannot really relate and yet, it is doing something to me. It is probably because of John Zorn’s music, in combination with the never ending procession of dancers crossing the floor. It makes me think of a ritual.
Again, I have to think about Eric De Volder and his ‘Dans met de schaduw van het onbewuste’ (Dance with the shadow of the subconscious). Every improvisation session in Toneelgroep Ceremonia started with this dance. “Just as the sun shedding a shadow before you, your subconscious has his own shadow. Find it and dance with it.” The thing the dancers do here is technically completely different, but the focus – the descending in oneself- feels completely the same.
Time for a new assignment. Guided by their own breathing, the dancers have to go up and down. No music this time. It seems a lot more difficult. It becomes very technical and sometimes a bit boring. I feel restrained by my lack of dancing knowledge. I have no idea how I should look at this. Until one dancer makes himself very big, reaching high. Then he collapses. He stands up again, stretches his arms again. The exercise becomes poetry.
Eric De Volder: “As far as I am concerned, it has to do with beauty, and with authenticity. I can have no judgment on the final result. I am totally fascinated about what I see happening in front of me, by the intense focus of the performers. It is like looking at the sunset and wondering why it is so beautiful. You watch the sun go down and until the very last fraction of a second you would give anything to keep it above the horizon. At that particular moment, you can look at the sun without being blinded and you realize that you get to see something that stays hidden otherwise. This is what happens when a performer dances with the shadow of his subconscious.”
After an hour I apoligize to Nicolas for having to sneak out and hurry to the Domzaal. There as well I barge in in the middle of something. The tribune is folded, the floor is full of green and pink blankets on which people have been lying apparently, dramatic music is coming from the speakers. Thirteen people are standing and moving through the space, they roar, laugh, shout, … One girl is sitting crying against the wall, some men run flapping through the space, someone looks in agony. Is this hell, a nut house, a jungle? I feel a bit of an intruder and look for a place on the side.
The atmosphere is heavy and loaded. Yet all of a sudden I see a glimpse of a smile on a woman’s face responding to her counterpart’s action. I am not sure if she’s falling out of her role but it makes it more bearable to look at: it is dead serious and at the same time it is a game. “Get ready for a war”, Ido Batash shouts from the floor. One dancer with big earrings gives me a dangerous gaze.
The action quiets down. Alan Watts’ speech Trust is coming from the speakers. The players look at each other and prepare for the fight. There is a scent of madness in the air. The atmosphere is so dense that I really start to fear that I will be involved in the battle.
Twenty minutes later, the assignment comes to an end, the spell is broken. But then, the hardest part is yet to come. Ido wants everyone to tell in turn what he or she has done during the session, in a way a child would say it. “Like painting the story, but put it in language.” It is a struggle: with language, with oneself. People block. Tears are shed, and some drama as well.
Their impro session touched – I think, because I only saw a small part- the boundaries of the language, of the conceivable. The unsayable as something that transcends words and imagination. Suppressed memories. A glimpse of inferno.
All players introduce themselves to me. I thank them for letting me be part of this. Then I leave into the light of day. To Nieuwpoorttheater.
Bérengère Bodin and her group are paid a visit by Jakob Ampe. He is there to help her with an assignment that she has already given to her players-dancers: transform into someone that you do not want to be. Jakob will teach them some techniques to manipulate and transform their voices for this.
First they have to talk in a very monotonous way. It reminds me of Dory from Finding Nemo when she speaks “whale”. Then it becomes more mechanic, three tones higher. Jakob explains how they can close up their vocal cords in order to produce a high sound. Everybody starts working on their character’s sentence. Quite soon, not a word can be distinguished anymore, only tonality. Some are very good at finding irritating voices.
Per six, they show the transformation of their character, with voice. One girl puts on her clothes inside out. Apart from character or theatricality, they all look for their own register, colour. As they have to speak in such a high tone, sound is sometimes completely gone. It feels like a primal stage, the beginning of speech. Unconnected sounds, incomprehensible. The high sounds make the silence even more tangible. It is like the voices are cutting through it, like scratches on a blank sheet of paper.
In a final assignment, they are looking for an ‘uneducated voice’. For uncontrolled, uncensored sounds. Jakob gives technical hints for crying. They have to shift from crying to ecstasy. I should have left already, to Lisi’s workshop but I do not want to miss the end of it. Again I am most struck by what happens in the margin. At the side of the stage, a woman starts laughing stone cold and out loud. It is not theatre, it is music. The end of the exercise is magnificent: there is absolute silence, somebody sighs deeply, I did not see who.
