Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Log 431 June 29 2014 “Thinking about life and death” has become the fallback position for performers who can’t think of any other description of their work

English: Portrait on wood panel of Irish write...
English: Portrait on wood panel of Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Painted by Reginald Gray from life in Paris 1961. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pete Seeger (right), nearly 89, with his longt...
Pete Seeger (right), nearly 89, with his longtime friend the writer/musician Ed Renehan on March 7, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Español: Instalación de Anish Kapoor en el CAC...
Español: Instalación de Anish Kapoor en el CAC Málaga, España. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Umeå sculpture park/Sweden with Pillar of Ligh...
Pillar of Light (1991) by Anish Kapoor# (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Dubrovnik - rooftops
English: Dubrovnik - rooftops (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Anish Kapoor at the Deutsche Guggenhe...
English: Anish Kapoor at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin 1108 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Christian Boltanski photographed in his studio...
Christian Boltanski photographed in his studio by Bracha L. Ettinger in 1990, for the artist book 'Matrix et le Voyage à Jerusalem de C.B.', 1991 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Stones Holding the Recordings Used for 'Th...
The Stones Holding the Recordings Used for 'The Whispers' by Christian Boltanski, created for the Folkestone Triennial. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I always numbered wine writers as kings of the garbage pile, in that more rubbish is written about wine than almost any other subject on Earth.
But lately I am beginning to think that stage performers are running them a close second. This has come about from attending a week-long show called  Le Petit Festival de Dubrovnik which has been staged every year for the last ten by a rather odd little fellow called Vinko Prismic, a Dubrovnik man born and bred who nowadays lives most of his life in Amsterdam. He turns up every year with a band of performers in tow ready to perform in a centuries-old building along the city waterfront called Lazaret, which was originally used for quarantining people before allowing them entry to the city-state (as Dubrovnik then was). It is a building composed of a line of stone rooms each of which makes an excellent place for theatrical performance, and that, since I was here last year has been --- and is still being --- fitted out with new roofs which further enhance their value as performing spaces.
Having now been a member of this audience for four or five years I can at last say that one thing that stands out from Vinko’s shows is that you never know what you are going to get, but another thing that most of his performers have in common is that they give high-flown, extravagant descriptions of their purposes.
Some of  shows I have seen have been appalling; one or two have been magnificent. Most are not too bad, if not quite of the top flight. Last year (or maybe it was the year before) the infamous madame of yesteryear, Xaviera Hollander, now grossly enlarged from her famous years, came to give us a little performance which was, not to out too fine a point on it, an insult to the intelligence of Vinko’s audience.
But was it last year, or the year before, he also produced two Japanese bhuto dancers who were quite astonishing. I will never forget the magical quality of one woman who appeared naked  at the top of a flight of wooden stairs, and made her way down to the bottom by barely perceptible but gloriously elegant  and breathtaking movements.
I remember also from past years an excellent, just short of superb, torch-singer from Paris.
So what about this year? As usual, a mixed bag.  Each night’s performance was preceded by the screening of a film about artists, the films made by a German former journalist called Heinz Peter Schwerfel. Each film was of an hour’s length which, if I may enter a dissenting judgment, was pushing it beyond the half hour or so that each artist seemed to deserve. However, my opinion is possibly not shared by others in the audience: while I was sleeping through the films, others were paying attention and applauding vigorously at the end. It is not the first time I have seen films about artists, but I remember many that were more interesting, following a more gripping narrative, than any of Mr, Schwerfel’s films about Anish Kapoor, Bruce Nauman (the one film I didn’t see), Alex Katz, Rebecca Horn, Christian Boltanski, and Annette Messager.  Except for the film on Kapoor, which was relatively comprehensible, these films were full of ponderous long shots that promised some kind of payoff when they ended, but seldom delivered.  At the end of the festival, Vinko arranged for Mr. Schwerfel to receive an award for “the most unique short film.” Since his were the only films on show during the week….not so difficult to win the award, no?
One thing Vinko is not very good at is describing for his audience the background of the obscure musicians and performers he had in tow, and it was when looking for this information that I began to find a common, New Age-kind-of-thing to all the descriptions they were giving of themselves and their work.
A rather plump woman with a Yemeni background, a folk-singer, put herself forward as someone who uses music to heal, although what it is she is healing is rather less clear. She described herself as a “self-proclaimed public-pleaser” who used music “to entertain cold audiences into participation and collective happiness.”  You know, I could take it from Pete Seeger, who always managed to     get his audience to sing-along, but to a rather overweight singer of doubtful quality, I confess to remaining more or less unmoved.
Next came a local girl Ines Trickovic whose gimmick was to change her clothes after every one of ten songs. She was peppy, I will say that, but when she described the sick-making song “Tenderly” as one of the peaks of popular culture, I am afraid I had to part company with her. However, on a five-letter scale, I would give her a C.
