Just before the Thanksgiving holiday I managed to see Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies at BAM. Now I’ve seen a bunch of Van Hove’s work and while I don’t want to jump too completely onto the Europhile Bandwagon, pretty much every time I’m blown away, particularly when he deals with film. I remember seeing Opening Night and marveling at how intelligently he integrated the visual choreography of camera angles and framing into the staging. From The Little Foxes to The Misanthrope and pretty much every Van Hove show, whether using live-feed video or Second Life, he’s pushing the edge in thoughtful, unexpected ways. But nothing prepared me for Roman Tragedies.
I saw it on the Friday night – I was tired and in a bad mood and when I realized the show was nearly six hours long I was prepared to leave after the first hour. But then I walked into the BAM Opera House and encountered something I hadn’t experienced in years – a huge, beautiful theater that was General Admission. Not since going to rock shows in the 80′s and 90′s had I had that slightly rebellious feeling of being an interloper into rarefied space. We’re in this temple to high art, order and refinement, but we can wander anywhere we want: sit, stand, mill about. Upon entering the hall we were given a sheet of paper (not unlike The Culturebot Guide To Einstein On The Beach) that spelled out the order of scenes, exactly how long each scene would last, when the set changes and big battles were, etc. As we approached curtain time, regular updates came over the p.a. system telling us how long until the show began and encouraging us to tweet, take pictures, etc. (If you want to see people’s tweets and pictures, just search #romantragedies on twitter.)
Then the show started and the theater opened up – we wandered on and off and around the stage, even up to the BAM Cafe to watch the events on the JumboTron, as if we were in the Barclay’s Center down the street. We sat where we wanted, chased the action around the stage, into the seats and onto the streets, jostling for best positions, taking pictures, tweeting, talking to our friends, comparing what we saw. For the next 5 hours and 44 minutes (or so) we went barreling down a path of tragic destruction like an unstoppable freight train of epic disaster delivered in 21st century media saturation; never gimmicky or fake or gratuitous, Shakespeare for our time: mixed-up, mashed-up, remixed and re-imagined and all the more powerful for being so. From Coriolanus to Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra we hurtled through the early history of the Roman Empire, birthed in blood and brutality and ever flirting with disaster. Epic actors with epic appetites and ambitions on a world stage brought into vivid high definition real life before your eyes, so far away in time yet so immediately relevant. It was so meta it broke through to the real.
I’m not actually going to bother talking about the performances because they were so completely flawless and extraordinary there’s really not a lot to say. Among Van Hove’s major accomplishments with Roman Tragedies:
Theater: Van Hove made good on what so many directors promise but fail to deliver – a complete and total transformation of the theatrical space. Van Hove interrogated all the fundamental conditions of theater and made deliberate, conspicuous choices that influenced our relationship to the performance. 4th wall? Gone. Conventional ticketing and seating? Gone. No Talking/Texting/Tweeting/Pictures? Gone. Traditional notions of theatrical time? Gone, he gave us an outline of exactly what was going to happen and when, yet somehow even as we knew what was inevitably to come, we were held rapt as the horror unfolded. It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of Van Hove’s accomplishment at a time when so many American theater makers are talking about “non-traditional” theater and the theater establishment is seeking “innovation” but very few people are actually questioning most basic assumptions of presentation and practice. I’ll go into this more in a later essay, but to my way of thinking, every theater maker in America should be compelled to see Roman Tragedies.
Language: Roman Tragedies was translated from Shakespeare into contemporary Dutch and then translated back into English for the subtitles. The hybrid of contemporary language with Shakespeare’s original allowed the language to ring true to the modern ear while maintaining a heightened sensibility, an epic scale. The text at once suggested the linguistic hybridity and fluidity of the present moment while pointing to what language can do or could do when we push it. It also suggested the plasticity of the English language in Shakespeare’s time, when it was still evolving at a clip, when English was a mongrel of Anglo-Saxon, German, French, Latin and who knows what else.
Video: The progression of the live video work was incredible, possibly the best I’ve ever experienced in a theater. The video work during Coriolanus was mostly wide shots, conversations framed like early political television shows with three or four serious men in serious suits seated behind a desk talking policy until the veneer of civility is broken. But by the time we get to Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, we are in the 21st century, the camera has moved in close to frame the speaker’s face to suggest an invasive intimacy. At one point the actors on stage are actually seated in a semi-circle, facing each other as they debate. Looking at the monitors, however, we see that the edited and composited video footage suggests that they are facing away from each other. Van Hove has taken as much care with his visual composition and its implications as he has with the stage composition. The layers of meaning created by images are many and intertwined, resonating outward, ensnaring us in a web of mediation and complicity, even as the staging suggests emancipation and agency.
