Dancing with Joules: The Transformation of Performance Knowledge
Copyright © Richard Gough, 2003
(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)
This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.
From extraordinary video footage of food preparation techniques on a street in Thailand to combat in the kitchen between Chinese Master Chefs, this audio and video presentation explores virtuosity in performance by first raising issues to do with skill, competence and ability. Working through aspects of training, apprenticeship and mastery by considering a few of the great world traditions of theatre/dance; Beijing Opera (China), Kabuki (Japan) and Kathakali (India), the functions of form, stylistic conventions and continuity begin to emerge. Aspiration to and attainment of the virtuosic is questioned and problematised in the light of other approaches to notions of individual and collective creativity and questions of how composition, notation and performance scores can enable, nurture or prescribe virtuosity are advanced. The transformative power of the performers energy will be witnessed (on video) and the presentation will consider how performance knowledge is transmitted from a Bharata Natyam dance guru, through Meyerhold to Grotowski. Finally, speculation and provocation are made on current training practices, the reflective practitioner, performance knowledge and the passing and surpassing of skill.
Can I show you virtuosity in a still image? My question was "Can I...?", and not "May I...?". I am myself not sure that I can, but with Paganini's help and if I show them fast, I might approximate [something like virtuosity]. At least I might be able to show the evidence of energy spent, burnt, carved in time, used excessively, uneconomically; purposefully inefficient - yet never wasteful; efficacious through extra-ordinary technique - incandescent.
"He was on a mission from God!", proclaims the T-shirt of a participant in the excruciatingly difficult Beijing Opera workshop, led by renowned master Mr Ma, and Paganini was supposedly in league with the devil. Paganini allowed only a few compositions to be published in his lifetime, wishing to jealously guard his secret. And yet the compositions in themselves cannot notate or prescribe the virtuosic for which he was renowned - in the same way that choreography, in its notation, cannot record the movement of the dance to be danced with virtuosity. Or can it? Is there indeed something within the deep structure of Paganini's compositions that enables and nurtures the virtuoso? Gives rise to and creates the platform for the virtuosic? And if this can be notated - or at least the structure written as a vehicle for its realisation; prescribe through notation, or musical composition - where does this leave the theatre? Can the dramatist's text or performance score function in a similar way to choreography and musical composition? Is it a question here of convention, codification and encription? I hope to illuminate some of this, and put the still images I am showing you into a dynamic context.
So let us start with the basics: let us start in the kitchen, the domestic kitchen - virtuosity in the safety of your own home. Can you be virtuosic in private, or does virtuosity need witnesses? Listeners? Is virtuosity actually a way of being seen or heard? An excited and inflamed contract, between the watcher and the watched? An amplification of communication? A flamboyant exchange - private unwitnessed virtuosity or not: this [domestic activity] is certainly mastery, mastery of fire and water, of techniques of the knife, slicing and cutting - techniques of death, of slaughter, of disembowelling, of gutting and stuffing, an art of transmutation.
This video clip shows the opening title sequence of Ang Lee's film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman in which we see Mr. Chu, Taipei's greatest chef, prepare Sunday lunch for his three troublesome daughters. A definition of the virtuoso is a person who has a masterly or dazzling skill or technique in any field of activity. Skill is special ability, acquired by training, or technique requiring special training or manual proficiency. But an obsolete use of the word is understanding with the root of the word being from old Norse - meaning "distinction", and also related to "difference". "Technique" is practical method, proficiency in a practical or mechanical skill, a special facility and a knack. So whilst the contemporary use and definition of the words emphasise the practical and the manual facilities, their roots lie in notion of understanding, both mentally and physically and in relation to distinction and difference, to what marks one from another; what allows us to recognise a difference, and what dawns attention and is thus distinctive. It is these techniques of the extra-daily, to borrow Eugenio Barba's term, techniques which require a training which is learned and developed through daily practice, and which demand specific application and release of energy - it is these techniques I wish to examine in the following video excerpts.
Virtuosity is also a surpassing of technique, the attainment of skills and then the surpassing of those skills, a curious act of devotion and denial. We will witness such moments, but I am also interested to explore the passing of techniques before their surpassing, the transmission of performance knowledge and the transformation of performance knowledge.
