Friday, 8 February 2013

Prague, 31.01.-03.02.2013

Teaching is on my mind a lot these days. After a year and a half of focusing solely on research, well heeled with new ideas and knowledge, one nevertheless comes back to teaching feeling a bit out of touch. It came as a huge shock therefore that a new guideline had been introduced in our institution whereby if a module scores below 4/5 in student satisfaction it is in danger of being pulled. I only discovered this when one of the modules I taught last term came in mid-January with the score of 3,7 – and not without repercussions. One could never take these things too seriously in the past, but as of this year, what the university authorities actually seem to want is to harness positive student scores in order to be able to sell their degrees in a competitive market place. They don’t care how, but high scores must be had. And so, we lowly university lecturers increasingly find ourselves between the pressure from the rock above and the dissatisfaction from the hard place below. How does one teach an arts subject in a place like that?

I must say I was very happy to escape these questions for a few days, taking my group of fourth year students of Directing and a few MAs to Prague.


So here we are on the last evening of January, sitting in a small actors’ studio miles away from home, listening to the American theatre-maker Howard Lotker talk about Ivan Vyskočil, a Czech actor, director, writer, psychologist and a one time friend of Vaclav Havel. Born in 1929, Vyskočil dedicated most of his life to theatre and pedagogy although he also studied and taught philosophy and psychology, and in 1957 coined the term ‘text-appeal’ to refer to a genre of literature that he was creating and promoting at the Reduta jazz club/theatre in Prague, before he embarked on a period of ‘non-theatre’ in the 1960s. In the latter decades of the 20th century Vyskočil taught Authorial Acting and Interaction with the Inner Partner at the DAMU academy, a practice which can be seen as analogous to Devising and Performance Art perhaps, although entirely autochthonous to its own context.

Having studied with Vyskočil, Lotker now teaches the discipline himself, and before he begins one of the basic exercises for Interacting with the Inner Partner with the University of Kent Drama students, he explains the rules. The point is for each student to come out into the space one by one and engage in a spoken dialogue with their inner partner – it is a practice that we should all be familiar with because we have all at some point talked to ourselves. We may have a number of different inner partners and the point is to discover them and summon them to our aid when we might need them to solve a problem of some kind. So we talk to our inner partner for about 2 minutes, but this is timed by the teacher rather than by the student, so to ensure that one keeps going at those times when one would ordinarily want to stop because they hit a crisis point. The idea is to recognize and follow one’s verbal and bodily impulses – in a psychophysical way – to go with them, maybe even exaggerate them. On the other hand, the audience is to pay active attention, in a Stanislavskian way, to the actor’s ‘public solitude’.  Finally, the actor is not allowed to interact with the audience or with any potential props in the room, they should be entirely focused on themselves. Needless to say, one should not plan their behaviour before going up on stage.

At first this is nerve-wracking, but gradually, one by one, the students go up and find their calm within the space, within themselves. It is an exercise which may expose one’s stream of consciousness, one’s playfulness, the wonders of one’s imagination – eventually perhaps one’s own voice as an artist. Howard’s students do this twice each session, two or three times a week, for about a year or 18 months. I wonder whether this could sometimes lead to excessive solipsism or over-indulgence, but Howard reminds us that this is not so much a theatre training technique as a technique for working on the self.

The DAMU students work on themselves in a variety of ways. The following day we witness a dance class presentation of Jiri Havelka’s second year students in Acting for Alternative Theatre and Puppetry. Havelka is also our contact person here and someone who opened the doors to us on this winter showcase of the DAMU students’ work.  The first half of the presentation is a contemporary dance/ physical theatre showcase featuring a variety of etudes ranging from parody, ballet and fighting to some more meditative, more dramatic numbers. The second half of the presentation is a showcase of mazurkas and ballroom dancing routines. This is all taking place in a massive room with a wedding cake ceiling and stained glass windows, which may well have been a genuine ballroom once. Several generations of teachers are present, but the oldest one, who was here since the 1960s doesn’t even know what this room was before it was annexed by the DAMU School (which by the way looks not unlike a Habsburg version of a Tardis – small on the outside, genuinely endless on the inside). One of the younger teachers is there with her toddler, who can hardly resist keeping still to the beat of the music. The toddler is comfortable with the students and all the audience present – even us foreigners – and she keeps giving us pieces of paper to read in between her dancing and snacking breaks. There is a definite sense of community and homeliness here – and certainly no Health and Safety considerations – as most of us are seated on the floor, informally huddled together for the performance.

This is the second day of our stay and following the dancing showcase, Jiri gives us a couple of hours of his own time. He takes us to his palatial office where we can leave our coats to facilitate free movement around the building. We chat about differences between our courses, what we do and within what kind of conditions (limited resources and excessive restrictions on the UK side being a major theme). Being Drama School students, the DAMU actors clearly get a lot more technique classes and this shows.

