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Putting a fire under stereotypes

“Putting a fire under stereotypes” is an expression that Anne Bogart, the artistic director of the SITI Company (New York) built a chapter on in her book, A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. The text explores the complexity of stereotypes and a possible fertile approach to deal with them (91-111). It is a convincing argument that proposes two crucially different ways of artistic processes: one that tries to evade stereotypes by focusing on producing something brand-new, and the other one that embraces what is already known, to set them on fire. Bogart’s starting point is the fact that to leave stereotypes out of viewpoint during a creative process is simply not possible since they are containers of collective memory. The problem with them is that they have been said or have happened so many times that referring to them has no power anymore. Simply revisiting or recreating them is a superficial act that lacks curiosity. To discover something new or to question their limits, one needs to enter stereotypes, research them, and “put fire” under them from within. The artists, Rita Góbi (dance) and Dávid Szegő (drums) did this successfully in their music-dance duo performance, “Don’t Fuss!” – an approximately fifty-minute-long show, which premiered in 2014, in Budapest. (I saw the performance in February 2017.)

“It takes craft to set up the circumstances that are simple and yet contain the ambiguities and the incongruity of human experience” – writes Bogart (106). This aspect is tangible in the mentioned performance, where the basic situation presents a drummer with a drum set and a dancer on stage, and the theme of the daily life of a couple, in the light and darkness of hysteria and its aftermath.1 However, this prescribed set is there to be questioned and corporeally researched by the artists, inviting the audience to do the same. During the dynamic, real-time experiments with each other, the borders between the artists of different forms of expression are challenged, and the space is filled with playful complications, ambiguities, and incongruity.

Let me give some examples. The stage is rather dark, and the dramaturgy is often supported by spotlights. For a long time, Rita Góbi is dancing in the light, while the abandoned and silenced musician is staying unlit. The spotlight is following the dancer, which she is creating a dialogue with, a parallel game. Sometimes, unexpectedly, her stretched arm or half of her body ends up in darkness then comes back to the focus. In these moments, she induces ambiguity by changing her position of being visible. From her exposed position, she is experimenting with leaving the halo, making her body partially disappearing, and at the same time, directing the attention to the rest of the space in shadow, where the musician is sitting behind. By her jumping through the border of the spotlight and the unlit space, she seems to hold onto the communication, even involuntarily, with the drummer, who she has left, deprived of his instruments, in a “speechless” sate.

So, the circumstances are very simple: the stage is a platform of a conflict between two human beings, one positioned in a darker space, sitting motionless, and another one dancing in a spotlight. Yet, such a subtle play with the limits of these two realms of the stage, and sensitively keeping every moment live and vibrant, result in the high complexity of the actions. Leaving the musician behind simultaneously includes staying in touch with him surreptitiously; while the silence of the musician does not correspond to the dissolution of the music, but rather its suppressed continuation.

In the meantime, by the real-time character of this game/conflict, the connection between the performers is extended to the audience as well, who is also sitting in the dark, rather motionless. They are involved in the situation by an intensified attention to, and sensation of the macro and micro dynamics coming alive on stage. Although everything in the show happens after a rehearsed choreography, there is a continuously sustained openness that is on a micro-level of the inter-connected, transforming bodies, experiencing different states within a common situation. This openness and liveliness are what it means to “put a fire” under the clichés. It requires from the artists to approach these reappearing issues and scenarios as if it was happening the first time. “If the actor has preconceived assumptions about how to perform the actions and words, the event has no chance to come to life” – writes Bogart (96). However, a solid frame, a container of memory, a point of reference that is a pre-established form, is necessary to induce the inner freedom of transformation, to allow a real-time creation (102-103).

In this live game that happens in the present, activated memory is a crucial aspect, both in its creation and in its reception. The performers creatively re-live, re-experience the conflict of the two human beings, the two different artists and forms of expression. This happens within the solid frames of the already-known, the containers of memories (95): of the rehearsed choreography, the stereotypes around music and dance, woman and man, hysteria, light and dark, or motion and stillness. “These inherited solid shapes, images and even prejudices can be entered and embodied, remembered and reawoken” (95). So, what is solid and pre-decided is the exterior, the action or the form, but never the felt emotions (102-103).

Another example for creative incongruity evolving from a simple setting is in the dialogue between the accents of the drum and the dancing body. Often there is a tiny discrepancy between their rhythms. Sometimes one seems to lead and the other to follow, but this can be changing at any moment, so at the end, it is impossible to decide who has the leading position. In fact, no one of them is a leader neither a follower. But still, interestingly, there are breaking points when the harmony between them is trembling, maintaining tension and curiosity of each other. Surprise is a key factor in this dialogue. The performers are open to trick themselves, so their audience. Therefore, emotions are free to arise unexpectedly, beyond the rehearsed forms and beyond the expectations.

The performance is a corporeal research by the artists on several layers: e.g. on being an artist, on the lives and connections of human beings, on communication, on sound and movement, or even on memory. The work is also a research on stereotypes of all these notions that pushes the limits of prejudices. As Bogart argues, stereotypes are “containers for meaning which embody the memory of all the other times they have been done” (96). They are patterns that cannot be avoided since they are rooted in the collective past. Instead, it is important during the artistic creation to enter them, to go through them, to interact with them fully engaged. Then the meaning starts to change by itself during the repetition, in a process of reawakening memory (101). Therefore, repetitions – as in the dancer’s fragmented movements, or in the cyclical sounds of the drums – are not habitual but ways of constant transformations. So, in this full engagement of the performers, there are no predetermined emotions, even when the artists are dealing with stereotypes. On the contrary, when there is a solid exterior form or action, you can allow the emotions to ensue surprisingly. So, this is a paradox of a given frame, a kind of productive limitation that opens towards an interior freedom of “the quality of being” (102-103). In the case of the show – “Don’t Fuss!” – the “container” is entered with the attitude of courageous playfulness, mischievous humour, sometimes childish anger, and most importantly, curiosity.

I conclude this article with Bogart’s words: “If we embrace rather than avoid stereotypes, if we enter the container and push against its limits, we are testing our humanity and our wakefulness. The containers are powerful visual and audio stimuli for audiences and, if handled with great vigilance by the artist, can connect us with time” (111).

1. http://www.gobirita.hu/eng/article/article.php?menu_id=23&article_id=33
Image: Piti Marcell Photography