A Choreography of Disquiet
deufert + plischke premiere reportable portraits at the steirischer herbst festival in Graz
A woman (dancer Hanna Sybille Müller) enters the stage and walks to the front while she addresses the audience with her eyes. She has a soft smile on her face, then relaxes her cheek muscles, turns inward, closes her eyes and bends forward. We are right there with her, in that twilight zone in which sleep weighs upon our eyelids, in which we are too tired to think and too restless to feel. Our memories keep us half awake, half asleep, they postpone that pause in which we can refrain from life for a while.
It is also the space of Fernando Pessoa’s semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares, an assistant accountant who keeps a diary that we know as the many fragments of the unfinished The Book of Disquiet. Soares maintains that writing is better than trying to live. His notebook is a space of comfort in which he can embrace the dream and contemplate the restlessness provoked by the haunting impossibilities in which our lives are steeped. One of the things the solitary space of writing can’t eradicate though, is the existence of the others – that is literature’s fallacy: to think that the others are like us and would feel like us. But writing can remind us of the fact that we are already many to ourselves. A multitude of mutually strange people, who think and feel differently, but cast a single shadow as they coincide with the single body – Soares’ writing body.
“Living is knitting according to the intentions of others,” notes Soares. It inspired the German performance artists Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke to develop a poetics of knitting in their directory trilogy (2003-06). Their personal memories were knitted into a narrative fabric, like an endless pair of tights that holds a life together. No tights this time, deufert + plischke have suspended their private mythology in the new group piece reportable portraits, but Soares’ poetics and disquiet mental space are omnipresent.
reportable portraits departs from a specific practice of formulating and reformulating. The movement material is derived from a self-portrait danced by the five performers, captured on video and analysed in writing according to a set of parameters. These writings circulated in the studio and were reformulated by the others, a repeated process in which personal memories and materials lose a clear source and gain a more accurate form. As a shared diary, the notebooks involve both writing and the others as a medium. It is a collaborative practice that acknowledges the impossibility to dance or write one’s own portrait without the presence of others. This process finds an extension on stage: reportable portraits proposes what we might call a ‘semi-heteronymic’ choreography. Not so much the heteronym of the ‘artist twins’ deufert + plischke is at stake, but the many doubles that populate the bodies of five people in a group constellation.
So we find ourselves with Hanna Sybille Müller and Bernardo Soares in that restless space where sleep announces itself, but doesn’t quite happen yet. Throughout the performance, the other performers (Kattrin Deufert, Helena Golab, Thomas Plischke and Benjamin Schoppmann) will join us in that space via many gestures and postures that hint at sleep, from lying bodies to the blurry gaze lost in dreams. Several audience members even take the invitation literally and doze off – are they still there with us, in that plural singular space, or have they withdrawn themselves too far? The sequences of reportable portraits are interrupted by long black-outs, as moments of silence and rest.
Dips, gaps, frictions
To what extent can we portray ourselves and each other? Bernardo Soares doesn’t recognize himself in a photograph, finds himself appearing in a non-human way and is embarrassed to realize that his colleagues find the likeness between him and the image striking – they seem to know perfectly well who he is! In reportable portraits, the performers address each other and the spectators all the time, they work with the mutual gaze as a gesture of negotiation. At the same time, the performers are just looking for cues, as they repeat and juxtapose movement phrases and dance the others’ reformulated material. Although reportable portraits makes use of pause and duration, the choreography is also thick with flow and interaction. The performers have to wait sometimes to pick up the others’ cues, but embrace these dips, gaps and frictions deliberately. It allows for an exercise in socialisation that is light and playful in the delivery, existential in its overtones.
reportable portraits moves away from deufert + plischke’s hyper-formulated choreographic universe. Though still a tightly written piece, the many hesitations and reluctances provide it with a somewhat rough edge, which doesn’t turn it into a live composition, but reminds us that the social is not only a set of rules and representations, but a series of practices. You don’t see just performers but five people on stage, with an awkwardness in their gaze and attitude that pairs practical concerns with fundamental questions. And indeed they are different, they don’t share a common aesthetics or movement language, it is five different registers, five different perspectives, five different realms of meaning. What becomes visible on stage is the ghostly realm of the many doubles that multiply us through our social interactions, that make us who we are, yet prevent us from coinciding with ourselves.
The performers have their tics and preferences, but their movements are no longer quotidian in nature. Though clearly written and stylized, these movements haven’t become less idiosyncratic – they cover the body’s surface, but resist legibility. The movements take on an almost emblematic form, most obviously in the gestural quality of the hands. Like antennas, fingers and hands stroke the air lightly, or they explore spaces close to the body, shielding off the face or the shoulder blades. The others have become a memory and a symbol here, but also the sensorial is treated in a nearly ritual fashion.
These condensed gestures are not unlike the many lengthy descriptions of the weather in Soares’ diary, which remind him of his body as a medium that absorbs reality. Weather reports carry an eloquent idiom, they allow for a quotidian ritual that embroiders narrative around the uncanny holes in our reality. Such as this one question of life that stays hard to believe for Soares: also the others do really exist. When they leave, we feel how their absence perforates our own narrative fabric. Rituals of the sensorial accompany the realm of disquiet, they frame the place of the other and the impossible outside view upon ourselves.
Paradoxically, it is in his writerly solitude that Soares keeps that condition and conflict alive. So does reportable portraits. The five performers share their portraits through the medium of semi-heteronymic choreography, they have travelled from the intimacy of notebook and studio to the public space of the theatre – a trajectory that is mirrored in Herman Sorgeloos’ set design, which is like a half open room on stage. The performance’s concluding section telescopes in the other direction, reducing a living practice of social interaction again into an emblematic image. The five performers find themselves in similar postures in one another’s proximity, turned inward, their faces covered with their hands. Five scripted bodies, withdrawn in themselves as question marks, only half awake but not quite asleep, percolated by a restlessness that won’t cease to propel them into the intricacies of social practice.