Taking Things Apart

I had the unique opportunity yesterday to be in the audience for a filming of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's acclaimed Moulin Rouge, choreographed by Jordan Morris. The project will be  broadcast to cineplex theatres around the world, and is a really monumental occasion for the nearly 75 year old company, home to many brilliant dancers.

What was really exciting for me was the process; having trained in dance myself, I am most engaged with the work of the dancer, and the effort made to make it appear effortless. Due to filming, the ballet was shot out of sequence (as it is easier to situate cameras and costumes for filming this way) which had an unusual effect. What it brought out was a reminder of the work that goes into performing a ballet of this magnitude. Occasionally while waiting for technical setup, the dancers would wait on stage, stretching or reviewing their choreography - things that always happen, but typically are hidden from the audience to maintain the illusion of perfection. As well, the movement of sets and testing of lights throughout was unintentionally performative, and highly engaging.

It was just as much an experience of dance performance as it was an experience of the structure and production of dance performance - something ballet of all modern art forms has the tendency to hide. The result was the most Brechtian dance performance you could imagine. Verfremmdungseffekt is generally the antithesis of classical ballet - whose very aim is to transport you along with the story - however in this instance the distancing, the objective observation of the behaviour, was truly possible. A moment when Zeigler pulls a pistol on the young lovers, then proceeds with a dance of seductive pas de deux with Natalie, gun still in hand, was haunting in a way it couldn't have been had we been caught up in her story. As well, the masochism of ballet rang loud and clear (perhaps ironically for a company which recently dismissed a student for appearance in a porn) with the fact that the goal of all female characters was valuation and redemption in the eyes of a male character.

I'm very excited to see the piece "Put together" as it were, in the intended order, as it will be a very different experience of the ballet.

East - Steven Berkoff

I am simultaneously in love with, and completely disgusted by this play. In the best way possible. Berkoff shows us life in London's East End with no apology; his characters interact in a series of scenes which morph in and out of one another expressionistically, while what is contained in each is strikingly "real". Somehow he leads us to find these people charming, and then just as we are lulled into feeling some sort of empathy, he does an about face and causes us to be completely distanced, alienated, and disgusted...not only at the characters, but at ourselves for beginning to empathize with them.

The structure is seamless, and the language morphs in and out of modern text, Shakespearean parody, and expressionistic monologue.

It feels like Berkoff inherently understood the essence of what Brecht, Bond, Artaud and others wanted to do, taking it to new heights by managing to alienate us within a construct of what we are led to believe is realism. The graphic descriptions of violent sexual acts is far more shocking than Bond's aloof characters.

Berkoff is brilliant.

How much is too much?

Late post, but I wanted to summarize Scene Study on Wednesday night. We spent time on Brecht's He Said Yes/He Said No, looking at it as a potential response to/restructuring of the classical Aristotelian idea of tragedy. We were looking at it mostly in reference to Aristotle, but it is extremely important to understand the more relevant response in Brecht; he, through the ideas of Marx about society, is revising Hegel more so than he is revising Aristotle alone. It has been said that Marx took Hegel's ideas and turned them upside down and backward, but he does this while sticking within the form of the Hegelian argument. Brecht does this too, and does so within the familiar form, but with blurred edges to remind us that this is a play and is not life.

We then moved in to talking about Augusto Boal's work with the Theatre of the Oppressed and Invisible Theatre. I find Theatre of the Oppressed/Forum theatre to be fascinating, in its ability to give voice to people who have not traditionally had one. I think this is a vehicle that can work not only for audiences, but for liberating characters who have been voiceless....the Lavinias, the Miss Julies, The Hedda Gablers.

Looking at Boal's invisible theatre, we read an account of a play he staged in the Paris Metro about sexual harrassment. While I find this idea of shocking audience members, showing them their own prejudices very useful, but only if there is a chance for them to opt in. I question the efficacy of the message when the audience doesn't know they are an audience. Without the "rules" of attending theatre and knowing one must "pay attention" to the signs and symbols, this could just be another odd day on the subway. Not only that, but given the travelling nature of the piece, with "audience" getting on and off the metro throughout, what of the message given to those who only saw one part, and not the contrast? They have just been exposed to another example of harrassment...but with no signifier that this is not simply commonplace.

Finally, we debated The Audience by Tim Crouch, with one side of the group arguing for Steiner's argument that Tragedy isn't possible in our godless world, while the other side arguing that Crouch's play is Tragedy evolving itself for our current times. This got me thinking about what the actual tragedy is in this play; is the tragedy our de-sensitization? Is it the permeation of one encounter with violence into the greater society? Is it that the audience is a metaphor for humanity, sitting idly by while atrocities are described to them? Is it the act with the baby? I don't know that I can answer that...or maybe it is that the tragedy is all those things. What is certainly true is that unlike Renaissance or Greek tragedies, where there is a clear cut of what we are supposed to find horrific, these modern plays offer tragedy on a meta level, which is more difficult to identify outright.

