Sunday, February 04, 2007

'Bob': a job; plus, To 'Hell' and back

"There is really no legal function to ballet."
-- William Forsythe


The good news -- and the bad news -- about Katharina Otto-Bernstein's new large-format biography of the theatre director Robert Wilson is that it's the companion volume to a documentary film of the same title: Absolute Wilson. The existence of the film prompts one to dare to hope that there will eventually be a DVD release, which would be great news for those of us who from time to time try to teach (and learn from) Wilson, and for video evidence have to rely on Mike Figgis's earnest but actually pretty shabby documentation for Artangel of Wilson's mid-90s Clink Street installation H.G., and (in my case) odd, worn-out clips from a fourth generation VHS of the BBC's 1985 Arena documentary The Theatre of Robert Wilson. (In fact, come to think of it, that's not even my tape. Eek. Sorry Katja, that's shameful of me.) Even in the small-format trailer for the movie, to see some familiar clips of key works cleared of the fog of tape wear and copy noise is genuinely exciting (as well as some footage of Christopher Knowles that I hadn't seen before). On the downside, it seems that Wilson fans and sceptics alike are also going to have to sit through pin-sharp footage of the great man behaving like a poseur, a prima donna and a prick. (And if he can cram that into the two minutes of the trailer, O Lord what horrors may await in the full-length movie...)

Actually, it is probably no bad thing, on balance, that Otto-Bernstein (who is also the director of the film) appears to have retained and sensibly protected a certain ambivalence at the heart of her admiration for her subject: and that Wilson clearly has made it his business, in co-operating with her, to allow himself to come across as humanly fallible as it seems he does. After all, Wilson's detractors -- and this is important partly because those dissenting spectators are always quick to use their lifeless wooden effigy of Wilson as a blunt stick with which to beat a whole model of theatre-making -- are often particularly offended by the cultishness he seems to inculcate in his followers, their quite slavish devotion to his cool authoritarian cruelties. It was Peter Porter who famously said of J.H. Prynne that he seeks "disciples, not readers": he might well have been mouthing, mutatis mutandis, the orthodox objection to Wilson. The problem for admirers-with-doubts, like me, is that Wilson hasn't always made it easy for us to defend him from such ungenerous readings. From his strikingly peculiar 70's habit of trying to adopt and cohabit with his young and disadvantaged male proteges, such as Raymond Andrews and Christopher Knowles, to his immensely controlled, brand-aware self-presentation, Robert Wilson has never gone far out of his way to soften the general impression of the frosty and paternalistic master of ceremonies, who disdains the trivial preoccupations and the bourgeois mores even of his friends and collaborators. An auteur with a capital H.

Part of the composition of this impression, and a salient factor in Wilson's undeniable oddness as a man, is the extreme repetitiousness of his own commentary on his life and work. His accounts, whether to press interviewers or lecture audiences, of many key moments and themes in the development of his practice, are more or less word-for-word identical, across gaps of ten or fifteen years. It's not just the obvious (and sometimes nearly platitudinous) crafting and rehearsal of these accounts that jars -- after all, many artists would probably come across similarly if they didn't work so hard at practising their spontaneity signals; it's the weird combination of having (apparently) stopped thinking in new ways about these critical events, with what consequently appears to be an ulterior design for the cementing of a rhythmically consistent personal mythology. Perhaps, given his extremely religious upbringing in Waco, Texas in the 40s, his sense is that to have real authority you have to sound as unchanging and as deliberate as the Bible.

At any rate, Absolute Wilson appears to blow quite a lot of this away. In both the book and the clips from the film, he comes across as, first and foremost, a flesh-and-blood hominid, and secondly, not as some airtight black-clad cult leader, but as a guy finding pleasure and excitement (and some human exhaustion) in his ludicrously busy, carbon-expensive working life. He talks quite openly and in what seems to be a relaxed manner about his personal life, his sexuality in particular, which I think is a first. (Some months back a Wikipedia reference to him being gay was quite hastily deleted, I recall.) He recounts some of the Wilsonian myths and legends in what appear to be somewhat freshened patterns, and the pompousness and frequent preposterousness of these occasionally downright magic-realist anecdotes is contextually offset, or at least sweetened, by the exasperated affection of longterm collaborators and devotees.

