TRACES is being produced as part of the International Arts Festival Europalia Romania. I must confess that I originally saw this as something of a trap. It wasn’t something I would have voluntarily chosen to do. But I somehow also found the ‘commission’ to be an inspiring one. I went to Romania, and apart from visiting cities and museums, I held conversations with a variety of people. The country still groans under the burden of a long and hard political history. Emerging, as it has, from an intensely repressive authoritarian regime with its intense restrictions and coercion, elements in the long-repressed national psyche are now boiling up to the surface with disproportionate force. This history of repression and totalitarianism now dominates much of the art in Romania. However, I quickly realised that this should not be the focus of my efforts there. It was a different facet of Romania that held my fascination: its wilderness. The Carpathians are a long mountain range and are considered the last extant wilderness in our continent. With only a meagre human population, it is home to half of all brown bears, wolves and lynxes of Europe. This was what really stimulated my imagination.
It was a different facet of Romania that held my fascination: its wilderness.
Far from focusing on political conflicts, it is the ‘conflict of the elements’ that I feel an urgent need to talk about. TRACES starts from two of these ‘elements’:
a forest – and a road that passes through it. The performance opens with this image. Instead of merely representing an anecdotal situation, it is far more a symbolic one for me. Because what interests me is the conflict between forest and road. From our point of view, a deer on the road is a strange anomaly. It is not part of what we expect to see. What we completely forget is that the forest was there first and that the deer is actually the original inhabitant. In fact, it is the road that is the strange element in that image. This is the perspective that I want to change. Is the road a marker for the culture conceived by nature itself? Or instead, does an invisible but indelible trace of nature lie repressed below that road? The underlying theme of many of my performances are concerned with the often violent scars that culture and nature leave on each other.
For example, an important inspiration for TRACES is the bear. The bear symbolises the principle of renewal in Romania, since it is restored to wakefulness in spring, after a long period of ‘hibernation’. This event is celebrated in major processions in which people dress up in bearskins. Romania used to sell tracts of forests to the hunting fraternity until recent times. This is now prohibited by law; the forests are now protected. But the primaeval, ‘virgin’ Romanian forest is now a thing of the past. I saw drone images of large deforested areas
This massive deforestation is increasingly pushing the bear towards urban settlements. Dancing bears and bear festivals are part of local tradition in Romania and around the Black Sea. Young bears, not more than a few months old, are forcefully separated from their mothers. They are then taught to dance on hot metal platforms. Every time the bear is placed onto such hot metal platforms, its master plays the violin. After a month the bear acquires a Pavlovian response and starts dancing as soon as he hears a violin play. The bears are subdued into docility by a chain, passed through their noses. Some bears are even drugged or become addicted to vodka. This practice as well is now prohibited by law. Most of such bears would no longer be able to survive in the wild, and are consequently housed in sanatoriums. This is a heartrending portrait of the man-animal relationship.
To my eyes, the bear represents something that we have lost. Possibly that would have something to do with the loss of childhood? As children, we have all comforted ourselves to sleep, hugging a little teddy bear. I love the calm strength of the bear. His very physiognomy is such. From his coat and his fat. The bear has something strangely human in its movements. As an animal, it is full of contradictions: not much bigger than a hamster at birth, the bear is extremely vulnerable, but eventually grows into a massive, powerful colossus. Although the bear has a slow gait, it can move very fast. These are a few of the paradoxes and contradictions that I find fascinating, and I have tried to incorporate these into the performance of the dancers.
My previous performance TrapTown (2018) presented a clear and simple narrative about a city and about a conflict between two groups of residents. On the other hand, in TRACES, my aim is to explain things without words. The substance of the narrative in this case is physical rather than verbal. The medium with which I want to tell my story will consist purely of movements, rhythms, atmospheres, intensities. Even the music will have as few lyrics as possible. The voices will be used far more as tools to create atmospheres, rather than to act as carriers of actual words and meanings. I wish to create ‘ceremonies of images’ in which people can participate. You are equally free to also refer to the ceremonies of images as fairy tales or nightmares.
