‘Somewhere between Yvonne Rainer and Pina Bausch,’ was how Ian White and Jimmy Robert described their latest performance, which was recently presented in De Brakke Grond. The choreographies of these artists based in Brussels and London seem complex, full of historical references, but ultimately they should be taken surprisingly literally.
In December, a new performance by Jimmy Robert and Ian White premiered in the STUK in Leuven, Belgium. This is the second piece they have made together. The first, which was presented in Tate Britain, was entitled 6 things we couldn’t do, but can do now. The piece was an attempt to put the responsibility for interpreting a work, which in a museum is generally directed by the curator, back in the hands of the public. The piece comprised various components: drawing on sheets of A4 paper, hanging a drawing from the Tate’s collection and a performance of the dance work Trio A (1966) by Yvonne Rainer. Lasting almost an hour, the show gave the feeling of a process that is realised in interaction with the audience.
Marriage à la Mode et Cor Anglais is White and Robert’s second production, which was presented in the auditorium of STUK, designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architecten. Once again White and Robert appear as performers, who, dressed in red satin dressing gowns, execute choreographies that refer to such divergent ‘movement registers’ as tableau vivant, modern dance and gymnastics. The piece includes several dramatically lit acts with sparingly applied props and costumes.
In the emenent interview which follows, Robert and White respond individually to five questions on their collaborative.
‘6 things... was developed over a comparatively long period of time. We thought about the piece maybe for almost a year before there was the chance to realize it and then spent about seven months physically working on it. This durational process was absolutely key to the work itself when it was performed.One thing it was about was trying to convey the act of spending time together – with each other but also with an audience, who were literally seated on the same level as us when we were performing. Marriage... was almost entirely the opposite of this. What we realized after performing 6 things... was that that particular work could not have been performed anywhere else. It was dependent on an instance that could not be repeated. So for Marriage... we wanted to explore the opposite set of co-ordinates to those of 6 things..., such as theatricality, artificiality and stylization.’
Marriage à la mode is the title of a series of paintings by William Hogarth in which he satirizes the arranged marriage. In one of the paintings in the left bottom corner, two dogs are chained to each other. At the same time you show in your programme booklet this beautiful photo by Mapplethorpe of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson as the perfect example of an intimate, fruitful and long lasting professional relationship. This photo of these two men sitting close to each other, you mimic as the opening scene of your performance.What were your thoughts in making this new piece on calculation/economics and love, when it comes to relationships?
‘The differences you describe between Hogarth and Mapplethorpe summarize the deliberate tensions in the work, between something constructed and something intimate. But we didn’t use the Mapplethorpe photograph because of what we or anyone else might know about the personal lives of Glass and Wilson, or even their working relationship, but rather because of the image itself.
Of course, they are famous artists, but it was more something about the awkwardness and simultaneous naturalism of the way they are sat that was leading our interest. Jimmy had remembered the photograph when we were looking at a lot of different things before the piece crystallized and before it was commissioned. Jimmy couldn’t remember where he’d seen the photograph but eventually found it again in Roland Barthes’ La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida), the text of which became another key element in the work. I agree that Hogarth’s Marriage series is about economics but it is also about artificiality (the arranged marriage, possessions as the signs and ornaments of social status).I was thinking a lot about Hogarth in relation to a work on paper that I was trying to make, and that series in particular, as a camp acknowledgement of how hopeless I sometimes find being a single gay man, that there are only these superficialities and arrangements. But this isn’t something that I would intend the audience necessarily to infer from the title of our work. More simply, the title is intentionally excessive, maybe absurd or even baroque, and verges on the nonsensical. It is superficial in the way that we wanted all of the elements in the piece to exist on a surface level.’
Watching your performance, I felt there was a lot hidden. The positions you take, the highly choreographed movements you make, the red and shiny robes you are wearing, the prop of the red folded curtain you drag through the space: one assumes that these are loaded, that they are derived from ‘saturated’ sources. The performance breathes a sense of connoisseurship. Yet, one sees two men doing dance who aren’t dancers. Also the references you make include seemingly opposite positions: On the one hand, you present a choreographer like Robert Wilson who is known for his highly stylized performances, and on the other hand, you recite the poet Frank O’Hara, choosing lines of a play in which he shows himself explicitly from his anti-literary, Dada-inspired, side.I would like to know more about your motivation to combine a certain mannerism with a do-it-yourself attitude. What made you bring together these two modus operandi?
