ON THE PITFALLS OF CREATIVITY WITH
THEATER IM BAHNHOF AND PEEPING TOM
By Katherina Zakravsky
The game is a close companion of
dance and performance at least since Xavier Le Roy played his mysterious and
extended games in "E.X.T.E.N.S.I.O.N.S." in Hans Ulrich Obrist's groundbreaking
"Laboratorium" in Antwerp 1999. Playing games fit the appetite for structural
transparency and conceptual clarity. The game is the sibling of "conceptual
dance". This is our legacy of the nineties, both well established and a bit
contested by now.
As the piece "Project" (2003) is
proof of a certain proximity between performance and game but also a profound
contradiction. Games are for participants, not spectators. One has to know the
rules to follow the process. Usually, staying outside is not really fun. What
is more important though: games have the temporal structure of repetition and
variation. In "Project" the performers are playing one ball game. To watch it,
however, does not provide the fun one is used to when watching a game as it is
a set choreography. There is no tension about the unpredictable element of the
game. There is no insecurity about who is going to win.
So the common dominator could be the
art of improvisation. If performers improvise they can play a real game and
create a performance at the same time. Thus the performance is brought together
with the risky element of competition. By playing a game the performers
themselves become stakes in the performance game. When human interaction with
all its vague mixtures of flirt, competition and collaboration is blended with
the formal structures of the game, we are entering risky and very contemporary
territory. "Big Brother" and the ubiquitous media craze of "voting out" are right
around the corner.
All those elements and problems
could be observed in Helmut Köpping's workshop "Kreation Kollektiv". Köpping of
the "Theater im Bahnhof" in Graz, Austria, is obviously an experienced master
of playing games.
A Zen master of games
It is the second day, I am a little
late. First I'm watching without getting the rules. It feels a little bit like
watching Le Roy's games in 1999, playing football backwards, but also far more
mysterious games with people lifting arms and shouting "one" without me having
a clue what that means. It is just plainly obvious that one of the three men in
the large group takes body contact as an opportunity to hunt after some of the
women. A lot of giggling is to be heard. Köpping is standing at the side of the
dance floor, watching attentively like a referee. After a while he stops the
game and says: "You can find an organic end or destroy the game. After a while
it comes back."
He is a true Zen master of games.
When everyone suddenly lines up as if following a command he is not too happy.
He introduces another game that looks like a popular partner exercise to create
trust between two strangers. One has the eyes closed and turns as the other one
moves around him/her. Yet the idea is not so much to focus on this exercise but
to juxtapose it with the other game to let one game develop from the other.
Köpping gives the games names which he utters slowly and thoughtfully. And he
knows all the participants' names. He has seen enough of the "Focus Jump" game
and moves on to another one. The game does not need to reach a climax; it can
also be stopped by decision. And the little confusion between one game and
another game should be considered like a gift. The master is right: in the
periods of confusion the participant becomes a performer proper. Where there is
confusion there is conflict of thoughts, conflict of emotions – the classical
breeding ground of drama. So he speaks as a theatre pro when he says "Invest in
little confusions." What a shame that it hardly happened.
The danger of plastic
After a while Köpping proposes the
game "It is about …" Every participant occupies an area on the dance floor and
proclaims a topic or an idea for a potential evening. The game could resemble
the public manifestation of political speech but it turns out to look rather
like an exercise in marketing. Four groups compete with repeated shouting of
their titles and accompanying gestures. Well, the participants are young; still
it is a bit odd that when asked to represent any idea they like the outcome are
things like "meeting people with red underwear" or "the danger of plastic water
bottles". Once there is no predefined content there is an overwhelming tendency
towards the banal. Finally people propose the idea of "getting higher" and
climb on each others' shoulders in a funny display of fake acrobatics. Here we
see at least a metaphor at work.
Finally Köpping digs deeper into the
uncanny territory of a society competing for spectacles. Just like in a talent
show everyone has to present an act, be it singing, moving, talking or doing
nothing at all. The group watching the small solo is asked to raise arms as
soon as they have seen enough. Once half of the arms are up, the star of the
moment has to leave the stage. Needless to say, no one survived 15 minutes – hardly anyone. This is a very tricky game as the contemporary's attention span
is very short no matter what is being served to him. The sensation of change
will always be more attractive than any single act. The TV practice of zapping
has shaped an impatient sense of timing. But what does it mean to zap live
performers? Is it a simple exercise in contemporary cruelty and consumer's
In the beginning, when one male
participant proposed several animals and did not survive two, I thought so;
when another female participant tried a half-hearted strip singing some sleazy
music and was immediately voted out it was a small surprise. It soon became
obvious that anything too predictable could not survive. The winners were an act
of reciting classical prose combined with a quite professional falling sequence
that probably was an extract of a piece and a concentrated, slightly acrobatic
act with a chair. Professionalism still wins. Or, as another long survivor
proved, just standing there and doing nothing. But in an intense way.