Above all -- so far, for me at least -- it's the testimony of his sister, and to an extent Wilson's own descriptions of his upbringing, that really help things fall into place. How does a weird little kid with a learning disorder (manifesting most obviously as a speech impediment) become an adult working with way-larger budgets than any other comparable director on many of the world's most prestigious stages (though not so much in the US -- a longtime sticking point...), earning the respect of Susan Sontag and the friendship of Jessye Norman and wheedling million-dollar investments out of wealthy New York 'intellectuals' with such charm and such tactical cunning that they're barely aware it's happening? It all must be, mustn't it, at some level, a performance? Wilson portrays himself as slightly disconnected from other people but I think he has a real understanding of what motivates people, and an almost cynical ability to present to them the behavioural and semiological cues of a smooth-operating artworld genius. It helps that I think he probably is, in so far as the term has any useful meaning, a genius in respect of visual design: which is almost entirely what his theatre is made from. (He's often touted as some kind of renaissance man, but this is specious at best; if you listen to his 'conversational' speech, or watch his Torch Dance from Einstein on the Beach, he's organizing everything from the visual plane inwards. Even his immaculate understanding of and affinity with time is, I would guess, visually organized within his own cognition. This is why he responded so quickly to Christopher Knowles's work, and why he continues to boast so happily that Knowles's mother told him that his notebook closely resembled Christopher's.)

So this is what you have to think about when you see the trailer for Absolute Wilson and there's that exruciating shot of him dandily throwing his scarf over his shoulder. He doesn't look like the archetypal posey theatre director; he looks like the archetypal posey undergraduate who thinks he will one day be Robert Wilson. He's the perfect postmodernist -- everything about him is imitative. Of course he recognizes no boundary between art and life: that's because, to borrow from his hero Gertrude Stein, there's no there there. In the book, and (as far as one can tell) the film, we can, perhaps for the first time, tell that Robert Wilson is a human being; I'm not altogether sure that he can. There are tales (all from friends and admirers) of monstrous behaviour that will make you wince so hard you'll strain your sacroiliac. But I would -- this is literally true -- I would in a trice swap 98% of the theatre created in the UK in the last five years for the closing three minutes of Wilson's production of A Dream Play. Which I would also recognize is by no means one of his most important achievements.

The a-ha moment for me with Robert Wilson (by which I mean, the point at which I finally comprehended my relation to his work, not the moment where we got chased down a pencil-sketched corridor by a creepy guy with a monkey wrench) was his lecture at the Barbican about three years ago, when The Black Rider was in town. I hadn't previously quite understood the strength, or rather the force, of his conviction that the stage is somewhere else, somewhere ineluctably non-real. In a way this is simply a fierce reaction to American (and British) naturalism, and he's absolutely right that the innate artificiality of the performance situation as it's normally contrived represents a problem to be solved rather than a web of conventions to be tacitly accepted. But he and I diverge completely in our approach to that problem. Where he strengthens the barriers, I want to soften them. To say that the stage is insolubly different from the space around it is, I think, merely to restate the problem at a higher and more definitive level. For him, it is absurd to mimic reality in an unreal space; for me, it is an unconscionable rejection of reality to accept and endorse an equally absurd discontinuity of apprehension in a continuously real place. What's more, there is, to my mind, an extraordinary poignancy in retaining and protecting the realness of the real space and in being candid about our relations (as actors and spectators) with it. Wilson's hard line is both easier and more difficult to sustain: easier because it allows for extended authorial control, and eliminates contingency; more difficult because it admits no room for error or for chance. Which to my mind is tantamount to saying, it refuses love. -- And yet, very many people do love Wilson's work. Actually I suspect what they really love is that it dependably (and evasively) describes a dream space, which my work can't, or won't, do. I admire Wilson very much for his singular vision, which I find more interesting and more useful than his plural 'visions'. His attachment to creation outwards from formal and structural intuitions, in particular, is strikingly close to my own. I don't know any other theatre makers, apart from him and me -- though no doubt they exist! -- who will be able to tell you what the 55th or the 74th minute of a piece will feel like long before it's cast or its narrative is developed or its surface scenario is even conceived.