Refined culinary techniques in the domestic kitchen become a feats of showmanship in the public arena. On the street, and [this video shows us street practices] in Thailand. Actions here speak louder than words. Vying for attention and trade, this makes pizza tossing and the annual flipping of a Shrove Tuesday pancake, look both mild and tame. This is action of flame and flight, literally flamboyant and vertiginous. This is food not only with strong presence, but also with a history of having been airborne - there are no shades of distinction here, all is loud and bold. At what point does the exhibition of skill become exhibitionism, extraordinary, yet excessive? We tend not to prize the skills of the circus performer, too popular and commercial to be deemed virtuosic, but - as in the high wire walker - this action demands risk, panache and courage, danger beyond the attainment of skill. The reality is that it all could go terribly wrong - as the stain on the tarmac gives testament to: a sort of palimpsest of failure, an archaeology of dropped dinners, the split second between nourishment and waste, accomplishment and shame.
Tsui Hark's film The Chinese Feast is a sumptuous tale of passion and rivalry. Here master chef Kit begins to get the measure of what he is up against, as a team struggles to outdo the near magical cooking prowesse of the mysterious super group. These are the colourful arts of the professional kitchen. Here competitiveness becomes outright combat. In this mouth-watering film they proceed to competitively cook the imperial feast, a banquet of numerous complex dishes, an unimaginable fare, including bear paw and monkey brain, but it is the issue of professional rivalry that I want us to focus upon: to what extent can we claim that such competitiveness is creative - "pushing the boundaries", "taking risks", pursuing excellence through innovation and experiment, wishing to go one step further? These are all aspirations in sport and science, an exploration which is fundamental, but which in the arts is often seen as self indulgent; at best, in the domain of the dilettante - a word, coincidentally, which is associated with the virtuoso in every dictionary definition. What is interesting in this food fight, this kitchen Kung Fu, is that despite all the ever more outrageous techniques and effervescent displays of ability, the emphasis remains on a description of taste. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the crispy noodles with beef.
Music, dance and theatre likewise have to function despite technique, engage their audience, challenge them, disturb them and stir their imagination, both heart and mind. Flamboyant technique, excessive display of ability, alone, can collapse upon itself, become redundant, dislocated and deracinated. In The Chinese Feast the food not only looks good, but by golly, it tastes good!
And so to one of the world's great traditions of dance theatre, Beijing Opera, itself an amagamation and synthesis of the best of the regional forms: Szechuan, Sezhiu, Cantonese; a visit to the capital throughout the 19th century and the early part of the 20th Century. This is a form that celebrates technical skill and mastery, demanding a composite performer: singer, dancer, acrobat and actor, creating a system of signs in an open symbolic space. The training is thorough and extensive, including inculcation of the range and reach in vocal scale, athleticism and stamina that is truly extraordinary, extra-ordinary, extra-daily, ex-uberant, a body stretched and reformed, able to dilate and amplify on stage with an incandescent energy forged through sheer hard work and excruciating pain. This is an early episode from Chen Kaige's film Farewell my Concubine which recreates life and learning in the Beijing Opera school at the start of the 20th Century. This is a text I am going to read from by Mei Lanfang, the renowned master and innovator of Beijing Opera, specialist in the female roles from roughly the same period:
I remember using a long bench for exercises when I was quite young. A brick was placed on the bench and standing on it with little stilts attached to my feet, I tried to remain not on the block brick for the time it takes to burn a stick of incense. When I first started my legs trembled and it was torture. I could not stay up for more than a minute before it became unbearable and I had to jump down. But after some time my back and legs developed the proper muscles and I gradually learned to stand on the brick quite steadily. In the winter, I practised fighting and pacing around on ice while wearing stilts. At first I slipped easily, but once I became accustomed to walking on stilts over the ice, it was effortless to go through the same motions on stage without the stilts. Whatever you do, if you go through a difficult stage before reaching the easy ones, you find that the sweetness is well worth the bitter trouble.
He goes on to describe how it was that training, that allowed him to dance when he was sixty. Beijing Opera is a theatre of excess, where six backwards somersaults executed contiguously might suffice, but seven would be better: more is more. Attainment of skill and the surpassing of skill is a goal articulated and upheld. Cheng Cheng Chua, a living national treasure, when teaching at one of our CPR summer schools, actually demonstrated a somersault done perfectly, realised with skill and precision, and one done with virtuosity, a term he used through translation. The difference was stunning, defying logic and understanding, the one seeming elegant and athletic, the other an action of gravity and grace. The first like a printed text or equation, the other like a signature in calligraphy. Chinese Opera, particularly Kung Ju, can also be a theatre of understatement and restraint - a paradox that it shares with many great performance traditions.
