Relax, it’s just a performance | Magdalena Przybysz

Podcast / 10 min / e-Scena

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A series of podcasts edited by Julia Hoczyk. Invited authors reflect on C/U Festival from the perspective of time and personal interests. Witold Mrozek talks about the changing role of the festival. Alicja Müller – about breaking taboos. Katarzyna Słoboda – about the reception of dance on a kinetic level. Magdalena Przybysz – about performances with political and social themes. Anna Królica – about the performances which deal with the heritage of dance. Finally, Julia Hoczyk recalls the events that were important for her as an “accompanying critic”.

Magdalena Przybysz

Relax, it’s just a performance

 As choreographers, we cannot help but exert our influence. It is simply impossible not to do it. Whatever appears in the shaft of daylight or stage light in a specially separated space, it immediately transforms itself from Anything into Something. It thus becomes a concrete work, gesture, statement, manifesto, story-telling, abstract play, exposure of stereotypes and privileges, spectacular show, or, on the contrary, an intimate experience, uncomfortable provocation, or an attempt to build a community. When we’re a part of the audience, on the other hand, it is almost impossible to come to the spectacle as the proverbial tabula rasa. Our attitude, knowledge of someone else’s work, its appreciation or aversion to it, previously read reviews, overheard opinions or own associations, hopes and fears, aesthetic preferences or beliefs concerning the function of art – all these create filters through which we look at what appears on stage. And even if we get rid of expectations for a moment, once we collide with a particularly strong concept, a Jack-in-the-box is bound to pop out at some point there. I love those moments when a bubble suddenly bursts in front of my eyes and things go in a completely different direction than I expected.

Such breakthrough moments are a true feast. In order for them to happen, certain perverseness when creating choreography and constructing dramaturgy is necessary, accompanied by concern for the audience. People who watch the performance, on the other hand, are required to make an effort to decipher the clues suggested by the dancers and be ready to participate in some kind of collaborative game and play. We could experience it during numerous editions of the Ciało/Umysł Festival, thanks to e.g. Tonights, Lights Out! (2015) by Belgian choreographer David Weber-Krebs. The artist invited us to an experiment in which everyone could control one light bulb, which was a part of a special installation. The goal was to follow the external instructions in such a way that in the end, all the lights went out. It was supposed to be a symbolic democratic action of the community trying to solve various problems. What do you think – did it succeed? Did the lights go out or was there always someone to break from the pack? Blink, blink, I blink my eye like a broken fluorescent lamp.

Edyta Kozak, the founder and artistic director of the C / U Festival, involved the audience in the process of co-creation of the performance in yet another way. For many years, she has been consistently playing with her former and present creative identities, stretched between the soloist of the Grand Theatre in Warsaw and the contemporary multi-tasking role of an artist, curator, and producer. I will never forget my astonishment when, in the performance My Own Interview@Fanny Panda, instead of presenting the dance finale, the artist changed the paradigm of responsibility for the future of the performance and gave us questionnaires in which we were to decide what her next production would be and how we could get involved in it. Later, during the solo presented at the festival in 2009, entitled Dancing for You Longer than One Minute, the choreographer assigned different roles, namely that of her own mother or Prince Albert of Giselle, to people whom she randomly called on stage, thus making them equally important performers participating in her work. I suppose that it is thanks to Edyta’s love for non-obvious games that we owe the presence of so many interaction-based spectacles in the festival’s program.

I don’t know if you remember Trajal Harrell’s play Dancer of the Year (2019). Who do you see when you hear “Dancer of the Year by Tanz Magazine”? How old is he? What is the colour of his skin? How does he move? What will his solo be like? In what conditions, do you think, such a person produces his performances? Do you expect to see some signature moves? Despite all this… the artist, instead of a revue-like presentation on a rotating stage, shared his musical and dance inspirations among a simple and functional stage design consisting of a dance floor and a piece of plywood partition. Harrell knocked out the audience, who was awaiting some ironic polemic, with the vivid presence of the personal history imprinted on the memory of a body of a black mature man following the aesthetics of camp and embodying the traditions of his ancestors as well as the roots of modern, postmodern, afro, butō and vouge dance. For almost an hour, one could become a part of a disarmingly honest ceremony, and focus on what turned out to be the most important thing for the dancer: the dance itself.

The interest in playing with our expectations is also characteristic for Jérôme Bel, the choreographer who has visited the festival several times already. In The Show Must Go On (2012) and Gala (2017) performances, contrary to the stereotypical views that only professional dancers can dance on stage, he joined amateurs with professionals. These performances are a flick on the nose for all the slaves of dance techniques and classical ways of thinking about virtuosity. Bel proves that the beauty of the movement is democratic and communicative. In turn, his Disabled Theater (2013) was one of those very much-needed progressive steps (along with the activities of the Warsaw Theater 21) towards crackdown on stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities.

His last show, Isadora (2020), on the other hand, which was presented during the pandemic, apart from delighting me, also pissed me off. As a choreographer, I must admit that everything falls into place there.  It is a real masterpiece of political games: starting from the decision about the virtual presence of the choreographer during rehearsals and the decision to transport the dancers by land, through a virtuoso show of documentary and historical value, combined with the presentation of Isadora Duncan’s style performed by a dancer and researcher Elisabeth Schwartz, and ending with the invitation directed to the audience members willing to participate in a joint lesson – a reconstruction of a fragment of a choreographic phrase by Duncan herself. As a spectator, however, I wonder why both the artist’s assistant, Sheila Atala, whose role is mainly to act as a trustee for Jérôme’s narrative, and the phenomenal dancer, Elisabeth Schwartz, never receive their subjective voice from the choreographer in the performance? Maybe I’m just nitpicking here, maybe that’s how Bel is playing with some of my expectations here, or maybe this time … he just overlooked of his privileges? Well, nobody’s perfect – if one was to quote the last line from Some Like It Hot movie. Bel, je t’aime anyway.

The moments when the performances deal with issues such as the climate crisis, women’s equal rights, discrimination against sexual minorities or people with disabilities, the fight against white or class privileges are particularly appealing to me. That’s why, to conclude, I am going to refer to another production presented during one of the many editions of the festival. It is the work of a choreographer Robyn Orlin entitled ... although I live inside … my hair will always reach toward the sun (2009), in which, together with the dancer Sophiatou Kossoko, she reflects on the meaning of a drop of water and its value, as well as the ease or difficulty in obtaining it on different continents. When a dancer, after installing water kettles and plastic garden pools, openly shares her concerns about interacting with the audience, she gets to hear the choreographer’s response: “Oh, relax, it’s just a performance.” In this self-ironical way, the artist addresses not only the ecological issue but also the topic of the dynamic relationship between the choreographer and dancer. By introducing the sense of humour and engaging the audience in collecting water drops, the artist makes her work even more political. I like it. And I have a feeling that during the next editions of the festival there will be many opportunities to engage in various interactions once more.