Jiri then takes us around some of the teaching spaces they use – a scenography room, where we can see a recent exhibition, and eventually his own acting studio where he works with his students. He calls it an ‘atelier’ – a term which I associate with painters, but rarely, until now, with actors. And indeed these rooms are like real artists’ studios with scratches on the floors, peeling walls, cuttings of texts, pictures, interesting quotes or interesting drawings on the walls. There are even a couple of coffee cups with cigarette ends lying around…

I ask Jiri what is the first thing he teaches a group of students when they arrive to him. He sends one student outside the room, asks him to take a walk and come back. When he comes back, the student is asked to repeat exactly what he did when he was outside. This raises issues of observation and the difference between reality and theatre performance, and very quickly we arrive at Brook and his idea that all we need for an act of performance is one person walking across an empty space and one person watching… Jiri then asks people to walk around the space, becoming aware of and exaggerating their own idiosyncrasies; followed by some concentration and movement exercises, and eventually by an exercise where students take it in turns to build a sequence of non-verbal actions by creating a chain of memorized units to which each person adds something and therefore the gestures are repeated/ copied but not the inner meaning of each gesture. This sort of sequencing can occur on a number of parallel lines simultaneously, thus building potential narratives. The most thrilling is the final exercise, where students are paired up to represent a car and a driver – one pair’s aim is to hit the others, whereas the others are to avoid getting hit. This is unusually entertaining to watch too!

The following couple of days are filled with more student presentations and us being squeezed (or not managing to be squeezed) into rooms of very small proportions where we often find ourselves sitting on the floor, well within the performers’ own space. They deal with this beautifully, accommodating and accepting our presence, even interacting with us in the course of the performance. Their etudes range from non-verbal renditions of what looks like unsuccessful nights out, to whimsical fantasies involving picture frames and cake ingredients being spilled all over the floor, to a parody of Stanislavskian acting itself. They have also worked with a Slovakian choreographer Jaro Vinarsky ( and one of their showcases is an improvisation based on his specific combination of the visceral, the dynamic and the meditative.

There are two counts of full frontal male nudity across the two days, numerous counts of haphazard refocusing of lights by climbing on each other’s shoulders in between scenes, opening up and closing of windows to let the air in. This is a working atmosphere, and as one of the British students observed – you can tell that they real ‘own the space’. They respect it too and they also respect each other profoundly. The way in which the students work with each other testifies to a kind of collegial closeness rarely seen in any other contexts. They are comfortable with their own and each other’s bodies – one of the guys adjusting his colleague’s penis as the latter plays a dead body – and there is no discomfort or awkwardness when playing erotic moments with each other. Everything is technically accomplished, professional, honest. Perhaps the biggest giveaway of the secret of their success is a motto hanging on the wall behind the audience’s backs which reads ‘too much EGO will KILL your TALENT’. The process of letting go of one’s ego is a lifetime’s work, of course, but the foundations for it are apparently very well laid in here.

And talking of secrets, there is the whole alchemy-side of Prague as a city worth bringing into this discussion for a moment too. In the wake of the European Renaissance, in the late 1500s, the Habsburg emperor Rudolf II apparently created an alchemists’ hub in Prague, which also occasionally included the Britons John Dee and Edward Kelly and – according to the Alchemy Museum – William Shakespeare too, who supposedly visited Prague as a spy in the company of Kelly and Dee. Later the myth of the Golem of Prague – a creature brought to life from inanimate matter by a 16th century Prague rabbi becomes part of the local folklore of the occult. Much of the Czech culture is therefore co-opted into this narrative and so is Kafka’s observation, for example, that Prague has claws which make it impossible to leave as well as a lot of Karel Čapek’s work. An example of this is Krakatit, a novel he wrote in 1922, which concerns a scientist who invents a bomb in his laboratory and enters a state of delirium. This was made into a film in 1947 and duly interpreted as a story about the nuclear bomb at the time. In the rendition of a present day MA student at DAMU – which we also saw as part of our programme – the story becomes a sassy James Bond spin off.

It was not until we reached the airport that I was reminded again of the dreaded evaluation forms – a bunch of which I was given on my departure for my fellow travelers to fill in. What did they get out of the trip? What I witnessed was an image of a group of young adults being curious, being open, enthusiastically responding to their surroundings, asking questions and having fun. What the form-filling exercise forced out of them was, sadly, a group of consumers whose experience is measured by numbers from 1-5. No offence to my students but: what kind of alchemy does it take to make consumers into artists? This is a question my Inner Partner must find an answer to.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Zagreb - Festival novog cirkusa 7-11 November 2012

Circus as the Time and Space for Thinking

The Thinking Time

It is a Saturday morning. Thirty-year old Finnish magician Kalle Hakkarainen is sitting at a part baroque/part mdf table covered with fruit and sweets at the office of the New Circus Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, surrounded by an international group of journalists. In a flash of inspiration, they want to know whether he is nostalgic or not?

