Alcalá de Henares, an old half-ruined church, reformed and converted into a performance space. Three performers come to meet the spectators when they enter the space, empty, “forbidden to sit”. At a transept’s corner, the sound and video control. Somewhere among the pillars that divide the naves, Olga Mesa, the choreographer who looks at. Once the entrance has been closed the performers start quietly their work: measuring the space in relation to their own bodies, surprising themselves over and over by the articulation of the limbs, by the infinite possibilities of watching upon oneself, without ever reaching the state that would lead to the unity of looking and being. Meanwhile Olga Mesa observes. The spectators also observe: bodies at times erect, at times naked, at times laying on the marble floor, or retreating to the remains of the altar, where they search for a intimacy in dialog with a tiny camera. The images of their faces in the intimacy, or those of the bodies in the public space of the church recorded life, camera in hand, by Daniel Miracle.
Some months later Más público, más privado (2001) was presented as the closing of the last edition of Desviaciones, at the theatre of the Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid. The ecclesiastic attempt had become by then a theatre piece. However the performers kept on watching. Sited among the audience they awaited their turn to perform. Serenely they would go onto the stage, give themselves up to a solitary reflection and return to their place among the audience, though not for a long time. At a certain moment the four of them (in this occasion the choreographer also performed) occupied the stage and started a game of falls, tumbles, accidents, disturbances and apologies… A bit later, naked, they totally ignored the public’s watch that scrutinised their movements and intentions. Watched even when outside the stage, thanks to a peeping monitor that transmitted images from a handycamera: grimaces, laughs, body fragments, skin…
Making the spectator aware of his condition of voyeur, Olga Mesa preserved herself from objectuality. Saved her own glance from objectuality and forced the spectator to an intellectual/emotional action that goes beyond observing. Thus, the watch becomes an element of the performance and not its aim. This was something she already started to explore with Daisy Planet (1999), a short solo where, for the fist time, she used the Neokinok designed by Daniel Miracle (a kind of portable TV station that allows life editing of images). Since the beginning of the piece, the audience notices that their image is being filmed by a micro-camera placed at the back of the stage, and exposed in a monitor at the proscenium. The choreographer could also address to the back wall, and while keeping her back to the audience, offer them a close up of her face on the monitor. Dissociating the facial (mediated) expression from the corporal (live) one, exposing thus the complexity of a body / human endowed with a its own right to look.
“I think with the eyes as moving elements”, wrote Lisa Nelson “ I think with sight […] I think with movement and sight”. And the natural consequence of this shift of the thought to the sight is the incorporation of the camera into the choreographic process. Incorporation: to make the camera part of one’s own organism, to adapt the movement to that new sight controlled by the hand. “I observed my body adapted its shape depending on the function of the camera I was holding in my hand; like the hand of a baby is modelled by the shape of the cup it holds”. “From time to time”, confessed Nelson, “the needs of my body took over the function of the filmmaker”.
Already through the making process of Más público más privado, Olga Mesa acknowledged her interest on incorporating the cinematographic sight to her work. While in her previous pieces, such as Esto no es mi cuerpo, she had used film to take distance from her own body in an exercise of observation / negation. Now she was interested in reaching a unity between body and observation: I’m working on things that remind me the movement of the camera. I’m thinking of the body as generator of diverse times: to go back or to be on the future. To stop the action with the body, to keep on talking, not talking, to keep on acting with the body, to use simultaneously time and text, to repeat. It is not just working on a conscious observation, but also on the development of sensation.”
She goes farther with this in her latest solo Le dernier mot (seconde versión: au fond tout est surface), premiered in Paris in 2003. As in Daisy Planet, the audience’s image is constantly reflected on the white walls of the stage, sharing the space with close ups of the choreographer, who alternatively addresses her look to the public or to the cameras. Her dance is always an exercise of observation. The dissociation of sight and movement reaches its limit when the artist undresses totally and goes out into the street, while on the back wall remains the frozen image of her farewell at the open door. The audience, left alone, can listen to the description of what she sees along her walk around the theatre building, as well as to the physical sensations of a body in performance in the middle of the freezing quotidian night.
