A colleague of mine did her masters thesis on the subject of performance. At the time we were both teaching at a performance arts high school and we chose to include in each year's senior curriculum a performance project. Do I need to tell you that every year we had at least two female students smearing things on their naked bodies and at least one male applying make-up in front of an audience? In the classroom, the role of the art critic is particularly sticky. High school girls are wells of powerful emotion that erupt wetly during the evaluation process. While my colleague was much more comfortable with her definition of performance and her evaluation criteria, I took the easy way out by stifling my students' creative talents with the burden of social relevance. I thought this would make the evaluation process easier (i.e. formal).
One year a student had planned on butchering a pig in the classroom—an idea which introduced animated discussions on the subjects of free speech, animal rights, the role of the artist-as-anarchist, and the limitations of current pedagogic methodology. Best-laid plans and compromises: two adorable piglets roaming the classroom while the audience was corralled in a pen. A great amount of effort went into the logistics of the performance (including careful recognizance regarding the administration's whereabouts while the illicit livestock was smuggled onto school property) and the piglets were entertaining as hell, but the original idea—that of western society's general loss of awareness and responsibility regarding the origins of our meals—was lost in it all. The question still begs: how much is the process of the performance, witnessed or not, a part of the aesthetic of the whole?
Another year a student brought in a hard-core pornographic film and, after twenty minutes of technical fumbling, played it on the classroom wall for a shocked group of students. Social relevance? You bet: a powerful, meaningful audience response. Creative? Well. . . Craftsmanship?Demonstration of artistic skill or knowledge? Did I forget to stipulate that requirement in the assignment? Is it important? Can performance art be merely a multi-dimensional illustration of an idea? A social provocation, with or without a philosophical motive?
I'm no longer teaching, yet the question of how to evaluate performance is one which still pecks at my brain. In the past month I've seen two performances that challenge my idea of what a good performance should be.
A QUESTION FOR NEXT YEAR was billed as a performance comprised of "choreography for one dancer, a musician and a 79 year-old circus artist. The performance is based on the life of 79 year-old Ivana Gottliebová, and brings up taboo subjects regarding aging. This is a charming physical performance about a fascinating person in history." (author's provisional translation of information in Tou Scene's press archive: www.touscene.com/?loc=programarkiv&view=1127217448)
The dancing was beautiful. A poem was read. It was about the beauty of life, about optimism. Balloons were taped to the elderly woman's body and as they were popped, one by one, she was propelled around the stage. Flags were waved. I witnessed a lovely, graceful series of scenes and at one point was invited to dance onstage with other members of the audience. Still, in the end, I felt I'd missed something. The symbolism eluded me. What taboos? I hadn't done my homework. Perhaps if I'd known more about the history of the Czech Republic? When a performance is "about" something I expect to come away informed. Either emotionally, intuitively or intellectually. Are my expectations misguided?
In case you're wondering, yes, I did read my colleague's thesis. Twice. I've also read other books. I still wind up thinking that performance is often a label for staged productions by people who are amateurs in the craftsmanship of their discipline, exhibitionistic hobby philosophers. Or, as in the case of COOL OPERA's ANTIGONE, it is a series of accomplished pieces by professionals tacked together hastily, a performance that alludes to a work of art that doesn't yet exist—a rough draft.
Of course, this is exactly the concept behind ANTIGONE (www.cool-opera.com): a revisionist opera presentation that is the result of a week-long workshop with professionals in various disciplines. Very loosely rooted in Sophocles's play, contemporary composers were encouraged to work with an international group of artists, including a classical opera tenor from Columbia, a tango dancer from Argentina and Norwegian flautist.
The opening scene was a percussive performance by unseen actors. It was long and the audience seemed restless. What followed was more promising: a comic scene wherein musicians struggled under the stage floor to play their instruments, then the audience wandered from room to room, scene to scene, discipline to discipline. Film, music, dance, sculpture and even role-play (the audience was escorted two by two through the "underworld"). The opera was technologically stunning at times. The talent and discipline of the performance could not be questioned. But as a whole, the piece didn't work together. Yet.
I have to ask myself, as an audience member, is it worth it to pay for something that is admittedly unfinished, imperfect, half-baked thematically? Um. Yeah.
QUESTION FOR NEXT YEAR (Czech Republic)
Idea and choreography: Kristyna Lhotáková & Ladislav Soukup
Performers: Kristyna Lhotáková & Ladislav Soukup. Mrs. Ivana Gottliebová
Music: Ladislav Soukup
Dramaturgy: Sodja Zupanc Lotker
Lights: Jochen Masar
Production: Four Days Association, Praag
OPERA RE-DEFINED: ANTIGONE
Nils Henrik Asheim – Project manager
Manos Tsangaris – Artistic adviser
Willem Bruls – Dramaturge
Řrjan Matre – Composer
Christian Blom – Composer
Trond Reinholdsen – Composer
Sven Sören Beyer – video artist
Frieder Weiss – video artist
Valerio Ferrari – architect
Pablo Veron – Dancer/Choreographer
Ingunn H. Knudsen – Dancer– Norway
Unnur Astrid Wilhelmsen – Soprano
Cesar A. Gutierrez – Tenor
Tora Ferner Lange – Flute
Lars Erik ter Jung – Viola
Edvind Řstvik – Perc.
Ivar Grydeland – Impro.
Ingar Zac – Impro.
Both productions at TOU SCENE, Stavanger, Norway.