A sobering lesson about
People took the tough competition
with good humour. And the calm matter-of-fact discussion afterwards took the
brutal edge off the game. Reflecting their criteria of voting out they noticed
hat predictability is the killer; also anyone who showed his/her eagerness for
recognition too clearly became unpopular. After all, we live in an age of the
commodity being staged like a capricious lady. So also a performer who does not
give a shit about the audience's attention is the bigger success. And they
admitted that once a lot of arms were up they just joined in the crowd,
following the herd. This teaches a sobering lesson about the relevance of
decision making through temporal majorities. And about the timid beginnings of
a potential lynch mob.
What do games deliver for the
creation of contemporary dance and performance pieces? They pave the common
ground for spectacle and competition. The workshop taught interesting lessons
between Zen-like performance wisdom and a contemporary instinct for marketing
and media. What it could not demonstrate on that day is the art of making
creation actually collective (and not competitive).
If any company working in Belgium is
calling people come. Belgium still is dance wonderland. Even a relatively fresh
company like "Peeping Tom" attracts a crowd of young attractive dancers of
every ethnicity. This time there are about as many boys as girls. There are
also a number of Asian dancers; Spanish and French can be heard, too.
Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier
are a couple and follow the workshop accompanied by their little daughter. It
is the last day. Already during the warm-up for the final improvisation,
Chartier starts to act as DJ – a role he will stick to for the rest of the
time. After a short statement to thank the dancers for the intense week – "we
received a lot" – he will only intervene to end a group impro of about two
hours. While everyone stretches and rolls around on the floor an aria is being
played in full blow.
No average pop or electro there.
Arias of Italian opera, piano and organ pieces, marimba jazz, a remix of a
famous African work song and soft Asian ambient form the sound carpet of the
gigantic group improvisation. While classical music fills the room a couple of
dancers start little solos absolutely not on the beat. A woman pulls up her
braid and starts walking in squares. It is funny how the pure pressure to
improvise without any rules or themes makes people behave like animals in a
zoo; they take refuge in stereotypical behaviour; one such stereotype in
contemporary dance being wild shaking; we will get to see a lot of hysteric
shaking while the room is filling up with spectators.
From an outcry of Modernity
to a motto of Postmodernity
Slowly people are getting their acts
together. A Spanish dancer with longer hair, obviously an alpha animal, shows a
nice little number on a chair he then puts behind a curtain to have his
personal resting place; later he will be gathering people for a little drama
with wooden cigars. Another young dancer with curly hair starts a slow
tentative disco dance. He stops and comes back to continue. A female Asian
dancer is contorted and walks on the sides of her feet in a basic Butoh
gesture. It is a game of trial and error. One of the shakers adds talking to
moving; his voice is shaking, too. The slow disco dancer adds an imaginary
partner to his melancholic slow waltz.
It has been a long way from
Friedrich Nietzsche's radical outcry of Modernity "Everything is permitted yet
nothing is possible", to the contemporary motto of Postmodernity "Anything
goes, nothing works." With time comes the obligatory self-reference. A woman
standing next to a shaking guy shouts: "Do something more extreme!" In the
second half, solos are extended to duos and group scenes; still in decent
formal boundaries. They are riding each other's backs till they drop.
Suddenly Tom Waits is singing.
Everything is getting more desperate, both the mood and the quality of the
music. We see the first ones undressing to their underwear. In the third part
self-reflexion is turning to heavy duty existential topics. There is sort of a
rape scene and a woman is crying: "This is not a performance, this is for
real!" A second intercourse will be more harmonious. A small Asian dancer grabs
a rope hanging from a bucket fixed in the ceiling. He makes a noose and puts
his head in. Sex gives way to suicide. It's about the art of topping each
other; outshine each other with drastic acts. He has a comical talent and
balances on toes on the edge of the chair. He is only millimetres away from
swinging free. For a few seconds he does, holding on to the rope. Officially we
are all good formalists, but when it comes to making an impression it's the
return of the heavy content. Of course with the ironic blink of an eye.
creativity in the age of new virtuosity
No wonder the whole lengthy thing
ends on the note of the proverbial apple of sin being handed from mouth to
mouth. And the small Belgian family is watching the show in silence. A thought
starts dawning on me when I observe the first glimpses of bare skin, the first
expressive cries and forced comical acts. This is not a regular workshop. There
is just too much ambition in the room. I ask them afterwards if it also was a
secret audition. Well, it was. They are looking for performers. They also said
so. And a workshop is a more relaxed way than a stressful audition. One could
claim. Still, this double-booking is a bit tricky, and a sign of the times.
Exploitation, self-marketing and creativity are blurring into each other in the
age of new "virtuosity" (Paolo Virno) – and dance and performance are not an
exception, they are the role model.
When being asked if they know the
then radical film "Peeping Tom" starring the no longer ambitious actor
Karlheinz Böhm in the part of a heavily disturbed killer – he had nothing to
lose, he was about to start a new career – they declared loving Sissy. Well,
Romy Schneider, not the empress.
Helmut Köpping: Kreation Kollektiv (Day 2)
Gabriela Carrizo & Franck
Chartier: The Process Of Creation (Day 5)
Xavier le Roy: E.X.T.E.N.S.I.O.N.S.
(Antwerp 1999); "Project" (TQW 2003)
Paolo Virno: Grammar of the
Michael Powell: Peeping Tom (GB,
(August 21, 2008)