One of Olga’s main contribution to this piece is what she named as “choreograms”. These are brief stops from which movement is not completely eliminated: “static dynamics placed on the surface of time and the physical skin of space”, “a privileged movement transformed into an object”. It is as if the visual memory of the movement could superpose the movement itself. As if the body, like a photographic paper, could catch the sequence of its own trajectory in a series of fixed snap shots. All this reinforced by the frozen and regained images projected over the walls, edited life by Daniel Miracle.
At times, between choreogram and choreogram, Olga drops the performance (or pretends to do so) to look at the audience and ask: “On continue?”. The public, who have seen their own image projected on the back wall just a minute before, are now caught by surprise on this direct appeal, and confronted with the immobility of the choreographer who awaits their answer. Thus, just for a few seconds, they are invited to physically participate on the performance. The glance is then identified with corporeality and is in charge of time.
“To keep my new way of looking my body adopts an immobility unknown up to then”, wrote Lisa Nelson. In Idoia Zabaleta’s piece El rato de José (2002) the performers constantly lookes at the audience, the tension of watching set the scene into motion. In her previous solo La puta inocencia (2001), Idoia had already tried out this shift of the movement to the sight. In this work the only constant movement was that of a basketball ball projected over the white floor of the stage, which doubled the action of a collaborator placed outside the theatre. Around this movement, the dancer simply observed; with the eyes, with the body, while taking off her clothes until she ended up naked, as her own view. In El rato de José tension reached its limit, almost at the end of the piece, in a sequence in which the three performers sat on the floor and remained still for long seconds, disconcerting the audience, upon whom laid now the responsibility.
If with the aim of making it possible to “continue” we deprive the concept of “spectacle” of its nucleus ( the “spectare”, “spécere” or “to look”) and graft it with other nuclei such as “to be in”, “to play with” “to be at”, “to witness” or “to share”. What is the cost of it? This is only possible at the expense of thinning the limits between what is public and what is private, formalised and chaotic, astounding and dull or quotidian . “It is strange -Idoia wrote-, I wanted to talk about time and I have the filling I ended up talking about love”.
Love was the theme of Daisy Planet. Love and time. The references to Doris Sagan’s texts intermingle with the more irrelevant game of taking off the petals of a daisy: “Yes?” “No?”. The awaiting blended here with the act of looking. The dance with “passing the time”. And the spectator could not stay aside of this game of still movements and expanded times, of evoked loves and intense absences. Unavoidably he falls into the game of watches. “The view of the audience is like a mirror of my own view, there is a mirroring relationship: As if through the view of the spectator I could see my own view. My view does not finish in me, it starts with the other. It is as if my body was here but my eyes where with you: I do not know if I belong to you or you to me, or who belongs to whom. It is as if the view could make disappear the empty space between the bodies”.
Night. Somewhere in the midst of the savannah. The camera shows what the eyes would only guess. A female rhinoceros with its baby and a herd of hyenas ready to hound. The carrion-eaters, without hiding their intentions, cautiously approach. Apparently the female does not react; the baby seeks protection under her thick legs. Only when the circle around her closes the female threatens to attack, leaving thus her young unprotected. The hyenas decide to launch forth it. The mother returns. From then on the carrion-eaters repeat their action, each time more and more straight in their attacks. Finally they wound the young rhinoceros. This seeks protection under its mother’s belly, whose size and scarce vision rest efficiency to the defence. At a certain moment a hyena bites the neck of the small one and drags it far away. All seems lost, the female’s powerful body reveals useless when confronted with the nimbleness and determination of the carrion-eaters. Has she a lack of maternal instincts? Has she surrendered? No, finally she acts again. And with the help of a lion, which appears at the right moment, she manages to break the siege and walks along with her badly wounded child towards the sun rising. Its torn neck leaving behind a trickle of blood, which will probably be its ruin any other night, out of the camera’s sight.
If the spectator is touched by the cruelty of this sight of wild life, it’s only because a moral point of view is projected upon it. A moral point of view that implies the condemnation of the aggression, the protection of the rights of the weak and harmless, and the exaltation of mother-child’s love. Simultaneously despising the need for survival of the carrion-eaters, the risks they face in their attack and the hunger that provokes their rage and fury. Although, what seems totally unacceptable to us (and with this thought we go beyond the reality of the protagonists of the scene) is the gratuitous cruelty; the fact that this animals, who can obtain their food out of corpses, try to palliate their needs with the flesh of a new born full of future. Is there future in wildness? Is the life of a new born more precious than that of its chasers?