The following evening Vinko produced a more interesting pair, a Japanese woman Kaori Suzuki, and her husband Sebastian Vuillot of France. Her show opened with her hanging from a strap from the ceiling. This kind of thing --- as any student of ballet and dancing knows --- depends to a considerable degree on the bodies of the performers being almost perfect in form. Ms Suzuki was certainly not overweight but unfortunately the position in which we first saw her emphasized her buttocks unreasonably, giving us an immediate sense that she was rather heavier than she looked later when we were able to see her more whole. (In fact, not many women would be able to pass he test of such buttock-exposure). I found it difficult to decide what was the purpose of her dance, because just when she had attained some degree of elegance she would break into jerky, compulsive-type movements, which seemed inappropriate to the feeling she seemed to be trying to achieve. Once free from the strap, she performed in front of a huge pile of paper that eventually began to move forward until it engulfed her. Then she manipulated this paper effectively to give it a monstrous appearance that could have been frightening if we had been able to believe it was real.
As for meaning, I will have to lean on the performers themselves, who say their purpose is “to raise audience awareness about cultural exchange.” About the specific piece they showed us, they said it was named after their son --- a small boy who sat asleep in the front row, until, at the end of the performance, they awoke him, unnecessarily, I thought. The programme said they were making a philosophical and spiritual investigation into the continuum of life and death”, a description that they enlarged in their web site where they said their project “explores  the soul, existence, nature, the cycle of life, the sacred, connection, heritage transmission,” the sort of description that surely invites a modicum of ridicule.
The nadir of the week for me came with a performance of what was suggested --- although it was never directly claimed --- to be one of Samuel Beckett’s plays (or play-snippets they might more accurately be called) by a couple of local performers, one a very tall, thin, woman in a white wedding dress, the other a short, fat woman of rather immense girth. The woman in white came in, went out, came in again, went out again, and then was carried in and carefully placed on top of a coffin that was sitting on the stage. The man carrying her played no further part in the proceedings. The two women actors then spoke some mysterious text, in English and Croatian, complete with a great deal of whispering and shouting, which, to me, was the acme of pretentiousness, although it was greeted with rapturous applause by the audience.  I tried thereafter to ask people what was the play all about and no one had any idea, except to say --- as one of the earlier acts had said --- that it was about life and death  This seems to be the fall-back position of the modern stage performer, when he or she can’t think of any other explanation.
The last act of this evening came when the beloved Vinko Prizmic himself strode forward, dressed in his ordinary street clothes, to play a part in anther snippet, as it was again suggested, by Beckett.  I couldn’t hear a word he said, but at one point he reached down into the coffin and began the laborious task of hauling out the woman lying within--- she seemed a bit of a lump for a little fellow like Vinko to carry --- and then got in the coffin himself. The final act of the highly-applauded play was that the woman secured the top of the coffin, thus shutting Vinko in, where, if everyone had gotten his true reward as an artist, he would have remained to this day. Unfortunately it was not so: he popped up full of smiles to accept the plaudits of the multitude.
Okay, what’s next?  In the category of hard triers, fairly successful, the next night came the cabaret troupe Albert Kessler and company, from Austria, whose work I enjoyed, except that the leader, Mr, Kessler, obviously fancied himself as a comedian, and managed to work terribly hard to raise a laugh without from beginning to end raising even a titter. There are few things sadder than a man trying to be funny who is not getting any laughs. Apart from that Mr. Kessler had a good young singer and a beautifully expressive woman dancer in his troupe and I enjoyed their show.
Like any good showman, Vinko kept to last his best performers, but, true to form, he mixed them on the same bill with an appalling show featuring the children of Dubrovnik, about whose amateurism and embarrassment the less said the better.
On the final night --- I am not intending to go to his closing beach party tonight ---  he produced a final act, composed of two young Frenchwomen, one with an accordion, both with beautifully modulated and blended voices, who sang a wide variety of folk songs from various parts of the world, and some of their own compositions, and who could have given a few lessons to the unfortunate failed comic Mr. Kessler the night before. Calling themselves Les Folles de Leon, these two women Leslie Guivarc’h, and Amelie Venisse, with their accordion, had a perfectly produced, beautifully modulated act in which they made gentle fun of each other and garnered barrels of laughter from the audience in doing so. Their singing was beautiful, and for my money theirs was one of the best acts I have seen at Vinko’s festival in all of my four years of attendance.
Notable for Les Folles de Leon, a highly experienced and well-known act in France who have also appeared in Montreal,  is the fact that they do not engage in any high-flown descriptions of their intentions, but a diligent search of the internet shows that they are active in protests against racism and other evils of modern society, both in France and elsewhere. This is a brilliant, funny and touching group, these two girls, and I could watch them and listen to them night after night.

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