‘There is nothing hidden in the piece! Everything is surface! The only reference we make is to the Mapplethorpe photograph and we give this to the audience alongside the program notes. We have talked about this with a lot of people, so maybe it is one of the difficult aspects of the work, finding a way to read our attempt to articulate surface-as-content, to think, through the work, about the relationship between a still image and movement – life and death, if you like. To make a work of art about theatre (and photography) rather than a work of theatre that is about itself. The very thing that shapes the tone and look of the work is the simultaneous co-existence on a surface level of all the various elements in the piece.The movements we make are derived from a variety of sources but we are not referring to those sources. We don’t present Robert Wilson; we present the image of a photograph by Mapplethorpe. O’Hara’s stage directions are extreme, ridiculous, fantastical, hysterical, beautiful and impossible. They make the plays unperformable without radical interpretation. They are perfectly in excess of the form, beyond function. Perhaps they are as nonsensical as Dada but they are also
as definite as melodrama and epic in their scale. We repeat one of the O’Hara texts at the end of the piece, emphasizing the line “To be alert is to be decorative” by saying it three times. It’s a brilliant conundrum that I read in two simultaneous directions: both the camp panache of claiming that to be alert is redundant, non-functional, overrated and the radical inversion of expectation that decoration in fact is about a kind of self-consciousness, an alertness.’
Performance art of the 1960s and 1970s is often characterized by an informal approach, often alluding to daily reality. Your choreography is formally strong and articulated, in the sense that you explicitly occupy poses which you keep for quite a while and make movements that require technique.Why have you chosen a formally strong, articulated approach? And to what tradition in performance do you feel attracted or can you position yourself in?
‘In Marriage... we developed movements borrowed from various elements, such as dance (contemporary mainly) but also movies and paintings, sculptures, vogue (yoga, synchronized swimming). I like this crisscrossing of references, high art and YouTube videos of kids in New York doing moves that come out of nowhere but are a true expression of a sense of community and togetherness, which also one finds in clubbing sometimes.
So the aim was to articulate and compose those different elements within the theatre space, emphasizing the artificial aspect of each situation by “overplaying” the idea of posing and its drama in the way Barthes articulates it, while analyzing what happens to the body when it is subject to being photographed. This is very much what the French part of the spoken text is about: the disembodying effect and unnaturalness of photography, a composition to ultimately point out life while bearing similarities to death. The fabric and curtain are highly dramatic elements to underline the compositions and give unity to the piece; and we merge that somehow with the prop, with a red which refers to the redness of the theatre curtains.This piece is therefore a hybrid, commenting on theatre (context, spoken text, props), dance (movements) but is essentially a performance. And although we wanted to stay minimal in terms of references, it ends up being quite generous. To me, the piece functions very much like an essay, hence its strong and articulated approach, which seems different to the tradition of performance art; but in the end, remember that none of us is a dancer or actor, which I think comes across. Consequently in our attempts, and in exposing our aspirations, lies the true performance. We are revealing ourselves through the artifices of the context we choose and the props we are hiding behind, and the “live” element resonates within the present we are living in the most direct way, however mediated it appears to be.’
‘Compared to 6 things..., we wanted to think about choreography across the whole work in a much more explicit sense, to formalize movement, to think about the still image – “picture-making” in a way – and to make a performance that was not dependent on the specific place in which it was performed, so that the work (and our own bodies) became more like an object. While performance art from the 1960s and 1970s might employ the everyday as content on one level, I think it is a mistake to assume that its apparent informality means it isn’t actually crafted or dependent on skill or technique.
Learning Trio A for 6 things... really made us aware of just exactly how much skill was required to perform that work, not only the skills needed to learn and remember movement – working with your own body in a way that you do not in daily life! – but also how difficult it was to come to the piece without any formal training and to make those movements in and of themselves and then to connect them into the single phrase that Trio A is. It was in many respects the opposite of daily life and took a lot of practice, even if it has the look of something non-balletic.For me Marriage... is an artwork that is manifested in a theatrical auditorium, positioned somewhere between Rainer and Pina Bausch, but it is also about the auditorium, about the idea of theatricality in a broad sense. The work itself is an exploration of the re-lationship between theatricality and performance, rather than a demonstration of a pre-existing position.’
‘We used the fluorescent strip work-lights in the auditorium for the majority of the piece because it felt like the most honest thing to do. It is a work about the theatre, or that shared space of the auditorium, rather than a work of theatre. It was important the audience were lit in the same way as the performance area. Of course there is also an allusion to the “everyday” you mention that characterizes early performance work – they are work lights that the audience is never meant to experience, but here they are key to the strange kind of visual pleasure evoked.So the combination of quite luxurious costumes and the red curtain with this very Spartan lighting was intentional, and one of the other things that constructs a critical tension in the piece and in how it is read. The whole space is in darkness for the final section as a counterpoint – almost as if to ask a question about whether it is ever possible to not be an image in that context – and during this section we run, as fast as we can, across the stage for the duration of the same piece of music that you hear at the start. It is impossible for us to ever be able to know what it is that the audience sees during this section – no video or camera can really read anything because of the lack of light. Which is another counterpoint to the opening section, in which we very consciously make a picture for the audience to see and we know exactly what this is. It extends one of the central things we were exploring – a relationship between the still image/acting (death) and life.’
us it was therefore important to dramatize or sometimes even flatten out the performance into a two dimensional image by using plain light. Or to just remove the light totally, and so highlighting the fact that there is a directorial intent on what you see as a spectator and how.’