With such a power of expression, potential and dynamic energy can often hold back, suppress, withhold, and only gradually release - as in the musical term ppp pianissmoissimo, an instruction of the quietest possible playing, particularly in Kung Ju, Shanghai form. Virtuosic should not only be acquainted with "fast" and "loud": it is the dynamics of energy that are at play, soft and strong, dancing with jewels. From The Mistress of Monkey King, creating havoc in heaven and delight, the Chinese audience receive from seeing this depiction, portrayed and personified, of animals in theatre, how we move to mastery of animals on stage.
This is Batabas, outrageous, encouragable madman, of equestrian theatre Singaro. Batabas who lives, works and sleeps with his horses, is from a Romany family of generations of horse trainers. He has inherited knowledge, skill and know-how. He is taking risks, yet working within his and his horse's ability. He is pushing boundaries and seemingly putting his audience in danger, but he knows precisely what he is doing - which is all very well in practice, but won't work in theory! At this point, I will stop competing with my own video edit, and I will allow you to watch - hopefully a little horrified.
Now it is time to hear the masters to speak for themselves: first from Japan, the tradition of Kabuki and then from India, Bharata Natyam and Kalami Peya.
El Topo is a film by Mexican theatre director Alejandro Jodorowsky, now better known for his film Santa Sangria, The Holy Mountain. This is the definitive cult Spaghetti western: Jodorowsky plays the part of El Topo in the Black, the Black Leather-clad gunslinger, riding through the desert with delusions of being god, challenged by his mistress alter ego, the devil: to prove himself by killing the four great masters, the great masters of the gun in the desert. We are led on a surreal journey of brutality, pain, love and dust. And as you can see, he lost there; but the master did not shoot him, he suspended his moment and said, "I want to show you a few things". For me this connects with some of the information we have just seen - about the relationship between martial arts and combat.
Now he sets the task to shoot at these structures without breaking them. El Topo cheats, he has already killed the first master, this is the second one. He shows him the skill. This is about precision, skill and precision.
The connections between the martial arts, combats of play and display, and the transpositions and hybrid forms which merge into dance, are many and varied. This is footage that you are all probably familiar with: young boys training in Katakhali at the Kalamandalum in Kerula, South India - a place of pilgrimage for Western theatre practitioners over the last 40 years. This is a place - a school - that had a formative influence on many of the contemporary masters of Western, physical, experimental and innovative theatre, from Barba to Grotowski, Brook and Schechner, to mention just a few. What did they witness here? They saw a radical re-formation of the performance body, a training of inculcation and exactitude. Sometimes ancient knowledge is embedded in a training, to do with breath and posture, balance and mental states. This can be encrypted and not articulated, the origins perhaps even forgotten, the reasons lost. It took Grotowski's understanding and insightfulness to illuminate the lessons of the training and knowledge it conveyed, transforming it himself into another body of incorporated practice-knowledge. What is fascinating to me, is how the school is modelled on an English public school, with a strict regime and separation of practices - an invention of the 1930s, an intercultural transaction, that was to have formidable repercussions and influence on the development of European and North American theatre forty years later. In talking about performance mastery, it is not always possible to trace roots and origins: transformation and transmutation happen in unforeseen ways.
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I hope the video excerpts have in part answered my opening questions. Now finally, to address some of Susan's underlying issues with this symposium, in relation to how training and teaching might incorporate the presence of practitioners and embrace the emerging practices within the academy. As we might watch the extraordinary training of Richard Chislak of Grotowski's laboratory theatre, transmit his knowledge though dynamic interchange with two young members of Barba's Odin theatre in the early 70s, and then, following this, witness the rare footage of Meyerhold's biomechanic exercises of fifty years earlier. Meyerhold structured his biomechanic exercises as a series of etudes. Meyerhold was first a musician, a violinist. So I share some hopes for the future. I should like to see a greater integration of theory and practice, training which develops body and mind; creativity in the full sense, nurturing practitioners who do not feel threatened or impoverished by theory, and theorists and who do not feel soiled or distracted by practice, or envious or jealous. I want practitioners to embrace theory as a practice, to work with it and alongside it, above it, beneath it, within it.