I am, by the way, aware that it's very unlikely that Mr Wilson talks about me and him in the same breath. Or that anybody else does, anywhere.

O and good grief but he was beautiful when he was 20.


Having been reading (through the gaps between my fingers) the horrifying account of Wilson's partially abortive CIVIL warS project for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics -- if it's that traumatic to read, what must it have been like to live through? -- it's been kind of a relief that this last week's other artistic adventures have been characterised rather more by restraint and by the impressive reverberation of the withheld and the unexpressed.

It started with Kelly Reichardt's remarkable film Old Joy, in which Daniel London and Will Oldham play two old friends meeting up for a weekend camping in the Oregon countryside. In a way, it's exactly the kind of film you'd expect Oldham (aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) to be up for -- though he hasn't always been the most predictable in his choices of project; Sam reminded me last night of this little doozy -- but he and London both dig much deeper than any simplistic or superficial affinity would take them. This is not quite as pared down a movie as some of the (euphoric) reviews have suggested -- the two men do talk to each other quite a bit, and it's not all smalltalk by any means. I think the sense of incredible restraint in this film derives not from its open spaces (real and metaphorical) but from what is held back. There is a remarkable credibility in the complete refusal of the film to elaborate its own backstories. References are made to a shared history and to more recent events in the friends' lives that are thrown away, unelaborated, never picked up. And at the couple of instances where the pressure that builds all through the film finally pushes one of the protagonists into self-revelation, there is an almost immediate withdrawal: either the men back down or off, or the scene ends. What this adds up to is certainly the most successful rendering in film that I've ever seen of the dynamic procedure of a really good short story (which Old Joy originally was -- a short story, at any rate, I don't know if it's really good, but I'd guess it probably is). The last minute of the movie is as beautiful and as upsetting as anything I've seen at the pictures for a long time, and yet it's so barely there I could hardly describe it; and then, after less than an hour and a quarter, the film ends. There is such intelligence and tenderness in this film; sometimes I think I manage bravery in my work, and sometimes I think I manage poise, but to achieve both, with such economy and yet not a trace of coolness, is unbelievably impressive.

An equally notable restraint rather surprisingly characterises Emio Greco PC's Hell, which passed through the Barbican this week to an apparently muted reaction from audiences and some open hostility from critics. Having seen a couple of Greco and Scholten's previous works (Conjunto di NERO and Rimasto Orfano) in Edinburgh, where Greco was particularly in favour for a while, and having greatly admired that work but formed the suspicion that it could quite easily develop towards a kind of histrionic sensationalism, I had somewhat expected Hell, four years on, to confirm that promise -- not necessarily, but most likely perhaps, to its detriment.

So it was a surprise to find Hell more tightly and lucidly organised than that. Certainly there was, right from the start (a late 80's disco -- Taylor Dayne, indeed! -- standing in none-too-cryptically for the liminal terrors of Dante's "dark wood"), a finely wrought -- arguably slightly overwrought -- intellectual rigour to the piece, which meant that unfamiliar and disturbing patterns and cues were to the fore. One early component was the searchlight, a computer-controlled spotlight that tracked chillingly over the audience -- chills that were by no means dispelled by the on-stage presence of two of the same robot-like lights (one suspended above the other), reacting to unseen remote commands with bleakly humorous anthropomorphic twitching. (Heiner Goebbels took the same device much further in his brilliant Eraritjaritjaka a couple of years ago, but that was always cute rather than scary.) From the steep irony of the showbiz arc, twinkling with domestic-looking bulbs, through which the dancers initially enter, to the full-body charcoal-grey suits in which some dancers sporadically and momentarily portrayed others' shadows, there was an argument in the work about light and dark which seemed to reach far beyond the simplistic symbologies or the basic theological connotations of those states, to a more ambivalent and restless confrontation of exposure and concealment, of being hidden and being (literally) discovered.

