Beckett's bodiless theatre

I’ve gotten into a bit of a routine when it comes to the Dublin Fringe Festival: I always start by going to one play—in this case, the Rep Experiment’s woeful rendition of what was already Chekhov’s worst play, Platanov—hating it and sticking to dance shows for the rest of the fortnight. The growing predictability of my disappointment with Irish theatre has not lessened it, and while I could identify many problems with our treatment of this art which has been, to some people at some times, the flagship of our culture—the one worth mentioning above all (next to, though interconected with, the glaring and relentless safe-ness of most of our output) is this: the remarkable lack of engagement with the physical.

Part of this seems to be the legacy of perhaps our most singular playwright, Samuel Beckett, who’s stripping back of movement and emphasis on the word and the monologue prefigured the work of most of our more recent acclaimed playwrights (Brian Friel, Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, Mark O’Rowe, etc)—some of whose work is undeniably brilliant within that context. Still, Beckett’s minimalist style developed out of an extremely personal existential vision, and his progressive restriction of the spatial and the physical in his work seems to be more a way of opening up theatre to a different kind of contemplative space rather than an overt repression of the physical. (Certainly the double act of Didi and Gogo, and Film (1965), Beckett’s Buster Keaton movie, wouldn’t fit into that thesis, and even in the later, ultra-minimalist works like Rockabythere is, despite the almost death-like stillness, a very corporeal sense of decay.) However, when this style of theatre becomes a tradition, becomes in effect the status quo, the expressive limitations can be stifling.

In a world that is increasing de-physicalised, virtualised and mediated through images, we need art that connects to the body, takes place in the body and puts us, as viewers, back in our bodies. Theatre—essentially an art of bodies—is a fine place to do this, but it’s an engagement which Irish narrative theatre is largely missing, and, I think in its own timid and confused way, blindly seeking. I wonder if the bizarre spate of recent theatre adaptations of Danish films is something to do with this. Since Polish company’s Tr Warszawa’s version of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen played here in the 2004 Dublin Theatre Festival, we’ve had our own Festen adaption at the Gate, and in the DTF just past, Pan Pan Theatre’s adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots. Both films (from a film movement whose manifesto was all about allowing a more direct and intimate experience of reality) see an uptight, repressed and in-denial society subverted by a confrontation with the physical: in Festen, by a performative revelation of truths which violates the social rules of a dinner party; in The Idiots, by performances of “spazzing” which violate every social rule imaginable. In each case the rules broken are ones that delineate the physical: when it’s OK to touch, to be sensual, to be intimate.

Anyway… all of this is by way of longwinded preamble to say thank God for Irish dance theatre, a scene which is steadily emerging as the antitode to everything I’ve lamented above. The range of Irish artists working in dance—Rex Levitates, Coiscéim, Daghda and Irish Modern Dance Theatre being the four key names to watch—may not quite match the greatest work being done in dance internationally, but they’re diverse, passionate, daring (and, of course, physical) in a way Irish theatre almost never is.



The series of dance triple bills that ran throughout the two-week festival were an inevitably mixed bag, but the chance to see three short works back to back was a wonderful opportunity to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t in different styles of dance theatre.

Dance Triple Bill 1, taking place in the Project Arts Centre, sandwiched one of the worst pieces of live dance I’ve ever seen between two very strong, but very text-based works. Catherine Young’s Commingle mixed traditional African and Irish rhythms and movements into a pretty mindless celebration of multiculturalism that was both intellectually and formally slack. The fact that the entire dance troupe never stopped grinning from ear to ear didn’t help either. Catastrophe Communication Combinatoria, a collaboration between Caroline Hainaut and the performer, Palle Dyrvall, was essentially a very dense, and sometimes funny, lecture accompanied by a rapid choreography that mirrored and informed the text on an almost word by word basis. The ideas (dealing with, for example, how various forms of delocation and marginalisation—whether geographic, historical or imaginative— serve to limit human agency)—were fascinating, but were never really allowed to fully play out in the actor’s body as anything more than a shadow of the words spoken. Hanging In There, Nick Bryson and Damian Punch explored an itinerary of choreographic possibilites while simultaneously describing them in the language and vocabulary of the Good Friday Agreement. Here the problem with the text is the joke, and rather than the movement being a poor shadow of the words, the words are a poor, and at times completely surreal, reflection of the movement.

Dance Triple Bill 2, also in the Project, was another weird sandwich experience: an excellent foreign piece between two ultimately unsuccessful (and again wordy) Irish pieces. Shakram Dance Theatre’s The Anima and the Animus, choreographed by Mairead Vaughan, had some strong dynamic phrases and three excellent dancers, but didn’t really hold together in its duration, and the technique of having the dancers chat informally while dancing, while an interesting and humanising complication of our usual relationship with dancers on stage, didn’t help it in terms of cohesion. Coiscéim, testing out a new work-in-progress to fill in for another show that got cancelled, gave us Kissing, an airy, funny piece drawing on the dancers’ personal experiences of kissing. Coiscéim are at the cutting edge (if that term isn’t a misnomer in this context) of using contemporary dance in an engagingly populist way: their brilliance is their ability to connect the Irish theatrical tradition of the storyteller and the monologuist with an explicit and intertwined physicality that is also carefully rooted in the vernacular, often using distilled or stylised versions of everyday movement. This was the undeniable strength of their previous show, Knots, which is being revived later this year, and dealt with modern relationships in both psychological and bodily (and at times assaultive) terms. My uneasiness with their project is that while this sounds very good and progressive, poetry and complexity tend to get a little short-circuited in the process—as was awfully clear in Kissing, which, lacking the hard formal and analytic edge of KNOTS, ended up as harmless and lightweight as one of those Channel 4 documentaries on similar subjects, and with a style no less easily digestible.

