“DESH,” dance, & the virtues of theatre beyond language

In the opening minutes of Akram Khan’s solo show DESH (now on Canadian Stage), Khan stands down stage of Tim Yip’s sparsely lit set, dwarfed by the Bluma Appel’s cavernous embrace, picks up a sledgehammer & whacks with extreme prejudice a small metallic mound built into the stage’s floor. At the mound’s apex is some sort of plant which will undergo all kinds of contortions over the show’s 83-minutes of magic, the sledgehammer being the least of its worries. With each strike, a dull, hollow boom blankets the theatre, just ever-so-perfectly too loud for the audience’s comfort. For a show billed as a “dance” piece, it’s a brave opening, since we’ve come (at least some of us) for the feats of kathak-cum-Bauschian physical pyrotechnics Khan’s famous for, & he presents us with a moment that – but for the sonic black hole of the hammer’s thud – is eerily still, utterly quiet.

There’s a lot to say about a show like DESH. Probably, actually, the most boring (well, least interesting) thing to talk about is Khan’s sheer physical talent & control, the frenetic athleticism of the choreography itself. Not to say that the choreo itself was boring or uninteresting; just, DESH is about a great deal more, & manages to explore everything from immigrant experience to Fronteras Americanasian ennui to multi-generational Oedipal stuff to cultural-political tensions. It is visually stunning, & demonstrates better perhaps than no other show I’ve seen just how fatuous the told tag about a lighting design’s worth or merit being directly related to inconspicuousness. To me, that’s a bit like saying that a painting’s only good so long as we don’t notice the use of colour – as if, by remarking on or intuiting the technique of a thing, we somehow affront its overall experience. Michael Hull’s lighting design is specific, beautiful, innovative, &, frankly, risky, allowing for moments when Khan isn’t “perfectly lit,” when the audience has to commit (gasp!) effort into divining the action. DESH also features probably the best & most magical use of projection media I’ve ever seen in a stage piece.

So, given the wealth of material in this strange, wonderful, surprising work, why did the post-show lobby of the St.  Lawrence Centre seem an echo chamber reverberate with the phrase, “very interesting”? Really? Interesting? Not “good,” or “wonderful,” or “crap,” or “pretentious,” or “magical” – but “interesting”? I mean, yeah, it was interesting, but as the first thing to leave your lips after taking in a show, this is a bit like remarking on how “bold” your girlfriend’s new dress is, or how “different” her choice of hair dye. Compulsive eaves-dropper that I am, I was struck by how many of my fellow patrons commented on the show’s difference from other Torontonian theatre, as if the only critical currency worth trafficking in was contextual. I had a similar experience months ago when I saw Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, to which I invited my parents, both of whom found themselves wanting to bolt for the bar after about a quarter of an hour in.

Which isn’t to say that disliking avant-garde stuff like Marina isn’t a perfectly acceptable reaction to have, just that it hints at a particular strain I’ve been noticing more & more frequently among Torontonian audiences: do Torontonians just not “get” physical theatre? The perfume of raw cerebration I inhaled while hanging out at intermission was enough to overpower the flavor of my wine; there was a lot of talk about what a thing “meant” or attempts at weaving some kind of straightforward diachronic narrative from the rich, largely abstract symbol systems Wilson creates. Maybe with a play like Marina this is more tempting because the piece distinguishes itself in a sense as biography, & we expect biographies to run linearly from birth, to youth, to middle-age, to death. But in DESH, with its myriad interlinking stories & allusions & huge leaps or ambiguities in time, place, age, & character, it makes no sense at all.

Just to be clear, this observation isn’t just hearsay. Here’s Luke Jennings of London’s The Observer describing the sledgehammer sequence supra:

Its function is unclear but it might be a manhole cover, the point of entry to some dark subterraneum. Eventually Khan lowers the hammer, defeated. What lies below remains inaccessible, enigmatic.

It “might be a manhole cover”? Why must it be anything at all? Moreover, who says the Khan-as-character-sledgehammer-wielder’s trying to get at what’s under the plate? Why is this any more feasible a theory than the idea that Khan’s just trying to smash the crap out of the plant thing, or maybe he just likes the sound it makes, or maybe he’s going through some sort of cathartic physical exercise thing?

Why must it mean anything, in a literal sense?

The quest for intellection w/r/t to dance-theatre or any kind of avant-gardeish physical work reveals what seems to me a peculiar tension between an audience’s expectations & the artist’s actual experience of creating the piece. I claim to speak only for myself, but my suspicion is that many fellow artists will agree with me: oftentimes, we don’t know or understand fully the impetus behind creation. Sure, we can explore a particular idea; but what, specifically, we’re saying about that idea is often so huge & complex that it’s impossible to articulate in comfortable language. Probably if we could articulate them that way, we’d be writing essays instead of making plays & choreographing dances or writing scores for augmented pianos.