Two things, ultimately, overcame my own ambivalence about the work as it proceeded -- though I have to say it was never, for a moment, not interesting. Firstly, I realized how much of the tonal ambiguity of the work could be partly resolved by watching the company and the mise en scene through Greco's own stage presence, which seems more easily to convey (or at least to carry) a sense of playfulness and of pleasure. Ultimately, he is dancing because he is a dancer, and we are to watch dancers dancing, not mute athletes engaging us in a pitiless, unwinnable game of charades. They are not dancing about anything, though there are ideas and propositions and questions in the mix which help us to situate our relation to their creative process. Once I'd worked out that I was indeed watching Greco (he is quite heavily disguised at the start of the performance), he became my Virgil in this disorienting vision of Hell. And the second of these convincing factors was close to the end, where Greco has his company dance naked to the first movement of Beethoven's 5th. This could feel lame in so many ways, but it ends up being a precarious and ultimately enthralling coup de theatre. Before this, he has already shown us these dancers exchanging costumes, invoking the persistence of the body beneath our privatised or familial or commercial identies: so this nakedness is literally stark, a hard-fought and unyielding essentialism, distinctly prior to the social and cultural significations that the piece has taken such jouissant pains to ruin. What's really exciting is how this seems to have sufficient power even to recuperate the Beethoven, probably the most overplayed, overburdened, overinvoked piece in the classical repertory. None of these accreted layers is dispelled, exactly, but the music is able in this context to be serious and struggling despite, not because of, its secondary connotations. Pace Helpmann or whoever it was, no, not everything does stop when the music does: my heart was pounding for the rest of the night and my head's still a little bit whirly even now.

And so last year's cavalcade of frankly exposed bodies seems to be continuing in 2007. I don't particularly seek this stuff out, honest. (When we were away, J. was looking through the wallet-full of favourite movies I'd brought with me. "Chris," he said, "why do all your DVDs have pictures of naked people on them?" Which wasn't quite accurate, but not far off.) When there's nudity even in a Will Oldham movie -- he quite breezily hops in a hot-tub, which was not what I expected -- what can you do? Meanwhile, over at Dennis Cooper's blog, there's been a fascinating participatory exercise (proposed by one of the regulars), in which the DC base submit naked pictures of themselves [scroll down past the JMC stuff!] -- though not necessarily explicit: it was made clear that a hand or a shoulder would be quite acceptable: in which light, the number of folks -- the young men in particular -- who have gone all the way -- and then some -- is striking and, in a funny way, rather encouraging: expressive, thoughtful, communitarian, rather than blandly and individually exhibitionist. As with the Completely Naked project, the questions arising around self-presentation and the languages and codes of self-imaging are complex and provocative in all the best, most generative ways. And similar thoughts arise from the excellent Collier Schorr's testing photographs in the current (February) issue of i-D.

This is all to the good not least because, sometime at the start of the year, the thinking and sketching I was doing towards my performance project The Goodman Portraits went really peculiarly and unexpectedly out of focus. Everything had been feeling very clear, and then suddenly it was all a bit fuzzy and obscure. Partly I suppose because Kiss of Life and the trip to Sydney in general, and also the gathering storm [the good kind!] around Speed Death of the Radiant Child in Plymouth, simply edged it out of my mind -- too much on the front-burner, not for the first time... And maybe I got to a point where I was so intensely into TGP that some of that ideation and desire burnt itself out. Or maybe my courage buckled when it started to be a practical reality instead of a prodigious daydream. For me, at least, it's once thing to be doing the sketching and planning for a project that will ask a lot of its participants in terms of its -- uh -- I hate this word, it's exactly wrong -- explicitness; as long as I can explain the serious questions and impulses that are behind it, that's fine. It's another thing to put the ad in the paper, send out the round-robin email... There's just some residual reticence. Maybe it's no more than a heightening of the usual fear -- that people will say no. I'm casting Speed Death at the moment and when people say no, or worse yet don't say anything at all, two anxieties crash into each other: I'm being rejected, and at the same time my advance sense of my work is being altered in quite forceful ways. Possibilities change -- of course others emerge, but that doesn't seem to compensate.

