what is theatre?

I liked Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale. I liked, but not so much, Ulster American, by playwright David Ireland, presented by the Traverse Theatre Company, est. 1963. A part of the few thoughts I have now the energy to jot down concerns the institutional setting, including the timer setting of these works in their performance disciplines–I want to say respective, but what I have to say is really irrespective of discipline but in respect to its institution. (I mean, the relation the discipline acts to form, on which the institution of the dance subject and on which the institution of the theatre subject relies, with an outside.) It is to do with what name lasts.

Shechter’s tribe moved a recollection of dance in 1972, when the tribal musical Hair came to Wellington. The bodies are lithe long and abandon themselves to dancing. I like dancing like this. But then brackets of the most disciplined and synchronised group work take place. It is random, arm throwing, exuberant–a kind of excess anyway–and suddenly everybody falls on the beat. Pops on the beat. Jigs break out. Parodies of dance. I realised we are dancing for our lives. But our lives are threatened by lightweight simulations of the monolithic stones at the Jewish memorial, Berlin. These are bureaucratic and managerial walls to break our heads against as well as Wailing Walls. Or otherwise bullet shot-up walls. In other words they are scenic devices, moving scenery, on trucks.

Our lives are not threatened by these simulations, but the dancers are onstage. They are hemmed in, and there is the brilliant choreography of Tom Visser’s lighting, a designer for whom the deployment and pattern of sources of light is as important in this production as the way it strikes the body, bodies, floor, monoliths, impression made on the audience or not made–a lighting philosophy in which I see my own and the faults in my own.

I feel most deeply the moments when the energy is highest and deepest and most useless and in recognition and in despite of the kind of machine the social has become.

The whole first half of the Grand Finale is build, Shechter liking his music as much as if not more than his dance world. The acoustic world refers to Jewish experience. But then there are elements from Maori Haka, it seems, from war dance, or sport dancing–rugby. No distance comes in to separate it out in its culturally specific reference, either on the Jewish line of descent or the Maori. Perhaps it’s not Maori. It looks like it. And it is clearly martial in theme. The music builds–the staccato rhythm of k-chick gunstock being set, loaded, in the set-up.

So there is a loading of symbolism. But the dancers seem to dance for themselves even when playing corpses, so many dead bodies, but the most striking those initial four women, their limbs kicked out and propelled by the movement of their partners, into unbelievable unison of movement–unbelievable for one half of the sum total of bodies having no agency in the movement.

The second half I wanted to edit: because of a scene set upstage, with a live band of acoustic musicians playing klezmer-like music, and the ten dancers the band’s audience. Yet the music is pumping out full volume from the speaker arrays. It should have all been far upstage, distant, the sound faint, emitted only by the instruments, without amplification, or even smaller, less, on the verge of disappearing.

What a loss there is in the loss of Douglas Wright! Subtleties and dynamics washed out in the techno-rave reading of Gavin Bryars’s Sinking of the Titanic, to which the dress suits and lifejacket, was it, of the live band seemed to refer.

People stood and clapped. A standing ovation. I liked the display of energy. But the dance didn’t so much run out of material or so repeat material or allow it to return and vary as erect a world of art in its own image. Even the heteronormativity and harkening back to limb-throwing-out dance could be put down to this, and the symbols showing as well: that it was young, ok, but that it did not open onto anything but what it contained in the way of relations inside itself already. Sealed off, in dance as it is. Nothing invented. The discovery of the movement of these long lithe corpses so generalised within the scope of the whole as to lose all the elements with which they might be referred outside the work.

The theatre piece Ulster American is even more curiously contained in this regard. (I recall some notes I made about the Christchurch shooting: that the Muslim congregations are as ungeneralisable–to the city, the nation–as its perpetrator is unindividualisable–to the lone crazy, seeing as how he represents, as a terrorist, a political cause or interest, that of the extreme Right Wing, from the support of which our own political representatives are chary about cutting themselves off entirely.)

It concerns a script of honesty and integrity and one that says and does what theatre must say and do now and for all time: this script and the nature of its (theatrical) truth is, inside the work, fought over and contested by the American ego, the directorial ego, the ego of another–that is the ego of the writer, a woman. A nice way to get around the master text’s authorship.

