Thursday, January 21, 2010

PuSh Festival-Poetics: a ballet brut

My piece on the performance piece, Poetics: a ballet brut, appears in this week's WE.

New York-based performance artists the Nature Theater of Oklahoma take the mundane movements of everyday life and transform them into art with Poetics: a ballet brut.

New York-based performance artists the Nature Theater of Oklahoma take the mundane movements of everyday life and transform them into art with Poetics: a ballet brut.

Credit: supplied

Nature Theater PuSh-es the limits of dance

Falling out of bed or eating pizza might not be the equivalent of a gravity-defying grand jeté, but to the folks from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a New York-based avant-garde performance troupe, there’s poetry and dance in everything we do. Hence, Poetics: a ballet brut, a confounding and often polarizing project that takes simple, everyday gestures and asks the audience to explore the inherent artistry of commonplace movements. WE spoke with Kelly Copper, Nature Theater’s co-founder and Poetics co-director, about the company’s Kafka-esque origins, the process of creating a non-dance dance show, and what to expect from the final product.

WE: Where did the name Nature Theater of Oklahoma come from?
Kelly Copper: [Co-founder] Pavol [Liska] originally comes from the former Czechoslovakia, now Slovak Republic, and his first home in the U.S. was in Oklahoma. He came here at age 18 on his own, a bit like the Karl Rossmann character in Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika. So, this is how we got our name. The last chapter of that book is called “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma,” and in it, this poor misfit who has had a myriad of awful jobs since he first set out to America finally is hired by a theatre company who advertise that they have a “place for everyone! Everyone in his place!”

Where did the idea come from for Poetics?
Poetics came from a sort of personal crisis Pavol was having about directing: Is [directing] enough of an art form on its own, or do we need a script? Is the script the essential? So, we started with just a map of a performance, with no language, with entrances and exits which were all determined by a throw of the dice. We gave the four performers this score and asked them to move around and say nothing. And we watched that for several weeks, just thinking about movement and what it means, and you notice it does mean something even on its own. When one person moves to stand next to another and then suddenly moves away — as an audience, you interpret that. So, we became very interested in the way an open system like this creates possibilities for the audience to author their own experience. And then, as we began scripting movement — again using dice, and incorporating observed gesture and posture of people on the street, people standing, sitting, sleeping — we realized we had a dance, and then we had to deal with that as well.

What were the initial reactions to the show?
Well, one artist said that for the first 10 minutes she thought that it was the worst thing she had ever seen, and then she was surprised that her own opinion kept changing through the piece, until in the end it was the absolute best thing she’d seen and she was amazed by the range of emotion she felt about it during the course of just 60 minutes. That always makes me smile, to think of her alternately hating and loving the show. It does that to people.The show will take anything from an audience and give back to them tenfold. It’s about that dynamic — spectator and spectacle. Which one are you?

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