Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Critical Perspective of Meg Stuart's Do Animals Cry by Michael Taylor

One thing I overheard last night after Meg Stuart’s Do Animals Cry was: Why is this work in a theater? Or as a friend wrote to me today, if it’s supposed to be a kind of lived experience, why not stage it somewhere else where the audience can become part of the experience? But I think the theatrical frame was integral to the performance. Whether you agree with me or not, the point remains that the piece challenges the expectations we bring to the theater. These are not all the same, there is no reason why they should be, and it seems to me that’s the wager of the piece. It’s Tanztheater – emphasis on both of those words – in the most essential way we’ve seen this season.

I should say right away: I loved the work. So much so that I went twice. Obviously, many other people didn’t. We saw them get up and leave in waves, like migrating flocks of birds. That’s unfortunate. Hahn Rowe’s music was superb enough that the evening was worth two hours of anyone’s Friday night. But that’s just the point: there was something about the theatrical situation that made people feel like they had to leave, or maybe even escape. Of course I can’t know why. Was it frustration? Boredom? Or as one friend said, a sense of having been insulted at being asked to watch this? More discriminating reactions generally settled on this point: the work had its moments, but did it have to be so long? As a short warning, my reaction will be longer than usual, too.

The length seemed particularly unbearable, so I heard, because the work lacked range and development. We got it, so to speak, after sixty minutes. One friend who certainly knows something about dance sketched things out in a flash: there were three kinds of movement, sloppy, frantic, and slow motion. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. I’m sure she’d agree that with those three things you can do a lot. You can paint a picture with just one color, too. In this sense, the performance asks – expects – to be taken on its own terms, as a kind of repetition and variation that refuses to define its own development as a narrative or necessary structure. It is the kind of experience that refuses to necessarily last 90 minutes or 120 minutes or – why not? – even longer. So the question remains, why watch this in a theater?

One obvious answer, and one that I think matters, is that this makes the work a kind of moving image in a very traditional way, the tradition that treats the theatrical stage as a canvas for a tableau vivant. The choice to invoke this tradition also corresponds to another tradition that has used this canvas to project the harmonies and disharmonies within our domestic spaces and worlds – within spaces that are both places of retreat and places, like families, from which we can’t escape. For Meg Stuart’s piece, these spaces have been reduced down to the world of everyday movements as forms of shared communication. Our bodies speak and are being read everywhere we go; this is a communication we can’t escape or control. The piece trades on the analogy between this understanding of performance, which is so important to contemporary dance, and the forms of communication that build up, like shared substance, to make people familiar to each other.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has a word for this kind of communication, habitus. At the risk of sounding academic, and of outing myself as someone excited by these kinds of things (too late), I got a thrill and a shock to experience this kind of communication performed and deconstructed on stage. Or to make the point in a different way, in the performance’s own terms: the work translated everything captured in a family photo into movement. Imagine being at a family reunion and being forced to hold still for a snapshot that freezes interminably, while everything that makes up the family around you – all the secrets and loves and animosities and games and taunts and betrayals – are suddenly made vibrant and present, and excruciatingly so. (If you want a sense of what I’m seeing in my mind, google Thomas Struth and look at some of his family portraits, for example here: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/cruelandtender/struth.htm) This unspoken ground of communication, of history and shared meaning, of familiarity, is what drew me in.

It thrilled me because it was so accessible and communicated to me in such a direct and powerful way. I felt myself become isolated into dissociated structures of communication, like seeing my mouth speak rather than just speaking. And I felt like I was sharing this experience with the performers: suddenly a form of communication had been made visible in which we always were and had been connected and communicating. This wasn’t entirely pleasurable: I also had the sensation of not being able to avoid this familiarity. I felt turned inside out and exposed, which can also mean misunderstood. That was a dilemma that the people who left faced, too. The moment we all sat down we faced the option of staying or going, and either way of making a statement that everyone present would understand, whatever our motives or whatever we meant or did not mean to say. This is one reason it mattered that this piece was in a theater. The performance made this dilemma obvious and palpable by making visible the structures of communication that immediately permeate a shared room.