Like Grand Finale its appeal is reflecting on–like the critics it holds up inside itself to all the old lines of fire–theatredance and rather than presenting it being seen to represent it.

(The link to the previous thought in parenthesis reposes in the playing out of a de- or anti-particularisation, generalisation, of artistic statement at the same time as an individualisation of artistic intent is set forth too: more obvious in Ulster American since the script’s very particular reference to Northern Ireland, Britishness, Fenianism, Sectarianism, and the Protestant-Catholic, British-Irish divide, is that contested by the egos as the one to generalise to universal human experience.)

It has to offer many words.

I liked seeing it at a matinee with a group in the audience who were sight-impaired. I took the cue and shut my eyes, partly because I was sick of the sight of the set by Becky Minto and the costumes, and the mugging to the audience of Robert Jack and the general state of affairs where the performer waits for his performance or hers to take affect, for the audience to laugh or take a sharp inbreath, or do the things, the dance of theatre. A dance with the audience, perhaps. But here the stimulus-response. While dealing, need it be said, with important and timely contemporary issues. But while dealing with them, by way of the script inside the play, in general.

That is: the discussion of the script around which the action revolves includes head-nodding eye-winking to the notion that theatre ought to be about the particular to reach a general, no, not consensus, as here, but application. A relevance. (But application and relevance are as soiled concepts today as signification. And the nod and wink is also to this fact, a matter of metaphysical, not desire, but irony.)

The world explored by Ulster American is theatre. Just as the world assumed by Grand Finale is dance. And, the delight of the audience at the former is more saddening than that at the latter. The words make a difference.

(I noticed recently several words that have dropped from common use: propaganda and didactic. They have become so common as not to need to be named. )

But there is something else here too. Not just ecce dance ecce theatre. Ecce festival. Not just the egoism of one form against that of another.

Both productions are energised by a kind of cynicism. It is what I find most moving in Grand Finale–the irrecuperable excess, in a kind of exchange beyond symbolic exchange, money, death, sex, and so on, with the sacred. Giving without any chance of return. In Ulster American, it is sheer exchange: language tokens for others. Performances attuned to the expectations, and recognising in them their reasons as well as their conditions, of the audience. A managerial complement. No.

More than this. Neither work wanted to give thought to what is outside it.

What is outside the timely contemporary issues of fake news and honesty and identity and rape culture and accelerated and exaggerated violence of social experience of Ulster American is not another point of view. And it is not from another point of view that it can be asserted. What is outside of these bodies hurtling through the scenography of Grand Finale, if not against its soft-prop moveable monoliths, however timely and contemporary its allusions to the musical traditions Islam and Israel share, and the guns and the bodies, and the status of these bodies as bodies in their muted migrant costumes, is not the actual events of these past two weeks, not an actual and indubitable outside.

It is the thought which specifies itself in its inside–as a point of view–by passing by way of the outside. It leaves theatre behind. It leaves dance behind.

Yet one ought to hesitate over the word ‘thought’ since it has been so denied and paraded before others to be the desirable term of exchange–that is, in the old days. Nobody should give it a single moment’s consideration in the era of outsourcing informational intelligence, these days. What good will that get you? No.

Let’s not talk about thought, and constrain ourselves to what this does and and what that does. Television does not seek consensus; it is driven by consensus. And advertising. Online content provision puts consensus, even a step before its proven drivenness, and so circles back to what is almost poetry. Just as loss-making companies can launch with untenable values on the financial market.

Theatre, what is that? And if it were to do something, what would it be?

In its marketplace, in the marketplace that stands in its stead, yes, festivalisation, as a way to make it, personal survival and the bottomline, always. Hidingplaces, like academic ones, sure. Covering its loss of institutional status–where it talks to power at the level of power–a way of talking, that’s all. A way of talking that bears no relation to the way it talks and represents itself to the conditions and powers which make it possible. Ok, but this growing identification with the managerial strata that want to kill it, not out of any ill will, but because it is irrelevant, only encloses it further in terms which it cannot articulate. For having all of language, it lacks a language.