This documentary extract, reedited by Nina Bruderman, was used by María Muñoz in her solo Atrás los ojos (Back the Eyes) (2002). There is something of a nightmare in the film, shot with a night-vision camera. This nightmare feeling is reinforced, during the projection, by the disturbing sound effects produced by Steve Noble at his DJ board. As well as by Maria’s quiet movements in the dimness, and by her words without eyes almost at the end of it. The solo returns over what it is a recurrent theme for Mal Pelo: The distance from the animal we are, the restriction of the wild life to a framed space (a documentary, a zoo, a pet) and its displacement towards a “more and more farther away past”. John Berger’s texts are used as a reference. “The eyes of an animal when observing a man -says María quoting him- have a watchful and cautious look. The same animal can look at other species in the same way. It does not have a special way of looking reserved for men. […] Other animals are trapped into it. Men become aware of themselves and returns it.”
While Olga Mesa tried to discover her corporeality through the rebounding of views, involving the audience in this discovery. Maria Muñoz uses it as something previous to the performance. María does not represent her conclusions, she does not set into movement the “final state” of the body. Instead, she reconstructs the space of tension that reproduces the conditions under which her search, mediated by the animal’s gaze, takes place. Thus, in clear contrast with what happens in Olga Mesa’s piece, the eyes of María Muñoz do not look directly, they preserve their mystery, they are turned backward.
María Muñoz welcomes the audience with her back turned to them, looking towards the empty back of the stage, with a microphone in hand she speaks. Through the piece projections, dance, text and sound-space (created life by Steve Noble), will interweave in the construction of a “reflection about distance and love”. A retrospective (introspective) look upon the series of small encounters that tug the time of our experience and inhabit, most of them hidden by oblivion, the space of memory. Muñoz, Nobel and Ramis put themselves at work to create an intermediate space between imagination and glance, light and invisibility, melody and sounding silence, domestic references and nature ones: The light is never blinding nor is the dimness ever darkness, the melodies never complete nor does the sound ever turn off, and the domestic space is just suggested by an armchair and a table, while nature is only alluded by a tiny tree on a plastic pot and the outside images the video brings into the room.
In one of the dance sequences, María Muñoz (only visible through an orange dimness that slowly evolves into shining white), seems to seek for her memory in the outside space. An outer space brought into the stage by means of her moving eyes. With her joined hands she requests access, and from there on she takes a path full of rotations, contractions, unfinished lay outs. All of it within a progressive approach to that state of presence in which the echoes of life adhere to the skin, penetrate the muscles. Expressed in a movement that tries to host the complexity of humans, animals, their gaze, their sound traces…
It is not estrange that these sequence is followed by Nina Bruderman’s video. Thus to turn “back the eyes” not only recalls the space of memory, it also provokes a crash with the organic insight. An insight from which, as a consequence of the previous sequence, we would be tempted to withdraw. If we turn our eyes backwards we meet a material insight with a past that takes us to the apes. María’s body breaks down in search of the shapes and gestures of the animal. In an effort to make hers that way of looking John Berger spoke about in his writings, and into which María tries to transform her body.
“It is very interesting to observe how animals move their centre of gravity, their shifts of direction, etc.- María pointed out- . They move, and they do so because they desire something and they go for it, that’s it”. It is not a question of copying or mimicking, it is rather like getting into the skin and flesh of the animal: “Just imagine -Pep Ramis suggested- you are a chimpanzee, and you’ll see how just with that imaginary thought something happens”.
What it actually happens is a much more structured behaviour than one could expect. More clear and defined movement shapes than the ones coming out of the hypothetical abandonment to the instinct. A thick line drawing which has more in common with primitivism than with wilderness. To contrast this, it is enough to compare the results obtained by María Muñoz with those reached by Vera Mantero.