The night before Hakkarainen had presented a technologically elaborate performance about a tiredness-induced car crash under the title Nopeussokeus (Speed Blindness/Motion Blindness) to a relatively underwhelmed, though sufficiently hypnotized, audience. The hypnotic effect was largely the work of the music and sound designer Samuli Kosminen in combination with Hakkarainen’s own visual projections conjuring up the onset of sleep at the wheel of a moving car. In just under thirty minutes, the piece had set out to explore the moment of fatal impact from different points of view, though the moment at times seemed to stretch into infinity or fold back into itself in a dream-like way, leaving the artist’s intention generally unclear and the critics generally indifferent.

It all begins to make a lot more sense when in this impromptu press conference Hakkarainen reveals his departure points. Largely disillusioned by contemporary magic, the Finnish wiz kid often resorts to history books for his inspiration. It was the claim that drama and magic cannot be successfully combined, made by the English magician David Devant about a century ago, that prompted Hakkarainen to attempt such a feat. A newspaper article about a woman in a car crash provided a dramaturgical framework for the reinvention of an old trick in which a rope can be seen to penetrate the body of the performer. And a poem about car ‘motion blindness’ by Harry Salmenniemi provided additional semantic content for Hakkarainen’s projections.

‘I like to create a time and space for people to think’, Hakkarainen declares. It might have been some sleight of hand that made me miss what he said in response to the question of nostalgia, but it certainly prompted me to think about it too, in more ways than one.

There is the dimension provided by the history and the form of circus itself. Only two nights before we had seen Le Cirque Invisible – the third edition of a repertoire, created (in 1990) by Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin who had in fact been working together since 1969. Threaded through this show is a sense of homeliness and enchantment, which could easily cast any audience member into his or her five-year old self. Whether it’s Thierrée’s Christmas Day-style close up magic or Chaplin’s spells which turn common household items into mythical creatures and elaborate wearable musical instruments – this is the kind of spectacle that thrives on poeticizing the mundane in a simple, child-like way. An inherent emphasis on eccentric playfulness and mesmerizing inventiveness rather than sheer technical prowess, despite the fact that its acts are decades old, results in a show which is timeless rather than dated and therefore nostalgic in its form more so than its content. I felt the way a five year old might feel at any point in time, rather than the way I felt when I was actually five years old watching a dancing elephant in a big top and waiting impatiently for the clowns or the trapeze lady in sequins to come back again.

So then there is also the personal dimension. I am a domiciled Brit, at this moment in time on a visit to Croatia – a country which was once part of what I considered home. Incidentally, on my flight here I was reading a book which informed me that nostalgia was in fact a term invented by a seventeenth century Swiss doctor to designate a malady of extreme longing (algia) for a return home (nostos). Even though in the twenty-first century the phenomenon of nostalgia, with its intrinsic tendency to sentimentalize the past, has acquired connotations that can be seen as politically problematic, it is nevertheless a condition that must also be somehow validated. Not least because, traditionally, members of the circus – whether personally nostalgic or not – are very often displaced persons themselves, and so are, increasingly, a lot of the rest of us. Rather helpfully though, writer Svetlana Boym attempts to redefine nostalgia not as a conservative longing for a particular place in the past, but as a desire to escape the given time-space continuum ‘sideways’ – as ‘a strategy for [the displaced persons’] survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming’ (, p.9). This understanding of nostalgia makes it possible to make sense of much more than that. But more of that – later.

The Thinking Place - context

This time and space for thinking, it is worth noting perhaps, was taking place on day three of the ‘middle part’ of the Zagreb New Circus Festival 2012. Taking the form of the classic circus act of a lady being sawn into three parts, the eighth edition of the international festival which had began spontaneously thanks to the endeavours and personal savings of the former journalist Ivan Kralj in 2005, was on this occasion programmed in three distinct sections some weeks apart. As in most previous years, there was an element of making virtue out of necessity in coming up with the three part programming concept, as Kralj wished to include a number of artists with availabilities very far apart. Out of this also emerged the theme of ‘new magic’ for this year’s festival, and the festival brochure is suitably arranged to function as a magic trick. Due to limited means and a lack of support, in previous years, the festival has taken the form of a ‘one day festival’, or a mock election campaign in the year when it coincided with general elections. As a result the festival has acquired a considerable audience following even though it also maintains a certain underground mystique. In the absence of adequate local support, Kralj has struggled to bring it to a close, and has programmed the last festival event for this year to take place on the much publicized doomsday of 21.12.12.

