Utopia of a world body

Choreographer Lilia Mestre on her first group performance, ‘Beyond Mary and Joseph’

De Morgen 24 Sep 2003English

item doc

Contextual note
This article was first published in Dutch in the newspaper De Morgen.

The original company Random Scream has been focussing for several years on the analysis of social structures and cultural imagery. In Beyond Mary and Joseph the Portuguese choreographer Lilia Mestre sheds a critical light on family and religion, both in crisis but still the cornerstones of our society. A conversation with the choreographer about tradition and utopia and the role of the body therein.

One notices in the trajectory of Random Scream the eclectic and political character of the work. An own style does not appear to be an objective, rather a sharp use of existing images, a reflection on representations from our daily world. “It is true that my attention is aimed towards the attractive force of existing phenomena and symbols”, Mestre agrees, “the aim is not to investigate how I can appropriate them within my own choreographic logic, but rather to develop a physical language that is able to translate these ideas onto the stage. Certain codes and constellations are part of our lives without us having any questions about them. That’s why the performers do things that they could also be doing in ordinary life, so that I create a certain perspective, a reading of reality.”

“What drives people to make certain things? I am interested in that what lies behind culture”, Mestre continues. “What is the desire for religion made of? Why do we create families, why do people live together until the end of their days? How did such social structures arise? My fascination for animality is related to this: trying to go back to the point where the first cultural choices were made. Inversely it is surprising how – despite all revolution – certain models, though they might change, still remain active. They are simply there, and there isn’t really a moment of acceptance, you notice simply that you do the same things as your mother, as if you are hearing her voice through your own mouth.”

Mestre is not only talking about the power of tradition, she is also questioning the way in which this functions. “Is that a cultural matter? Is it about a strong political power? Or is it an inner form, where you act according to the way people function, almost on a genetic level?”

A theme that Mestre treats in Beyond Mary and Joseph is the family. Why this issue? “First I was thinking in a broader sense, in terms of society as a whole. Around Christmas I was surprised about the heightened level of community life and the functioning of the institution we call family. For instance, families go to the cinema together, something which is less apparent during the rest of the year. That is the way in which we live: we build houses, make children and position ourselves. How did we get to that system of community life, and why does it look exactly like that? Every time the same question. That’s why I think gay marriage is an interesting issue: there is a negative attitude towards this form of sexuality, but on the other hand there is a complete integration when it happens in the context of an organised family life. You don’t see a metamorphosis to a new structure, rather an attempt to keep existing models intact. Our desire for the domestic dominates everything. Does there exist something like a new law?”

That new law is obviously an open question, what does characterize our modern times apart from tradition and revolution? “In the piece I try out a possibility, even though I am well aware that there is not immediately a conclusion possible. How we can function despite loss, knowledge, tradition and so on. How death and birth, or strong emotions such as pain and happiness, can be less cruel. To create a society where all those elements are incorporated is a utopia: for instance, at the moment we have almost no relation to death. There are essential things that all people share, like love or mourning, and which can also be shared in personal relationships. In principle we should be able to all share the same emotional state or feeling. Utopia as a common body where we share our feelings. In this way existing models are affected. You lose your boundaries and your understanding of what you are doing. Finally, that too is a machine that functions through individuals with certain emotions, a circulation with others where everybody wants to be together.”

In order to set these spiritual aspirations on a stage, Mestre investigated religion as well, both of the heathen and christian tradition, and within each, canonical or apocryphal sources and images. The strong contrasts that emerged from that are also treated on a formal level, where there is a lot of attention placed on the grotesque. “Putting on a clown’s nose allows to access a certain territory that you do not know at all because it is taboo. You can be silly, perform tricks or obscenities. This is much closer to the reality of children”, Mestre says.

It appears to be so that the choreographer is returning a part of reality to the body, by which also the boundaries of the human world of meaning is put at stake. The knowledge of boundaries is a kind of step towards the loss of contours, wherein Mestre uses the body as a metaphor for reality. “The continuing transformation in the piece can be compared to the different layers of the body and the extremes for which they stand. There exists an ideal far outside of ourselves, but which we nevertheless try to adapt. Opposed to that is an inner ideal which you can not access just like that, and which you do not accept as such. Between inner and outer there is an oscillation, where eventually we explore a state beyond the inner life, where things are not so clear any longer.”