MIAF: Peepshow, Blind Date ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 27, 2006

MIAF: Peepshow, Blind Date

Festival Diary #6

My apologies for the tardiness of these reviews. Retrospectively, I diagnosed myself with what Osip Mandelstam called Pre-Lyrical Anxiety (PLA to us poet-types): after three days of being completely incapable of writing a sentence, I thought of a word, and then of another word, and then, suddenly, there was a poem. Poetry is like that: inconvenient, capricious and consuming.

You can decide for yourself, Gentle Reader, whether the poem that ensued at the end of it all was worth three days of utter blankness. But in the meantime, back to the shows I saw earlier this week...

Peepshow, devised, directed and performed by Marie Brassard. Live music and sound design Alexander MacSween, design and lighting Simon Guibault. Malthouse Theatre.

The title of Marie Brassard's Peepshow summons a long tradition of voyeurism and titillation: pornography, of course, but also its historical twin, the freak show. Since long before PT Barnum opened his Museum, where 19th century New Yorkers went to gawp at human oddities like the Siamese Twins Eng and Chang or JoJo the Dog-faced Boy, human beings have flocked, with equal parts desire and fear, to witness monstrous reflections of themselves.

In Peepshow, the monsters are within. The show opens with a child's voice speaking in darkness. She tells of a dream in which she meets a monster and sits with him by a pool, utterly happy. "I could die now," the child says. Of course, this narrative is underlaid with a frisson of danger: in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the child does die, accidentally drowned in the lake by the monster.

The monster introduced next is the Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, who is less innocent than Frankenstein's creation: but here the emphasis is on his big eyes, "all the better to admire your beauty". Brassard's reading - which draws on feminist retellings, such as Angela Carter's, that construe the redness of Little Red Riding Hood's cloak as a sign of sexual maturity - suggests the unspoken complicity of the girl.

These two avatars, the misunderstood monster and the seductive wolf, dominate the fragmentary interwoven narratives that make up this fascinating solo performance. What counts here is Brassard's voice, which through the magic of a pitch-shifter - an electronic box of tricks niftily manipulated by sound designer Alexander MacSween - can be made to sound as if she is a man, a woman or a child, creating dissonances between the visual and spoken images. What could have been merely a gimmick is, however, given force and meaning by Brassard's hypnotic text and performance which, in their poetic excavation of the embodied human soul, remind me irresistably of the solo work of Margaret Cameron.

Brassard stands alone on stage in a vaguely fetishistic costume: a red dress and black boots, a wig and sunglasses. The staging is very simple: the only prop is a chair, and she is sometimes backed by unobstrusive projected images, that vary between abstract designs to images that extend the text: footage of wild wolves, or mirrors of the performer herself.

It is uncertain who the "I" of the performance is, because there are several characters of both sexes, but we construct one all the same: a bright young girl who at school refuses to give the obvious but correct answer to a question, and is humiliatingly placed with the not-so-clever ones; the young woman who secretly enjoys being followed by a man whom she never speaks to; the older woman who tenderly cares for a sick former lover; the woman who goes to a stranger's house and finds herself dressing in bondage wear and being tied to a chair. She characterises mutual attraction as a string: one leads and the other follows, like the pet duck the child recalls as her most intelligent pet.

All these encounters are strangely benign, even innocent. The stories are often comic: this show is leavened by a certain indefinable lightness that goes beyond humour, although humour is part of it. Brassard foregrounds the trembling vulnerability of desire, contrasting the heartbreak of a young woman whose boyfriend has left her with the boyfriend's Seinfeldian advice on how to get out of a relationship without appearing like a bastard, or the power the young woman holds over the older man she leads him around the city, excited by his desire, before she tires of the game. Heartlessness oscillates with the hurts it makes in others.

The real theme of the show is loss, the interior scars of love. "It is difficult," the teacher tells the little girl, "to lose someone you really love". It is these wounds that Brassard brings to the surface, making us aware of the fragilities and boundaries represented by our skin, the edges of ourselves that are so easily broken and hurt. These invisible, unhealed hurts trace both our innocence and our pain, revealing us as monsters at once perilous and vulnerable. If we showed on our faces the traces of every caress, every blow, Brassard muses near the end of the show, what would we look like?

Blind Date, choreographed and directed by Bill T Jones. Musical direction by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Music performed by Akim "Funk" Buddha, Neel Murgai, Amie Weiss, Daniel Bernard Roumain. Danced by Asli Bulbul, Leah Cox, Maija Garcia, Shaneeka Harrell, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Wen-Chung Lin, Erick Montes, Charles Scott, Donald C Shorter, Stuart Singer and Andrea Smith. Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company @ the State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

One of the reasons I like dance is that, usually, it is wordless. Like visual art, it represents an escape from the expressive boundaries of language.

Bill T Jones wasn't, however, about to give me that satisfaction. Blind Date is heavy with text, both spoken and visual. Words are projected onto a maze of screens that crowd the set, they are said by the dancers, they are uttered in short videoed interviews with members of the company. The text, both literally and metaphorically, frames the dance.

I feel ambivalent about the sucess of this. Blind Date is Bill T Jones' response to the re-election of George W Bush in the 2004 election, and here, with varying degrees of lightness or heavyhandedness, he explores notions of patriotism, militarism, the place of the individual within society. The different movements of the dance are each titled, and in a Brechtian gesture, are projected on the stage, along with definitions of Deism or "fourth generation warfare". Their repetition in varying contexts sometimes reinforces an ironic critique and at others slides into the merely didactic.

The score, arranged and written by Daniel Bernard Roumain, is fantastic. It includes all sorts of vocals: throat singing, a traditional Irish ballad, a full-blooded rendition of Otis Redding's Security. A Bach sonata, a recurring musical theme, is performed with a beatbox rhythm that is surprisingly effective, and later is almost completely deconstructed, slowed down into its constituent parts.

In a deliberate evocation of sensory overload, some scenes include perhaps half a dozen different things happening on stage. Sometimes - as with a dance called "Richard: the Sitting Duck", about the mutual exploitativeness of franchise corporations and the war machine - this is exhilarating, at once comic and terrifying. At others, it seems merely distracting: I found myself watching the videoed footage or reading the text instead of watching the dancers. Bill T Jones himself would probably say that this is a totally legitimate choice, but most of the time the real action was with the dancers.

For me, a defining moment was near the beginning. Jones uses extensively a quote from a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.
Having thus implicitly placed his dance as a political action, as a node of military and militant activity, Jones choreographs a beautiful solo to Bach's Violin Sonata No 1 in G Minor. I found this transition very moving: the sheer lyric beauty of the dance, the fragility of the human body, is here an act of poignant defiance. Not all the transitions between text and dance were so effective, and most of the time it seemed to me that Jones' choreography erupted out of a cage of language, saving the work from what could have been a stultifying earnestness.

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