Also I suppose, in respect of The Goodman Portraits, I'm not feeling quite as fired up at the moment as I was at the end of last year. Getting something on that scale uptogether feels a bit daunting right now, especially in parallel with Speed Death, which is going to be a huge undertaking. Maybe this is just February talking, a slight wish to disappear under my duvet with a big book and a steady supply of vanilla tea. Anyway, I think TGP is slowly coming back into view. We'll see. I suspect there'll be more cowardly burbling on these pages before I get the ball properly rolling.

Something I've been quite excited by, finally: looking for info on Robert Lepage's new show, I got Googlepointed to this archive of John Tusa's interviews with cultural luminaries for Radio 3. I occasionally see these interviews in the radio listings but never seem to remember to listen: but they're all stacked up waiting to be worked through. For the Thompson-aligned, there are substantial (40-minute) conversations -- all with transcriptions -- with Lepage, Simon McBurney, William Forsythe (jaw-droppingly smart as usual), Merce Cunningham, Heiner Goebbels, Edward Bond, Deborah Warner, Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliot Carter, Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Serra. While for those who haven't been paying attention in class, there's David Hare and Anish Kapoor. (Click on the Forsythe link for a more easily navigable list of all the programmes.)

Tusa is arguably a borderline crackpot, of course -- an impression that his new role as chair of a Conservative party taskforce on arts policy does little to dent. But for all his harrumphing (of which there's a fair bit in these interviews) and somewhat patrician aspect, he's a massively capable man -- he seems to have been brilliant for the Barbican, though I don't know how affectionately he's regarded there; his classic Reithian instincts have put him on the right side of a number of arguments around the World Service and BBC arts provision, and the outline he gives the Guardian of the issues that he sees as likely to be raised in his new role is not by a long chalk foolish or pedestrian. In the light of the New Labour evasion and mediocrity that have led to the state of affairs magnificently nailed by Lyn Gardner in her most recent blog entry, I wouldn't be at all sorry to see the values that Tusa appears to uphold in the ascendant for a while. But then, like most old-school socialists, I've got a little bit of the grumpy old Telegraph reader about me. His lines of questioning in these interviews, anyway -- that's what I'm supposed to be writing about -- are sensible rather than quick or acrobatically intelligent, but a likeable enthusiasm for the maverick and the intellectually switched-on, and a concomitant distaste for the bogus, can certainly be made out in what he says and in the rapport that he seems to build with most of his subjects. Better still, he knows when to shut up and let these people talk. I've never heard Simon McBurney better (or, at any rate, less fanciful). I'd like to hear Tusa get hold of Robert Wilson one of these days.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ah, now, the scarf. As I understand it, I don't know, Wilson didn't edit the trailer or have any say in the camerawork, he just flung a scarf around his neck. Other forces filmed him from a heroically low angle and isolated this action as a money-shot. It's not his fault he looks like a prick going "Look at me I am a giant capable of walking, talking and dressing and they have made a film about me ta-daa!" I mean I don't know, I've never seen him on film before, perhaps that's his trope, in which case the makers of this trailer were of course right to include the incident with the scarf and, yes, what a prick. But you shouldn't read too much into it, be fair, scarves can be fun. Maybe he was in a hurry. I've taken to wearing a trilby. Selina left it behind and my head was cold and I'm now a little more sympathetic to theatricals who keep their hats on indoors. Nowhere has hatstands... I mean, would you rather he wore a turtle neck? Also, in a similar spirit of seriousness, I'd question the artistic importance of spending much time re-evaluating your own working history, particularly for the sake of an interview. I mention this because your - not doubts, I can't think of the word - doubts reminded me how unsettling I found your account of Wales. All you wrote about in the end was your idea of you. (I do like all this, by the way. Thanks for it, Chris. Frontier Psychiatrist was madelaine enough for me.) Simon. And the word verification is skuby.

Chris said...