Internet: Most theater or dance or performance or art of any kind, generally speaking, that tries to use Twitter in any way, shape or form seriously sucks. Seriously. The idea of Tweet Seats is stupid. Twitter “conversations”, however well-intentioned, are doomed to failure simply because the medium is not conducive to actual conversation. It is like using a tea spoon to carve a turkey. Or fortune cookie fortunes to write a novel. I find it fantastically frustrating that so many performance makers (dance, theater, visual art, whatever) don’t seem to understand that different tools are used for different purposes, that just because something is “technology” doesn’t mean it is “innovative”, especially when it is being torqued to do something it isn’t meant to do. This tends to include the very foundational elements of theater itself, which is something I will discuss further in an upcoming essay. BUT ANYWAY – Van Hove’s use of twitter, most emphatically, did not suck. The Twitter feed was incorporated into a scrolling LED ticker across the proscenium arch that included edited tweets, action alerts that told you how long until major dramatic events would occur or the length of time remaining on a set change; the ticker established location and year, everytime someone died it flashed their birth and death years. By merging the twitter feed into all the other information on the ticker, Van Hove replicated the flow of information that we experience every day. By including our tweets at random we are simultaneously included in the construction of the piece and reminded of our own inefficacy; we can comment on the action and have our thoughts enter the universal information stream but we are powerless to change things. It is a profound statement on our relationship to media and our dangerous delusion of influence. Roman Tragedies seems to imply that we in the audience should more thoroughly investigate our relationship to power and what it means to be a spectator vs. a citizen.
This is where we transition to a conversation of digital reproduction and distribution, because, theoretically, anyone could have used their smartphone to video the entirety of Roman Tragedies and upload it to the web. It would take a huge memory card (or several memory cards) and some major bandwidth, but it is not beyond imagination that someone could do it. The thing is, even if someone did, I’d wager high stakes that it would have no impact on ticket sales, merchandising or any other potential revenue streams related to the production. If anything, it might drive ticket sales and boost revenue. First off, because there is no way, given the nature of the production, that any single person could capture the entire experience. Secondly, a video – no matter how good – would just leave you wishing you could have been there. And this seems to be the thing that a lot of traditional performing arts people don’t seem to understand - in The Age Of Digital Reproduction and Distribution content can exist in multiple forms and be used by different people in different ways.
As Culturebot readers know, a few weeks ago I attended Danspace Project’s “Conversation Without Walls” dedicated to a discussion of Ralph Lemon’s “Some Sweet Day” platform at MoMA. I recorded the conversations, not really expecting to use it other than for reference. The discussions actually ended up being interesting and of value to the larger dance community, so I shared the recordings online. A few days later I received a call from Danspace asking me to take the recordings down and, being a good guy, I did, even without being told why. I did it out of respect and collegiality, but I’m not happy about it on principle, for a number of reasons. If it is an issue of people saying things in public that they don’t want disseminated, then they should take their cue from Mitt Romney and be more discreet about what they say in open forums. If it is an issue of intellectual property, that is a different issue and, frankly, more problematic. As I mentioned above, in The Age Of Digital Reproduction and Distribution content can exist in multiple forms and be used by different people in different ways. If someone listens to a bad quality recording of a panel discussion, that doesn’t mean they won’t buy the print catalog or, for that matter, a better quality recording of the same conversation that is officially sanctioned. Just look at The Grateful Dead and their long history of letting fans tape their shows and trade the tapes. Recently there was a thoughtful and thorough article in The New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten on the recorded legacy of The Grateful Dead:
I said I was interested in talking to [Phil Lesh] about the Dead’s vast archive of live concert recordings, about how something intended to be spontaneous and ephemeral became a curated body of work.
“It’s interesting that that’s become the focus, because we never felt that recording was suited to what it is that we do,” he said. “Because it’s so much in the moment. Because it’s different every time. If you freeze a song in a recording, it’s obviously going to be that way every time you listen to it. I remember classical recordings from my youth: there would be a slight bobble in our version of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony every time I listened to it. And when I think about that piece, when I listen back to it in my mind, that bobble is there. So recordings have always seemed to me, personally, to be kind of a fly in amber, which was contrary to the spirit of the Grateful Dead.”
What happens, though, if one has dozens upon dozens of versions of a song?
“Like fairy tales or folk songs, all versions are true,” he said. “The more versions there are, the truer it is. But we never thought about that in the beginning. There was never a plan. We just ass-backwardsed into everything.” He went on, “If I thought about it, I would want to see the music just sort of osmose into the great cloud of music that’s been created, that people just sing back and forth to one another. I don’t care if it’s rated highly. If in a hundred years people are still singing these songs back and forth to one another on the back porch, in a night club, a bar or the living room, that would be great.”
This hints at the relationship between ephemeral forms, documentation and dissemination. First is the illusion of ephemerality. Ephemerality suggest a reliance on materiality for permanence. But the immaterial can persist through memory, both individual and collective. It can exist through myth and through received knowledge and traditions. In music it is as Lesh describes it, “…the great cloud of music that’s been created, that people just sing back and forth to one another.” In a way, Van Hove is doing the same thing with Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn’t invent those stories, he adapted them for his time as Van Hove did for his. Each generation modifies these primal stories and revives them anew. They never vanish completely, they just retreat into the ether until they are recalled into the material world.