Bertolt Brecht - He Said Yes/He Said No (Lehrstrucke)

We read this one in Scene Study at Birkbeck, discussing the structure, alternate endings, and impact of the two. This fable is structured like a Greek Tragedy, and with the original He Said Yes, Brecht shows us the result of blind faith in a tradition or law...a searing message give that he was writing for school children in 1930s Germany. The alternate ending, written after the school children expressed dislike for the ending, offers hope that we can overcome and fight back against these incoherent practices.

We discussed at length which has more impact on the audience, which will be more of a cause to action. I have to say that the second, for me, really does all the thinking for the audience, leaving them patting themselves on the back at how good humans can be in the face of incoherent laws. The first has an impact more in line with Greek Tragedy, despite turning it on its ear...pity and fear are evoked, but more importantly outrage at the world that would allow this to happen.

Bertolt Brecht - The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent (Lehrstrucke)

This play makes up part of Brecht's experimentation with making the audience part of the performance, to move them from spectator to auditor in a way we believe audiences of Greek Tragedy behaved. There were several texts/performances on this idea, all of which have open interpretation on repetition, removing pieces, etc.

This one in particular is rather interesting. It is structured like a Greek Tragedy, with the chorus talking to the "Tragic Hero" which here is a fallen pilot (or multiple fallen of the available interpretations). Here, though, the "crowd" is a character, who would have people placed throughout who know what is going on and lead the participation. The Crowd has conversations with characters, or repeats words almost in the style of a voice exercise to get at the meaning of the text.

Placed right in the centre of this is an almost slapstick comedy act with two clowns and Mr Smith, which feels like it is a mix of Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin. But unlike those, the tale of Mr Smith is quite clearly an allegory for man asking others to take care of his problems.

While parts of the text feel heavy handed in their style, I could see creative ways of bringing this to the stage.

image: Leonard Braskin - Bertolt Brecht

Adventures in the Park

Decided that today would be a good opportunity to take in another of this city's amazing parks. Since S has been itching to play with other kids, we decided upon Kensington, the home of the Diana Memorial Playground. This might well be the coolest playground I have ever seen; designed after Peter Pan's Neverland, the playground includes a giant wooden pirate ship (including ropes and masts!), a tipi village, a tree fort, and tropical looking trees and plants. Part of me wished it wasn't so busy so I could play too (without trampling a toddler here or there, that is).

Continued to walk around the park, took in the grounds of Kensington palace, and the flower walk. Also walked for a bit within the borough, and found a great sandwich shop. There isn't nearly enough food talk in this blog, so that was your tidbit.

All the while the massive amounts of reading continues. Some non-plays I have read on the course so far include Aristotle's poetics, Peter Brook's The Empty Stage, and Cecily Berry's The Actor and the Text.

Despite having read the Poetics countless times before, what really struck me this time was the hard emphasis on imitation. Perhaps it is because of distance from my last read, but this really struck a chord this time. As well, it made me really think of the basic tenets of Brecht and of the Absurdists, and even of physical theatre; representation is what we are doing, not living on stage. The play, actor and director cannot get caught up in what is real, for if they do they miss the opportunity to represent that which is universally true.

Brook's book was a great read, i found myself plowing right through it, and simultaneously wondering why I hadn't read it before. His harsh criticism of what he calls the Deadly Theatre is a reminder that so often it misses the mark, "as a whole, the theatre not only fails to elevate or instruct, it hardly even entertains" (pg 12). It really rang true with my feelings about so much theatre work that is created (and attended!) just for the sake of it, never really evaluating its goals or accomplishment to those goals. Brook's focus on the Berliner Ensemble's work in the middle part of the last century intrigues me; I am going to do some digging to look at reviews and accounts of performances from this time, and also from earlier Brook productions.

Berry's The Actor and the Text was a brilliant reminder of why I find voice work so important for actors. I came across some new exercises too, which I can't wait to try.

More reading....Othello for our Theorizing class, Hamlet for our Scene Study class....and some Ionesco for fun.

Bertolt Brecht - Antigone

I have felt a connection to the story of Antigone for some time. At her core, Antigone is a woman who does what she ought to and not what she is told by convention; her defiance of expectation to do what she thinks is right echoes through later heroines in theatre history. And she stays with this choice, even when offered the opportunity to declaim her actions and save her life.

Brecht's interpretation, translated by Judith Molina, is an interesting update of the story. Brecht focuses on the politics of the story; contrasting the Elders' blind faith in Kreon with Antigone's action to honour her brother. For me, this breezes over the important philosophical argument, to reach the political argument. Clearly this is influenced by Brecht's views on the role of theatre, and also the time he is writing for. But for me the more important piece of Antigone's development is that she will not renounce what she believes in, even if given the chance to live.

This has made me want to re-read the Sophoclean original....with some ideas.

image: Antigone by Albert Toft (1907)