PuSh Blog

Spotlight on ‘The Body’: International Theatre Journalism Exchange Program

September 03, 2010

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is part of an international theatre journalism exchange. He and two European journalists, Carmen Van Cauwenbergh (Belgium) and Alexander Schnackenburg (Germany) are investigating the PuShFestival (Canada),PAZZ(Germany), and Het Theatrefestival (Belgium). Articles by the three writers are appearing in a number of publications including Urban Mag (Belgium), Realtime Arts(Australia), Plank Magazine (Vancouver), and a new website dedicated to the project called Performulations (Germany).

31 August 2010

Het Theaterfestival, Antwerp, Belgium

Joyful adventures in not understanding

Part two: Bakchai

by Alex Lazaridis Ferguson

Photo Jan Decorte: Danny Willems

I happened to pick up a booklet about the work of French choreographer Jerome Bel. Bel is famous for rejecting formalism and refusing to put anything that looks like a trained dance move on stage. He uses bodies and they do move on stage, but he’s less interested in dance for its own sake than he is in bodies as cultural products. Gerald Siegmund, one of the booklet’s authors, states, “The body as such does not exist. All we know about it is determined by signs or signifying social and scientific practices such as the world of fashion, astrology or history, which in turn create that which we call a body.” I find this statement irritating. It’s an example of the excesses of three decades of scriptocentric, semiotics-based performance scholarship. Because scholars spend so much time staring at abstract signs (letters and words on a page), they can easily start thinking everything is an abstract representation of something else. Everything is a “text.” THE BODY is a blank sheet written on by culture and history. But here’s a hypothetical suggestion: if I take part of my body — my arm for instance — wrap it around Siegmund’s neck and squeeze, he will cease to read my body as a symbol and understand, in a pressing way, its irrefutable, un-readable materiality. Things like scent, weight, fear, and survival will take over as urgently felt, non-textual forces to be resisted bodily.

It can be useful to think about a body, in performance or otherwise, as site of cultural inscription. Artists use recognizable codes as short hand. If you want to quickly communicate that an actor is playing the part of a corporate executive, an expensive-looking suit and a personal assistant that takes calls for him might do the trick. But many theatre artists insist on the unreadable material presence of the performer—they foreground the body, or even inanimate objects, in such a way that the spectator is invited to confront a body as a thing-in-itself. Meaning isn’t about assigning names to things or experiences. It’s about how your body engages with its environment. Cognitive neuroscience shows that individuals mirror the actions of other people neuromuscularly. Even when sitting in a seat watching a performance you are physically mimicking what you see. This mimicking won’t be apparent (unless you’ve lost the ability to suppress involuntary action), but it will be occurring on a neuromuscular level. Reason and emotion are inseparable from somatic encounter. How you feel about an encounter — in your body — is meaning. So much for the idea of the theatre spectator as a reader of texts.

In Bakchai, creator Jan Decorte (De Roovers/Kaaitheater, Belgium) stretches the tension between the readable and unreadable to the breaking point. His coup de theatre, so to speak, is casting Benny Claessens as the god Dionysus. We’re first introduced to Claessens as a leg. The leg, pasty-white and clearly belonging to an obese individual, sticks out from behind a couple of rough pieces of plywood tacked up at center stage. For the longest time the leg protrudes, unmoving. Downstage three other performers, including Decorte, play the main characters from Euripides’ ancient tragedy. In classical Greek fashion they stand and deliver long monologues (in what is apparently an invented, child-like, Flemish dialect). The Flemish-speaking audience gets the jokes. I can’t stop wondering about the leg. It’s so large. It seems to belong to a giant waiting to emerge from behind the plywood wall and devastate the Apollonian orthodoxy of Queen Pentheus of Thebes (Decorte has cast a woman in the role of King Pentheus), a queen that wants to banish the female-centered ecstatic cult devoted to the god from the east.

Eventually he emerges — obese, naked, and with hair dyed gold. He looks like a massive cherub. At first he has his back to us. Across his shoulder blades is written, in gothic characters, the word “body.” Yup, the textual signifier “body” is pointing out the thing it signifies, but by nature of being attached to the thing it signifies it can’t be separated from it. The body represents itself; so it doesn’t really represent at all, it just is itself. Signifier and sign collapse into one. Of course, Decorte didn’t have to spell it out for us. There’s no denying the body-ness of Claessens’ body.

Claessens is a brilliant choice for the god Dionysus. From the ancient Greek perspective, Dionysus comes from the exotic “orient,” from decadent Asia. The sheer mass of the actor makes the point: there’s too much of him, how did he get to be so big? Surely this is a product of the excess of the East. But the actor isn’t “Asian.” He’s about as white as they come. So again the signifier-sign relationship is destabilized, and we’re left with the bare (very bare in this case) material presence of Claessens. Transforming the eastern “darkie” into a western “whitie” highlights the hypocrisy of the western view (ancient or modern) of the Asian as “other” and uncivilized. But these cultural symbols lose their relevance in the continuing encounter between the spectators and the overpowering presence of Claessens.

It’s not just his size and nakedness; Claessens is a singularly charismatic performer. He’s the ultimate tease. He makes a show of being embarrassed by his nudity but playfully manipulates our voyeuristic impulses; he adopts a subordinate role but works it so expertly there’s no doubt about who’s in control of the encounter. Claessens may represent the character Dionysus, the exotic east or the decadent west, the otherness of an obese individual in a culture obsessed with being skinny, or he might be the ultimate child-god in a universe that defies adult rationality. It seems Decorte’s use of Euripides’ play was just an excuse to create a child-like game in which the life-and-death passions of the non-Dionysian characters are made to look ridiculously adult. What’s Pentheus got up her bum? Why can’t everyone just relax and get some perspective? Have drink, dance. But somehow these considerations are too reductive. Claessens is having fun. We’re having fun watching him do his thing.

Two days after the performance it’s his presence that stays with me. It takes up a lot of space in my imagination. I don’t know what it means. Oh and did I fail to mention the giraffe in the room? There was a life-size replica of one on stage. Or half of one, propped up on a giant easel. The actors didn’t mention it either.