On a practical level, those Grateful Dead bootleg tapes created a multigenerational base of rabid fans who collected, traded and scrutinized thousands of concert recordings. As the body of taped concert recordings proliferated demand for concert tickets grew. People were familiar with the material before they ever saw the band, by the end of their career the Grateful Dead was one of the highest-grossing concert bands of all time – all with only one top ten hit, and that arriving towards the end of their career. After the band stopped touring they started selling re-mastered CDs of legendary concerts that had been available for years as bootlegs. Bob Dylan and countless other musicians have done the same thing. Audiences grow when content is freely accessible. That content encourages people to engage and grow and learn – the more you know, the more you appreciate, the more you appreciate the more you engage. It is a virtuous cycle.
As far as growing new audiences and engaging existing audiences, frankly, the world of contemporary dance has a lot of work to do. The charming and ingenious Girl Walk // All Day has probably been viewed by more people in the past 12 months than all the audiences of all contemporary dance venues in NYC combined. Choreographers and curators can sniff at it if they want (I don’t know if they do or not, but it seems likely), but it is a significant project with widespread impact. It also hints at how the field of contemporary dance can look towards social and mass media for ways of developing, preserving and disseminating dance.
How many people know how to do Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance from the music video? How many people know that Beyonce “Single Ladies” dance? Or for that matter, we all remember the Beyonce/Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker kerfuffle:
I know that contemporary dance is more difficult, esoteric and thoughtful than most “popular” dance – but how does one use the tools of popular culture to serve the purposes of contemporary dance? I think this really opens up the question of choreography vs. dance that has been such a hot topic lately among choreographer/thinkers like Michael Klien and Marten Spangberg. For instance, by now I’m sure you’ve heard that Beck’s new album is sheet-music-0nly.
Will Burns writes on Forbes.com:
Beck fans the world over will be drawn to the “invitation” this sheet music presents. Go ahead, grab your guitar, find a friend who plays keys, get your brother to play drums, and then turn GarageBand on and record these Beck songs. And record them the way you want to record them. Be inspired by the imagery in the packaging, be inspired by the compositions, but generate your own takes. The idea of an unproduced album is beautiful for this reason alone, and is likely the primary driver.
This is a totally brilliant, genius gesture that at once acknowledges the challenges of intellectual property and copyright law in the Internet Age while simultaneously launching a full-frontal assault on passive consumption of entertainment product. You couldn’t ask for a more significant proposal from an artist who is both widely popular and, frequently, wildly experimental. (btw, here’s an interview between Beck and Philip Glass).
So imagine if we really did detach choreography from dance? As I mentioned in an earlier essay, when I was in Minneapolis in September I started asking choreographers how they taught dances and how they remembered the movements from any given work, much less numerous works. Most of them told me they had an idiosyncratic writing practice to help them remember. Some actually wrote words, narratives and text. Most had some unique, individual self-generated system of squiggles, shapes, lines and figures that served as mnemonics or pictographs.
What if choreographers released those idiosyncratic texts as scores and allowed anyone, anywhere to recreate the dances from the words, squiggles, shapes, lines, figures, mnemonics or pictographs? While it is not necessarily a new idea, it certainly has taken on new meaning since instructions-based Fluxus concerts. (NB: Beck’s grandfather was a Fluxus artist). For that matter Charles Mee has turned over a number of his plays to the public for radical re-purposing, you only have to pay if you try and produce it exactly as written. Even Mike Daisey has offered the text of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for free download, to be performed by anyone, anywhere, however they want.
What might we discover if we look back before the player piano and the Victrola changed everything forever? How can we learn from the past while re-imagining the future?
We undoubtedly live in the Information Age and must re-think everything we assume we know about creativity, intellectual property and copyright. We must re-think ownership and we must re-think the relationship of revenue and commodity to performance whether it is music, dance, theater, live art or visual art performance. It is happening, if slowly. Just a few days ago Derek Khanna, a tech-savvy young Republican thinker, released a memo that questions (and refutes) the basic premises of existing copyright law and called for sweeping reforms. When the MPAA and the RIAA saw it, apparently they freaked out and demanded that it be retracted by the Republican Study Committee, under whose letterhead the memo was released. And of course it was retracted because big business gets what it wants. Not to get into it here, but technological innovation might well be the way forward for re-framing political dialogue in this country.
But for now, let’s start with the fact that digital reproduction and distribution of content is here to stay. For better or for worse, we have to revisit all of our assumptions about our relationship to creativity, the products of that creativity and how works of intellectual property exist in the marketplace. Even a marketplace in the gift economy. Performance makers, those whose practice is in the construction of so-called ephemeral experiences, need to be wrestling with these issues as thoroughly, thoughtfully and proactively as every other sector where “content” is generated.
Engaging with the conditions of contemporary life should be a given in the creation of contemporary performance. Interrogate your assumptions and make deliberate choices, but don’t react out of fear, nostalgia or unthinking Luddite biases against the technological world. Contemporary life is lived in a cloud of information – content – and even in the midst of that chaos and through the mediated haze we struggle blindly forward, striving to connect, that is what makes us human. And it is the question of staying human in a complex and contradictory world that draws us back to Shakespeare, the Romans and the Greeks, for we are eternally asking the same question in an ever-changing world.