Also in Vera Mantero’s Poesia e selvajeria (1999) the eyes of the performers where turned backwards. But the aim of their research was not so much the sight or the memory, but rather the body itself. Following the line of work started in A queda de um ego (1995), where Vera already broke the balance (present up to then in all her choreographic works) between regulation (code and disguise) and the giving into the instinctive (wildness, nakedness). Here, Vera tries to explore what happens in the inside of the body, and transform that insight into external behaviour. “We all know there are many things we do not allow the body to experience. We all know that the unconscious has a life that takes place unnoticed. But we only relate this to ideas, to images… and we never question the possibility of experiencing that unconscious life from the body.”
Poesia e salvajeria started out from the final situation of Vera’s previous work. There the performers were busy with the construction of physical and visual sequences without any narrative line. In parallel to the almost unbearable pollution of the performing space, the accumulation of these sequences provoked the disintegration of the performance. What the spectator observed was a chain of gregarious behaviours, primitive codes, rituals, disguisings, absurd actions, mimicry of animals, litanies, processions… At a certain moment the performers started to spread all over the stage eatable products, the floor became slippery, they would fall smearing their bodies. In the midst of this confusion, what had been the motor of the piece: the meeting of poetry and wildness could take place. “We do, with the same exactness, the most incredible and the most terrible or catastrophic things; I’m just astonished when I see that.”
Night, an open space. Six young men surround another one, they push him, violently shake him, make him fall. The victim tries to run away, but he can not break the siege of the other six who are determined to go through with it. They grab him from his T-shirt, from his arms, throw him to floor. Someone starts to kick his belly, others imitate him. All of this followed by kicks and punches. We do not hear the sound of the recording, probably filmed with a insignificant and ugly security-camera. Maybe if we could hear the sound we would be more aware of the displayed violence, the gregarious enthusiasm, the pain and the fear.
This sequence, reedited by Toni Serra, was also part of María Muñoz’s solo Atrás los ojos. The parallelism with Rhinocero’s Baby is obvious. But on this occasion the victim is not a child, his mother is not present, and no police (lion) aids him. The sequence lacks dramatic tension. And, thus, is not touching. The wildness of the aggression does not communicate the romanticism of the wild, and the same spectator, who instinctively feels the need of protecting the young animal, remains rather indifferent when confronted with this outrageous aggression. Why the violence between animals is more touching than the one men practices against men? Is it that in an act of perversion we individualise the baby and simply take the young man as an example of the habitual and well known violence.
To see, sometimes, it is necessary to close the eyes. In Esto no es mi cuerpo Olga Mesa closed them in order to observe the sequence of her own sleep, and thus transform the sleep into a dance. Also in Le dernier mot she included a sequence named “Yeux fermées”, in which she asked the audience to close their eyes while she dressed up again after her “night walk”. Closing the eyes increases sound perception and body awareness. Idoia Zabaleta tried to communicate that experience to the spectator through dilating time, confronting him with immobility and the gaze. Vera Mantero practised the opposed strategy: To eliminate rest, the conventional image of the body. Freeing in this way the spectator from his voyeur roll, offering him the possibility of entering a non-ruled state of physical experience. What in both cases worked was the annulment of looking, trapped in its own excess (in the void of time or in the insignificant accumulation). Dance has ceased to be a show for the eyes, and has become an invitation to discover the hidden states of the body. States that recall our animal past, the memory of pleasure, the destructive potential or pain of other bodies that inhabit ours.
In the last sequence of her solo, María Muñoz closes her eyes and allows her hands to answer to the musical proposals Steve Noble makes. Unstable proposals, as Steve plays with his two LP-players which alternate constantly with electronic resources. “To achieve certain depth -María says- I need a degree of tiredness equal or superior to the one I feel know”. Silence, pain, death, indifference, a small gesture… the “wild” birth of a child.
Like María Muñoz, Olga Mesa tried to create that intermediate state reached through exhaustion, the suspension of the sight, the “back the eyes”. She defined her solo as a “biographic-documentary poem on the intermediate spaces between memory, its experience and its expression”. It is in this crossing between the biographic and the documentary where the opening, through which the spectator enters, takes place. That chink between private and public that allows to reflect about violence and wars from the memory of distance and love. Idoia Zabaleta ended up talking about love when she tried to speak about time, about our convulsed and lost societies, about the void of our sight, of our eyes, of our bodies. Reducing the spectacular tension. Confronted views. Moving eyes.
José A. Sánchez
Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha
(Translation: Ana Buitrago)