Watching Il n’y a plus de firmament at Kwai Tsing Theatre was a weird thing: the red velvet chair had grown some arms and legs, warped around you and slowly rotated in 3-dimensional manner. The 1 ½ hour long performance was definitely not an ordinary experience of traditional dance or drama. It’s more like riding with a wicked walking chair into a surrealistic gallery – a visual journey in theatrical form.
Hungarian choreographer Josef Nadj created this work as a presentation of the friendship between French painter Balthus and master of “Theatre of Cruelty”, Artaud. In the entire performance, performers were not just some sorts of characters. They became medium in the big canvas. Human bodies were deconstructed, and then reassembled as liquidized elements. In the opening scene, a performer nested on top of an over 20-feet high black frame. Before time can make its appearance, he glided down vertically with a horizontal gesture. Then he “crawled” up vertically along the frame as if the audience’ chairs had skewed 90-degree to the right. When he returns to his nesting gesture, time and reality seemed not related to each other anymore.
One of the popular scenes was when four performers manipulating a giant box showing off their sophisticated acrobatic technique. Smoothly, the box and the attached bodies have shifted the sense of space and gravity in many ways. This swapping of viewing angles has employed in many scenes: a dancer revolving in the air supported by others, or repeated movements in different geometric location. A satisfied feeling came from a sensation of unsettled, continues morphing illusion. The suspension of body movement in the whole performance is very appealing. Many activities were presented in absolutely clarity. Besides the influence of mime and dance, the scent of Noh theatre has lightly lingered around. Conceptually speaking, “moving” was the necessary procedure in perfecting “still life” on the stage canvas.
In the “artist talk” after the first night’s performance, there was a common question raised from a few audience: what kind of message did the performance try to convey? This brought up a fundamental subject matter of contemporary art: Who make the choice of what to see? The artist? Or the audience/viewer themselves? In this case, the performers’ answer was the latter one: In modern performing art, the audience has the freedom to choose what they see and how they feel.
In traditional stage performance, the script, storyline, and characters were well-defined, audience usually brought a ticket, tuck in a nice velvet chair and enjoy the narrative. Modern art, however, tends to invite audience participation and interaction. Through active viewer involvement, modern artists challenge the conventional way of perceiving, feeling and thinking. A good example is interactive art in which the audience define the outcome of the work. In performance, audience may participate the performing process physically, or mentally. Il n’y a plus de firmament is a mental voyage that requires a different way of seeing and thinking. The philosophy brought up from Il n’y a plus de firmament matched with the idea of “New Vision Art” which made this piece a great repertoire of “New Vision Art Festival”. Anyone who is familiar with Balthus’ work would be happy to take the ride. Indeed, I believe a large portion of audiences in our community used to enjoy traditional theatre. They could be great audience for avant-garde type of performance if we deliver more background knowledge. There was an introduction of the performance in the website (http://www.newvisionfestival.gov.hk/eng/performance/heavens.html), but unfortunately it was absent in the print program.
May be the following excerpt about Baltus’ work would enhance the aftertaste of Il n’y a plus de firmament:
“In (Balthus’) canvases, time is frozen, the traffic of life is stilled, gestures are suspended before they can declare their purpose: the scene is there to be uncovered by anyone who can find mystery in the anodyne.”