Canadian company Tiger Princess Dance Project presented a brilliantly crafted mix of elegance and gracelessness to the tune of three Bach pieces in Stone Velvet, choreographed by Tedd Robinson. There was an intricacy and level of actual thinking through dance (rather than words) here that marked it out from everything else in the triple bills. The proliferation of speech in most of the pieces seems to indicate a certain dissatisfaction with pure dance: the talky pieces of the first Dance Triple Bill used words in order to politicise movement (albeit satirically, in Bryson and Punch’s piece); Coisceim and Shakram in the second programme used them to humanise it. In both cases the implication was that the choreography of physical movements by itself is not enough, is not capable of engaging sufficiently in the things that matter to us. Such reliance on words does lead to a greater structural rigour; in the case of Young’s piece, for example, it certainly would have helped tighten her floppy ideals. But Young’s piece was flimsy physically and formally as well as conceptually, and Robinson illustrates that meaning and precision can exist quite spectacularly and in purely non-intellectual terms, if we’re equipped to look for it.

All of this links in nicely with the final, longest dance show I caught at the festival: Incarnat (pictured above), choreographed by Lia Rodriques with her Brazil-based company. While Rodrigues claims the origins of Incarnat were literary (Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others was allegedly the primary influence), its performance is obsessively focused on phenomenon originating in the body. After a spare but dazzling introduction (in which the group of eight dancers, four men and four women, circle the stage and each other, negotiating the space in shifting, ritualistic patterns), the bulk of the show consisted of various minimalist sketches, usually only involving between one and three of the dancers (usually nude), each exploring different physical manifestations of pain, violence and desire: a man slowly contorting his face into various extremes of anguish until he begins to seem almost deformed; a woman screaming at the top of her lungs; two men tearing clothes off a bloodied, unconscious woman with their teeth. Blood (liberally simulated with ketchup), and, at one untypically tender and crucial moment, milk, were the only props employed throughout.

IMDT choreographer John Scott told me someone wrote a paper recently contrasting Incarnat with his work Close Ups (which premiered at the Dance Festival last year). It’s a comparison which is instructive. Scott’s piece, performed by a mix of professional dancers and African refugees, is full of paroxysms of rage, hysteria and pain: a man asserting “I don’t want to die yet” before desperately choking to death, or the collective body of dancers laughing between a dance phrase, then mime-vomiting after the next one. The defining differences between Scott’s and Rodrigues’ approaches are 1) that Scott’s physical extremes are part of an overwhelming, uncontainable and excessive whole (Close Ups is site-specific, taking place in a building rather than a theatre and with dancers interspersed amongst the audience so that one’s gaze is always dispersed and participatory) while Rodrigues’ are pared back and utterly focused (just one or two dancers, well lit, in the centre of a black stage), and 2) although the expressions in both works are removed from any traditional narrative context, there is a stronger sense of an implicit root and source to the pain in Scott (a sense related both to a knowledge of the dancers’ history—most of the refugees performing are torture survivors—and also the immediate, in-your-face and off-the-cuff nature of the performance’s context, abandoning the traditional spectator-performer paradigm). In Rodrigues, on the other hand (and this is one of the show’s most interesting qualities) the expressions feel completely removed not only from any causal context but from the actual experience of those sensations themselves—a schism perfectly epitomised by the pervasive smell of ketchup that gradually emerges as the show progresses.

The at times horrific, at times beautiful, tableaus of death and injury depicted (frequently alluding to those of Goya), for all their efficacy are nevertheless always, obviously, just tomato—just as we know the naked woman moaning slowly again and again at the front of the stage, is just moaning, just making the sounds that have been choreographed, even though for us they inescapably conjure powerful (and in a public, theatrical context, uncomfortable) notions and emotions of sexual pleasure. What we witness on the stage is merely the shell, the external signs, of bodily experiences whose only internal actualisation is (potentially) in our reaction to it.

Rodrigues treats the theatre, and the theatrical body, as a laboratory, not for exploring the extremes of physical experience, but for exploring the signs and effects generated by that experience, and the impact that has on the spectator. This notional/emotional provocation, and the confrontation with and reflection on our own reactions that the show’s gradual and unwaveringly measured pace encourages, is the biggest and most touching dividend of a style that otherwise seems defined by a systematic detachment (from context, from narrative, from history, from personality…). The simplicity and, in a way, hollowness of the performance forces us towards a recognition of our own complex relationship with it; of the mixture of engagement, detachment, empathy and prejudice with which we interact with it (a relationship which, from what I’ve heard, is the kernel of Sontag’s book). Like Dejan Garbos’s Reality Show, the very presentation of a naked body on stage is utilised here as inevitably and immensely complex; never really “naked” but layered in the histories and ideologies of our lives and our societies.

The weakness to this entire plan is that some of these provocative set-ups, and their implications, are just too easy: too easy to set up and too easy to imply. I still can’t decide whether certain elements—like the moment where two of the men, at the climax of a primal, ape-like show of rage, storm out of the theatre’s fire exits and onto the streets, howling all the way—are thrilling subversive expansions of theatrical possibility or just cheap thrills. Nonetheless, the faith of Rodrigues and her company in theatre’s power as an art (and laboratory) of the body, of its signs, affects and our relationship to it both personally and as spectators, was wonderfully refreshing—and the fact that it took place in the Samuel Beckett Theatre couldn’t have been more appropriate.


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