The surreal quality of many of Meg Stuart’s choices reflected, for me, the simple idiosyncrasy that our experiences nevertheless preserve. The beauty of the performance arose out of the tension between these fundamental structures of bodily communication and the elegance and whimsy of the scenes. (Here I thought of the painter Neo Rauch, as if someone had managed to put his imagination on stage.) The piece was not about statements, but about structures that could be expanded and stretched this way and that, but which had a tension that pulls everything back inward as this operation makes the fabric of the connection more apparent. By this I mean the way that the movements dissociate from the performers, the way that the performers dissociated from each other and return, or not, like the way the surface of the body becomes a shirt and is stretched and pulled apart, or that underwear is torn apart but then ends back up on your head. The performance strained against limits and conventions (everyone ends up in the doghouse) and, ultimately, the situation of theater itself, but without any ambitions or need to break free or escape, or more importantly, any resentment that this might be impossible.

Michael Thomas Taylor
Assistant Professor of German
The University of Calgary

Friday, March 12, 2010

Critical Perspective of Meg Stuart's Do Animals Cry by Natalie Meisner

“Do Animals Cry” focuses on the various animalistic aspects that often lurk under the surface of the dynamic of the nuclear family. The terrain it excavates seems to be rooted in Freud’s famous theories on infantile sexuality that continue to be influential and yet can often feel dated if not supplemented with more contemporary notions about the formation of the subject. Father and son roughhouse in a duet that turns murderous. A mother fawns on her son with adoration that turns erotic. Violence and tenderness mix in nearly every interaction between the performers. One family member arrives back home and injects energy and enthusiasm into the otherwise moribund group using the breathing and bodily gesture of an excited dog. This energy infects everyone else. This same family member (perhaps a son/brother?) arrives from the top of the set and is placed into a familiar sacrificial pose upon the backdrop of the woven branches while the other family members prowl and fawn over him. This, of course, leaves us wondering how we use one another for emotional crutches. Why do we need unconditional love? Why do we need devotion of any type? Do we objectify one another when we extract or demand adoration? Outcast members of the family are, in one sequence, stuffed into the doghouse (which echoes the metaphoric notion of being “in the dog house”) and in another sequence a cozy family gathering takes place inside the doghouse while one member is left out in the cold. The dialogue deploys generalized clich├ęs that serve to highlight the mundane nature of the “tragedies” endured by the average nuclear family. Dad left, Mom is on prescription drugs and we’ve lost the house. These events are paired with horrific stories from page one of the newspaper as if to offset the very different nature of these events and yet each are termed, in an ironic deadpan voice by one of the actors as “good news.”

The notion of the nuclear family as an abiding and necessary (even a useful) unit is put into question here through movement and dance. The movement is a deliberate departure from the convention of beautiful movement that, at one time, we might have expected from dance/theatre/performance. It seems to want to externalize emotional pain through the medium of the body. This, of course is not unbroken ground as the controversial work of artists such as Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist will attest to.

There are gestures toward absurd humour (a dead stuffed dog being made to fetch a stick) that echo the cyclical and futile struggles of Hamm and Clov in Beckett’s Endgame and there is much here that can be said to be derivative of the theatre of the absurd but it never reaches the provocative and murky depths that Beckett plunged theatre audiences into. The set is beautiful; an arresting piece of visual art, in itself. A tunnel composed of lashed together branches that is lit from the inside creates an eerie and evocative metaphor for the often disturbing emotional landscape of the family. The length of this piece, unfortunately, undermined its potential power. It was as if the audience were asked to sit through the improvisation that the team went through, as well as the finished product. Of course repetition can be deployed and the staging of work in progress can serve to challenge audiences’ inherently Arnoldian notions of high culture but this alone is not enough. The making of this piece seems to have been a complex journey, more engaging for the creative team than for audiences. There simply wasn’t enough complexity, in my opinion, to warrant the length.

Dr. Natalie Meisner
Department of English, Mount Royal University