As you witness the performance, you will sometimes wonder if it is actually we who are in the dream of those people. TrapTown was set in a city of stone and was concerned with political conflicts of identity and coexistence, but with TRACES, I immersed myself in the intangible world of bodies, images, silences, somewhere along the boundary lines between forest and civilisation.
Another important inspiration associated with Romania is the Roma. In many ways, the Roma also represent the people on the fringes of our civilisation. They refuse to live in houses. But on the other hand, a complete return to nature is equally out of the question. And that is why they are perpetual nomads. Wandering from city to city. Where they are often unwelcome. They are badly treated even in Romania itself. As sedentary westerners, our lives are founded on and conceived around the notion of property, and the nomadic lifestyle of the Roma is completely alien to us. Europe is investing millions to integrate the Roma, to assimilate them and to employ them within our social and economic system, but that is proving impossible! They have scant respect for borders. Their children never go to school. I remember watching an interview with a man who stole gold from a cupboard in a house. His logic was that the stolen object was obviously unimportant to the owner since the owner had left the front door open, and the gold was lying unlocked in the cupboard. Because why would anyone leave an important object unlocked in the house – obviously it was unimportant? The Roma carry everything they consider important with themselves. They are always on the move. They don’t understand the whole concept of property and ownership. Nomadic Indians in North America also used to have a completely different notion about land. When the European migrants arrived, the land was suddenly demarcated and divided into properties. If we make a path through a forest, the forest becomes ours. TRACES is about the response of the forest to this brutal appropriation.
This may sound paradoxical, but after initially toying with the idea of using Roma musicians, I reached the conclusion that this one element would turn the entire performance into a sham. I am not a Roma.
I have no intention of pretending to be one. Roma music has, however, been an important source of inspiration. Whenever I listen to Marc Ribot play Albert Ayler’s compositions on Spiritual Unity and mimic Ayler’s saxophone with his guitar, I feel that Ribot has also managed to absorb the essential idiom of Roma music. I also find it challenging to confront Trixie Whitley with the music of dark Roma men. It is detours such as these that interest me. My job is to create theatre. Theatre is a black box that you get dressed in. My job is not to create realistic imagery, but to use alienation and abstraction in a manner that forces people to think. Thus in spite of the crucial centrality of the image of the bear in the performance, I have eschewed the use of real bearskins. I wanted theatre to remain theatre.
Another important inspiration was provided by the photo book Gypsies (1975) by the Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka. Koudelka is one of my favourite photographers. He almost seems to interpret the world with a sense of the theatrical. He once stated that the Roma intrigued him ‘because they create theatre out of life itself’. In the pictures you can see them as a proud people who like to show themselves. But I do fear that their unique way of life is threatened with extinction. We should cherish the Roma – just as we should the bears – because they represent a part of our world that has been consigned to oblivion in spite of all our ‘civilisation’.
TRACES is about the tension between a time that is standing still and a time that rushes headlong, blindly forwards. A time of the world of animals contrasted with time in the human world. A time of ecology, versus the time in economics. At the same time, however, I am not here to teach ecology. As a child, I was fascinated by the gigantic proportions of the world. I have covered almost the entire globe in the course of my life. What now strikes me is that the earth is no longer gigantic, but is instead too small for the number of people who live on it and have to live off it. Nature in its pristine, virgin form is hardly to be found anywhere. That can be fatal to us. Now that he has completely expropriated the entire earth, man has actually sown the seeds of his own destruction. It is therefore worthwhile asking yourself whether, and if so, why theatre still has to be about man. In the performance I show how a community organises itself, and how a leader emerges from within its own ranks and turns the others into a herd. The animal is a denizen of a different, elusive world. I try to narrate something from that other perspective as well. The physical and the musical play a crucial role in that attempt. I want the performance to retain the quality of a concert, but paradoxically enough, music will not be heard always or everywhere. Possibly Marc Ribot’s guitar and Trixie Whitley’s voice represent the soul – the very beating heart of the primaeval forest – and along with the bears, they symbolise an alternative, more profound rhythm to that of the harsh clock time that cruelly segments our lives into units.