Well, no, come on, though, it's hardly -gonzo-, this movie. There's a set-up, right? She says, Bob, we'd like to get a shot of you walking down the street here on the way to your meeting with, whoever, the Bilderberg group, and he says, sure, and he puts his shades on and gets ready to do the scarf-flick, doesn't quite pull it off, they go again... AT BEST she says Would you mind putting your shades on and flicking your scarf and he says Really, do you think?, I'd rather not, I might look like a prick, and she says, no no, you'll look intellectual and nonchalant, and he says, really?, well if you think, then sure, I'll do that, just don't put it in the trailer because out of context I'll look like a prick. That, sunshine, is the BEST CASE SCENARIO.

Scarves are bad. I have a woolly hat from the market and my righteous class-war indignation to keep me warm. And how often do you need a scarf and sunglasses at the same time, I'm saying NEED, eh? Unless you're in the Alps. See any Alps in the trailer? Nuh uh.

He frequently wears a turtleneck AS YOU WELL KNOW and that's of course worse. To be fair, maybe he has a tender glottis. Or the prominent jutting thyroid cartilage of a CONFIRMED GAYER.

I can't remember much about my account of Wales, but I'm sorry to have unsettled you. I was suddenly stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to distract me from the fear of the work I'm supposed to be doing, and the fear of myself, looming very large, the fear I mean, I always loom pretty large... What did you want though? I can't quite tell. An account of the scenery? I'd have liked to have written an account of all the work that happened but hardly any did, and of that, most of it needs protecting from my creative accounting skills.

Anyway. Never mind me. Do some work.

Funny, my word verification is dafni. If anybody gets thelma, give us a shout.

Anonymous said...

Hoo hoo. You're right of course. But being filmed is being filmed, how does one not pose in front of a camera. How? Hiding behind your hand doesn't cut it. School photos may be the only answer. A friend of mine had some cardboard art on at a hut in the Docklands, and my favorite piece there was a student's photo album - I think - full of normal photos: parties, group hugs, going blahhhh, just smiling, pointing etc. and the title was "Why am I such a cunt?" I smile every time I think of it. But riding out posterity in a bubble wrap of vainglorious posturing is probably just as valid a response to the camera as any. As you say, at least he's having fun. Oh, then again, I know too little of Wilson's work to feel betrayed by his self-image: If Chuck Jones had swanned around in a caftan calling himself the Sheikh, yes I might have found that painful to watch... Oh god, I'm sorry. Actually, I didn't even know Wilson wore a turtle-neck, but clearly should have guessed. I don't always manage the distinction between the Bilderberg group and doozers either. My bad. And I can't offhand think of a nicer synonym for "unsettled" either. "Disturbed"'s not it, nor is "upset". But there should clearly be one. Stirred, I suppose. Shaken. On reflection though, bothered is probably the most accurate under the circumstances. And it might have been that question exactly "What was I expecting?" that bothered me (the question itself, not your asking of it). I can't honestly remember now why, but I think it was because you started off with how extraordinary Wales had been for you, and I was just expecting it to lead into an extrapolation from your environment, rather than an opportunity to interpolate uninterrupted, if that makes sense. Then again, I haven't been. Maybe they're the same. Thanks again. Loom away. Simon... No good, my word verification is dibbl.

notional said...

I think the structural/formalist tendency is stronger than you think. You and Bob might be a bit more mathematically (and temporally) precise than the rest of us... but who would we explain our work to in those terms? Certainly not the people who commission theatre. I suspect even some playwrights think like this sometimes (although the literary managers will make them feel guilty for it..)
really interesting stuff here about Wilson and the imaginary stage.

Chris said...

Hi Notional,

you're right, of course. In fact I sketch the rough dynamic shape of pieces first (in relation to a timeline) -- & your remarks remind me that I only started doing that having read, some years ago, a book for aspiring screenwriters, which suggested the design of rollercoasters as a useful model for imagining the structural dynamics of a script.

I reacted quite disdainfully to the whole rollercoaster thing -- my guess is, Ophuls, say, or Tarkovsky, wouldn't have known quite what to do with it -- but nonetheless I've absorbed a version of it into my own practice; and, obviously, that was a mainstream textbook. I don't know too much about screenwriting: maybe that's a central orthodoxy, that you start with the 'ride' in mind, or on paper.

But yeah, it's the precision that freaks people out. "58 minutes?" they say, testing me, and I tell them my best guess. It's like being in Rain Man.