The delegation of ten international journalists to which I belonged on this visit to Zagreb featured representatives from France, Belgium, Romania, Germany, Finland, Spain and the UK, and we were privileged to also have a programme of talks and discussions framing our experience of the work we saw. Forming part of an EU-funded initiative designed to increase critical understanding of the genre of circus, the scheme named Unpack the Arts, run by Yohann Floch, is a two-year programme of 12 residencies which will have taken place at 12 different circus festivals around Europe. The Zagreb residency is the third in the first series.

Following day one of the residency which created a space for general introductions of the hosts and the guests, and day two which provided a useful overview of the ‘traditional’, ‘new’, ‘contemporary’ and several other proliferating circus trends, much of the day three therefore provided the time and space for thinking.

Unfortunately, Hakkarainen’s piece did not do this for me on its own terms without the artist revealing his cards, and therefore it might be seen to have failed in one of its key intentions. But then again, how many people would really expect this kind of a proposition from a circus piece? Thus, what this piece drew attention to was also a deliberate blurring of the boundaries of the genre to which it purportedly belonged. Hakkarainen confessed that he premiered this piece in an art gallery but has also performed it at theatre and dance festivals allowing it to be framed by the inherent viewing conventions of those genres as well.

On the night of its performance Nopeussokeus (Speed Blindness/Motion Blindness) was, interestingly, presented as the second part of a double bill with a seven-minute extract from a piece called Vibrations by the French ‘magie nouvelle’ company La Cie 14:20, which, in contrast, claimed ‘kinaesthetic empathy’ as the desired element of their relationship with the audience. Performed by a former Robert Wilson collaborator François Chat, and costumed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the extract named Gravitation was a rather anti-climactic etude featuring a gravity-defying stick. The characteristic slowing down of the motion of the piece was intended to change the perception of time and affect the breathing pattern of the audience apparently resorting to some of the principles of traditional magic which seek to manipulate the observer’s perception. Whether or not this would have worked for the piece as a whole was hard to tell from this short extract. However, what was clear was that both La Cie and Hakkarainen’ areas of motivation were a far cry from the simple childlike enchantment engineered by the likes of Le Cirque Invisible, or the appreciation of human virtuosity that may have marked more traditional circus forms. What do they all have in common then as circus companies, if anything at all?

Circus as a Thinking Space

In the afternoon of the third day of the residency, French critic Anne Quentin proposed that a distinguishing characteristic between circus and other performing arts is its conception of performance space as a three-dimensional quantity. Circus artists, in her view, defy gravity in a different way from dancers for example. In circus, the horizontal plane of the stage is conceptually replaced by the notion of space as ‘volume’. This is filtered through the three main aspects of circus: madness, balance and confinement. I wondered to what extent the word ‘madness’ was a suitable translation in this context of the more broad-ranging French ‘folie’ (until I subsequently read that Jean-Baptiste Thierrée attributes the origins of his work to his collaboration with Felix Guattari in the Clinique de la Borde). But bearing in mind the notion of ‘folie’ as a broad psychological malady, it could be argued that these three are the challenges encountered by a displaced person too: the threat of a loss of sanity (as found by the seventeenth century Swiss doctors), the necessity to maintain a balance between cultures, and the desire to escape the given time-space continuum ‘sideways’. In her book, Boym further noted that nostalgia was a diagnosis of the age of a ‘poetic science’, made at a time when the two disciplines were still intertwined and when the mind and the body were treated together. But as we enter a post-Cartesian age, it is no wonder that nowadays, having displaced itself from the big top into a black box, circus itself aims to be both the realm of the mind and the body – of mental activity and kinaesthetic empathy. That same afternoon, the Croatian critic Nataša Govedić emphasized the inherent ability of circus ‘to change the appearance of reality’. Could its current form of authorship be seen as ‘a strategy for survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming’?

It was the final performance of our residency that effectively brought into focus the potential of circus to integrate the cerebral and the kinaesthetic, the poetic and the philosophical, the ridiculous and the sublime. Performed by the Belgian-based Italian Claudio Stellato, this act with a man, two pieces of furniture and a red carpet, performed in complete silence, managed to achieve much more than some of its more elaborate, flashy, hi tech predecessors in this festival did. Taking another basic trick from the history book, the piece exploits the potential for slapstick humour contained within the relationship between a man and a seemingly self-willed object. At the other end of the scale this show contains a Beckettian suggestion that our whole life is an obsessive rehearsal of an escapism act – initially from the cradle, eventually from the coffin. Following a fifty-minute struggle, the closure arrives as our hero glides – magically – into thin air, elevated above his earthly concerns. The title of the piece, L’Autre, alludes to the dual – conscious and unconscious – nature of our endeavours, but also more literally to its technical dependence on another human behind the scenes, rather than on technology per se. So after all, what makes circus interesting is the wonder of being a human being – now, that’s something to think about, over and over again.