I think that the more people are withdrawn into themselves during an assignment, the more I like to look at them. I did at Nicolas’, Ido’s and also here. It may sound like a paradox but reservation feels more generous than sheer expressiveness. It appeals more to my imagination when someone retrieves in his world than when he wants to communicate everything. As if you have to travel in your head to find the unspeakable.
On my bike on my way home I try to close up my vocal cords.
In everything we do, think or feel, we would sometimes like to go over the edge. There is a longing inside us that makes us want to trespass old boundaries. Within these boundaries we have our gaze on the perfect, the impossible, the unattainable. In the counterplay of the impossible and the possible, we broaden our possibilities. That’s what art and literature can inspire us to do. It all comes down to this stress ratio, which makes us grow: we focus on a goal and yet, when we get closer, it’s already gone. (Ingeborg Bachmann)
6 July, Lisi Estaras
There’s a wheelchair in the S3 entrance. Inside the studio, a group improvisation is going on. Lisi is giving clues. Each of the fifteen dancers should create an island for him/herself in the space. “Open your eyes” Lisi says. “Don’t withdraw inside yourself.” So far so good for my conclusions from yesterday. The players should work in couples, without touching each other and without getting into a conversation.
I wonder to whom the wheel chair belongs. Everyone seems mobile, although I see support stockings, bad feet, cramped wrists, shocking shoulders, rocking bodies,... A girl with Down syndrome lays her leg in her neck.
“Relax your face, relax the interpretation of what you’re doing, you’re not playing a situation, it’s your body doing things.” And more: “Take your look away from the action, look out.” I have not the slightest idea where this ‘proximity without touching’ assignment is going to. “Look out, don’t concentrate on what you’re doing. There’s no intention in it.” And then there is me who loves this concentration so badly. I don’t get it. What is this then? Is it movement for to sake of moving? Yet, what I see happening, is pretty exciting. The range of movements is immense. I see jumping, crawling, bending down, playing with feet,...
Another assignment comes up. Facial expressions are allowed but they should be ‘dehumanized’. They should not tell a story, bear any judgment, make something clear. “Get away from the idea of telling a story. You’re not happy, you’re not sad, you don’t know these emotions.” (“My God, I sound esoteric”, Lisi whispers in my ear.) The expression from the face should come from the body. “Find your talking body.” I am starting to see the picture.
For more than an hour, they had to peel off every physical and motoric feature, strip meaning to the ground. And now that they have done this, things can be added. The awareness of the space, the sounds, the others. They have to insert moments of silence in order to lash out harder afterwards. Sound is allowed. One woman starts shouting out loudly. Enough. Lisi makes her stop on the spot. This exercise is far from what I know. These characters on scene are no mental cases, animals, nuts, archetypes; no ritual is taking place. “ You’re not depressed. Ce n’est pas une situation. Ca ne raconte rien.” This is a quest to the unknown, to a never spoken language, to what’s beyond the visible. The links are not narrative, but above all poetic.
Lisi puts on loud music, things get wilder and bolder. Facial expressions are detached from the actions and may be readable but certainly not definable. To finish the exercise, the group has to find common actions. Hands are being shaken, a long queue is being formed. A beautiful image.
“Suddenly the face disappeared, and the mirror that had lost its reason of existence, still reflected the bald white wall in front of him. A page of glass and a page of stone, communicating, lonely and accomplice.” Out of longing for what has not been said yet, so says the French poet Edmond Jabès, you have to leave behind your reflection in the mirror and hush your voice. It is only then that you can start to speak, in a new language.
I say goodbye to Lisi and the players. In the entrance, the wheelchair is still there and I still do not know whose it is.
In his essay Hodgkin: Words for H.H., Julian Barnes tries to describe what the paintings made by his friend Howard Hodgkin mean to him: “These paintings speak to my eye, my heart and my mind – but not to that part of my mind which articulates. Mostly, I address them in that ideal Braquean silence. They resist words – at least, words which can convey what happens inside me when I look at them. I do not think this matters, except socially. All that matters is what happens, happens; and repeats itself, and asks to be repeated again and again, down the years.
So that’s enough words.”
10 July 2018