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Forgetting to breathe

February 17, 2013

Sometimes when I train people they say they would like, one day to work with DUENDE. It’s a huge compliment to me, though I have to point out that I have no money, no funding, few outlets for my work and see little chance of that changing…. However, I take it as a deep compliment. Often they ask what I look for in performers. That’s a tough question. There are many really excellent performers who I really would love to work with, who I would love to direct or choreograph, who I would leap at the chance to collaborate with…. but they are not DUENDE performers. For with DUENDE I am looking for something both precise and indescribable.

ImageSome of what I am looking for can be put into words – an ability to organise the body in detail, skill at integrating body and voice, clarity and discipline of movement, a relaxed and anti-judgmental approach to collaboration, a willingness to take responsibility for ones own work, high-level improvisatory skills so that even if working within text or choreography the performer can adjust her performance to the micro-shifts of liveness. I like a breadth of knowledge so that performers can bring a cultural richness to their work. I abhor racism and any prejudice that denies the glorious uniqueness of each individual – a uniqueness which is the foundation of each artistic self, so though I welcome political pluralism, DUENDE has a (broadly) shared ethical perspective. I admire people who are confidently humble in their relationship to art. What we make is our focus, not what people think of us while we make it. I like egos – but I really like egos that put themselves at the service of art.

All these things are namable. But there is something else. I am looking for something else. I am looking for that moment, that special split-second where, watching a performer, I sit bolt upright in my chair, or I forget to breathe, or I find my entire body, though I am only watching, changed by the moment of live performance unfolding in front of me.

I am looking for the performer who can change time and space, who can deny gravity and challenge mortality. I am looking for the moment when I forget to breathe. I am looking for a performer who, by being utterly alive, can remind me that I too am utterly alive.

These thoughts are strong for me after watching a show last night. It was a piece by ‘Imitating the Dog’ – a British company which integrated live video-feed, cinematic musical scoring, live action. It was complex and sophisticated in conception and execution. The artists involved knew what they were trying to achieve and had the skills and resources to deliver it. Undoubtedly, playing to a full house in a mainstream theatre, it was artistically and commercially a success.

It left me entirely cold. Not so much unengaged as simply bored. And then I found myself being amazed at my own boredom. So much happening in front of me! Such sophisticated technological interplay! Such rich ideas! Such concepts…. Yet I sat, quite unengaged. It was not unpleasant. Simply I experienced an absence and, later, driving home, I wondered why.

I should stress, as I often do in this blog, I am not denigrating the work of these artists nor the tastes of the considerable number of people who like their work. I respect both them and their audience. One of the things I most dislike in the co-opting of art into the capitalist marketplace is how we are expected to compete – for grants, for bookings, for audiences, for media-space. Too often that competition is based on denigrating the work of others. I do not denigrate their work. It is excellent, but it gives me nothing.

Why is this? Image

In the programme for the show, the company spoke of wanting to integrate modern technology with the ‘rickety’ art of theatre. I don’t think theatre is ‘rickety’, or old-fashioned, or somehow outdated. History is littered with those who declare that ‘modernity’ has made the wisdoms of the past obsolete and the behaviours of previous generations strangely antiquated. Famously the head of the US patent office a hundred years ago said that there was nothing new to discover. Fukuyama published a book which trumpeted the ‘End of History’. Western enlightenment seemed to be based on the idea that discovery of the power of rational thought meant that all the experiences of previous generations (experiences of the body and often curated as ‘women’s wisdom’), were no longer to be offered any respect…

I think there is a similar, slightly laughable and arrogant attitude today towards technology. Has the internet changed things so much that the liveness of performance – at the heart of human experience for thousands of years – is no longer to be fully trusted? Have we, as a species, really changed so much, in such a short time? Of course theatre must – and will – react to and integrate with new technologies, just as it did with electricity, recorded music, realistic set design, the birth of cinema etc. etc. etc. But live performance has not become outdated and ‘rickety’,  somehow needing to ‘catch up’ with the modern world.

Live performance – the presence of the artist and the observer in shared space and shared time to create shared experience – is as modern as it is ancient, and its heart is not the encountering of rich ideas, but the experiencing, in the body, of that sharing of time and space. Ideas are part of that. Concepts are part of that. New and extraordinary technologies are part of that. But the heart of live performance is what the audience experiences in their body by being in the presence of the artist’s body. Without that sharing of experience the ‘performance event’ can just as easily be communicated through some other form – just as last night the piece I watched – I felt – would have worked as interestingly as a science-fiction short story.

The performance last night did not offer me anything because it denied me relationship with the bodies of the performers. Their performances were disembodied, framed, conceptualised. They were distanced from me and that distance was too great for relationship.

No, I don’t think live performance is obsolete or rickety, but I think sometimes it has lost its confidence. We do not always (ever?) trust that the physical experience of being in an audience is enough – we feel there must be something ‘cleverer’ happening. Audiences, far too often, fear ‘not understanding’ and wonder ‘what something meant’ rather than reflecting on what they experienced as they watched it. Too often art is funded (or studied at university) on the basis of its intellectual and conceptual justification (what’s the idea of this work??), rather than on the basis of the live experience it offers.

I understand this. Ideas emerge from the rational mind and so can be communicated through the rational system of language. The experience of being in the presence of a work of art – this visceral experience – is not so easy to capture and so perhaps is not so easy to give value to.

There is one word I know for what I seek – it is a word used in flamenco and other art forms to describe the moment where the extraordinary happens, where the hairs on the neck stand up. It is the word ‘duende’.

And that is ultimately what I am looking for in a performer – as a trainer, director, collaborator and an audience member. It is the live moment – the moment when I sit bolt upright in my chair and I forget to breathe.

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