I had the pleasure back in the summer to actually do some work backstage for the Wilson show, & I got to talk to some of the performers about their experiences working with the man. Apparently, everything is drawn first, almost storyboarded, comic-book-like, after which Robert Wilson himself physically shows the actors what to do; their job is not interpretive, but imitative, to fulfill as precisely as possible what’s going on Wilson’s own head. Probably this is not hugely fun for the actors, but it serves to create an art that is entirely Wilson’s own, a wonderful aesthetic representation of what the universe feels like to him. Seen this way, questions about what the lobster on a leash is supposed to “represent” quickly become otiose, the concerns of the same kind of boring, reductive Freudianisms which have long been discredited by contemporary psychology anyway.

& lest you think that this is purely a physical theatre thing, text-based artists working with avant-garde techniques experience similar crises when asked to provide “meanings” or straight-forward explanations of their work. I know I tend to quote Howard Barker a lot in this space, but indulge me once again:

I don’t want to hear somebody’s arguments about politics, thank you. Nearly all theatre and all culture now is about projecting meaning. It’s very Enlightenment. Go to a newspaper if you want enlightenment: don’t go to the theatre.”

Or, as he has the Machinist say in Animals in Paradise:

I write from ignorance. I don’t know what I want to say, and I don’t care if you listen or not.

My own feeling is that the audience’s yearning for literal meaning is both a relic of theatre’s (& art’s) Realistic past, & the convenient narratives of television plots, which for the most part admit of virtually no abstraction whatsoever. The fundamental fallacy of Realism’s defenders is that the avant-garde movements which defied it did so not because they found it mundane or boring, but because they found it fundamentally inadequate at as a representation of experience; in other words, not because they found reality uninteresting (that dreaded word), but because Realism was not realistic enough. Perhaps to the particular aesthetico-cultural templates of a 19th century novelist, belletristic descriptions of the babbling Floss & its varied Mills might have seemed pretty real & raw, but to a post-war, post-television, post-Joycean novelist, reality isn’t belletristic but fractured, abstracted, & confusing, both bleak & overcrowded. In world defined by the conjunctions of napalm-burned children & the Village People, George W. Bush & Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a man slamming a piece of metal with a sledgehammer is not a representation, but a physical expression of a consciousness’s unique inner realities, a special beyond-the-reach-of-language ticklish spot at the back of a soul’s neck.

Why then are so many audience members reluctant to let themselves feel or experience a theatre piece, as opposed to intellectually understanding it? I have a theory – but it’s just that, a theory. My feeling is that in Toronto, at least, a lot of times our cultural discourse is framed by the language of criticism. Not, mind you, academic criticism, which at its best can be hugely interesting & intricate & thought-provoking, but commercial criticism of the kind found in most newspapers, which really are not critiques at all but kind of product-reviews, little 500-word caveat emptors for prospective audiences. In this genre of  review, attempts are not made explore the multiform possibilities of a work’s symbols, but rather to pronounce on whether the work lives up to the predetermined aesthetic templates & expectations of the reviewer. Let me give you an example.

This past summer, I wrote & directed a show called The Hystericon at the Toronto Fringe Festival, which was in some ways very avant-garde (though, in a lot of other ways, very conventional), & relied a lot on abstract movement. Here’s what the NOW Magazine reviewer, Jordan Bimm, had to say about it:

These powerful performances could be more effective if the presentation style were reworked into a traditional narrative.

Except that what Bimm calls a “presentation style” is in fact an entire aesthetic paradigm; when he demands a “traditional narrative,” he demands that the fundamental architecture of the play be made something else entirely. Without indulging in too many exhaustive details, one of the ways the play was designed to work was by eschewing, self-consciously, traditional narratives in an attempt to draw attention to the ways in which narrative is a post-facto illusion; what Bimm is actually asking for here is for my play just to be a different play.

I’ve got no beef with good-faith reviewers who just genuinely think a piece of mine is ineffective, or boring, or bad; what I take issue with is the reviewer who sets up a priori  the aesthetic parameters of what a play’s symbol system ought to look like, then disregards as inadequate any piece which – by design – falls outside of it. It’s rather like a food critic who goes into a sushi restaurant & complains that her fish is undercooked.

I recently went for drinks with a few fellow artists, including Ars Mechanica’s Voijin Vasovic, whose show Show & Tell Alexander Bell recently featured at the last Summerworks Festival, & also Nicole St. Martin, who starred in the Kafka-inspired movement piece Enough Rope at same. Though a lively discussion ensued about its implications, we all agreed that the market for our non-literal (get it?) wares was sluggish, & in part, this was due to critics who simply “didn’t get it.”

Maybe part of the problem is the very weird bifurcation of “dance” & “theatre,” as if the two were the meaningfully different. I contend that they are not, & invite anyone who disagrees to give me a coherent distinction between the two.

I as an audience member constantly try to reassess the templates with which I view art. By so doing, I’ve opened myself up to forms which I never thought I’d be sophisticated enough to appreciate. It’s hard a lot of times, & often I fail, but when I succeed I am enriched, mind, soul, & yes, ultimately, body.

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