Monday, 8 February 2016

What is Visual Theatre? (Please, stop it)

Definitions are a right pain in the hoop. Every year, when I attend manipulate, I work hard to try to explain visual theatre, and fail. My favourite attempt to make the distinction between dance and physical theatre - as part of a conversation that was trying to resolve the problem - is not mine: a practitioner grandly announced that it was simple. "One is abstract," he said, and paused. "The other isn't." 
is this a theatrical space?

Sadly, he didn't tell me which was which. Other intellectual quests for clarity (including 'what is art?') had met with similar failure. So, this year, I am going to go backwards. I'll look at the various performances from manipulate, see what they share, and conclude that visual theatre is simply 'theatre that gets programmed at manipulate'.

Before diving into the maelstrom, a few notes on how awkward definitions can be. 'Mighty Marvin' Carlson, the remarkably busy American academic is usually a good source for quotations, and in his book about Performance (2004), he explores the rise of performance art, mostly in the USA, and ties together some key themes.

On page 110, he notes that performance art features 'an interest in developing the expressive qualities of the body, especially in opposition to logical and discursive thought and speech.'

I'll be damned if this doesn't describe the choreography of Editta Braun, who presented Close Up on the first night of the festival. Her dancers didn't even face the audience, becoming strange creatures of multiple limbs and hunched spines. 

how about this?
He goes on to list a variety of 'body artists' - from Yves Klein and his writhing naked women in paint, to Nitsch and the Aktionists' 'Dionysian rituals'. And if Akhe's Gobo. Digital Glossary lacks Dionysian abandon, I'll happily buy Carlson a pint. In 1975, a panel discussion about performance art added that the space for performance 'is more often like a workspace than a formal theatrical setting'. Again, Gobo's stage looked like an abandoned laboratory, as Russia's answer to The Chuckle Brothers moved between props and scenery for a series of wild routines.

dance - or physical theatre?
It's not that Carlson fails to describe performance art, it's that his descriptions fit elegantly with the aesthetics of manipulate. I'll use his book to suggest that there is some kind of genealogy of visual theatre, even as I am aware that he intended no such comparison. But that a description of one art-form can be so easily applied to another brings me back to the problem of definitions. Where they are supposed to supply boundaries to limit considerations of art, they usually just make it worse...

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