Reality, a Body

Programma text on Lilia Mestre's 'Beyond Mary and Joseph'

Programme note 25 Sep 2003English

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Contextual note
This programme text was commissioned by Random Scream and first published on the occasion of the Belgian première on 25 September 2003 in the Kaaitheaterstudios in Brussels. Translated by Gregory Ball and Jeroen Peeters, with the support of Kaaitheater.

With a fascination for social structures such as family life and religion, the choreographer Lilia Mestre examines the sources of our culture, in order to create a personal and critical perspective on our present-day society. When did these models come into existence? Why this way? How did they transform through the ages? And does it concern a culturally determined tradition, power and political influence, or an inner life, physiology and genetics? One thing is clear though: the body is at stake. In Beyond Mary and Joseph, the body as a vehicle for meaning alters through its shifting presence, whereby a familiar humanism is put at risk.

Drawing inspiration from the iconography of religious paintings, she sets four archetypical figures in a chain of associations. The detached Virgin Mary, the model of ideal motherhood, is set opposite the cow, symbol of fertility, earthly and physical. The lamb, with an inclination to sacrifice, symbol of innocence and humility, hands out ex votos: scented wax body parts spread among the audience, which takes part in the ritual. Canonical and apocryphal, Christian and heathen motives combine.

Although Joseph the carpenter plays only a marginal role in Christian tradition, he here forms a bridge between body and image. He constructs a visual framework as an analogy of this body, creates an architecture that provides a model for social structures, for domesticity as the ultimate human longing. The stage is also literally composed in perspective so that, in ordinary or physical actions, performers appear to step in and out of the scene. Their bodies adapt to an image or demand an alternative space, back and forth between proximity and distance to the viewer.

The figures express powerful emotions: sorrow, joy, love, hate, sympathy, desire, fear. Their portrayal is reminiscent of René Descartes’ theory of affects in the seventeenth-century, which Charles Le Brun made accessible for use in painting. Le Brun made a systematic survey of human passions, with detailed descriptions of, among other things, eyebrows, eye movement and mouth. Feelings as expressed in a series of positions of the facial muscles: a thorough encoding and mechanisation creates a clear bodily hierarchy that mediates in the relationship between the inner and social lives.

Aberrant social codes appear in a continuous transformation in which folklore, heathen rituals and carnivalesque reminiscences arise. They deviate into the abstract and obscene images of a shadow play – a phantasmagoria which is here literally a phantasmic projection space. The grotesquery reveals a specific visual strategy: when disguised with a nose, the silly, filthy, animal and childlike are admissible. The clown’s nose is an alibi for the exploration of areas of taboo, inner spaces and unutterable passions. These moments exude a longing for transgression, in which the body negotiates its social boundaries. The passions reappear, but in another shape, another arrangement of inside and outside. As if a piece of reality were returned to the body.

The individual, familial and social outlines ultimately also blur in a tangle of bodies. It is a utopian social body, beyond inside and outside, in which boundaries, images and codes evaporate. Or a new machine in which heterogeneity and neighbourliness link together, in which transformation is an asset – with a nod in the direction of Gilles Deleuze. The spectator is now very close too, approaching a point beyond visual contemplation into which his own experiences, opinions and attitudes are absorbed.

The naked bodies that remain cause confusion: this cannot possibly be a return to a sort of initial state. Numerous traces and objects lying around provide evidence of a transformation. Or an entropy, a clock that cannot be wound back.