Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Poetics: a ballet brut
“Everything is divisible by six,” Pavol Liska explained today in the noontime chat: Spectacle of the Everyday. And with that, I immediately understood why I couldn’t quite get my mind around what was so damn delightful about Wednesday night’s performance of Poetics: a ballet brut by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma.
I was delighted by so many moments, connected to it on many levels, and went to bed last night struggling with it—trying to put my ideas into nice little boxes. This box is how the use of space helps communicate something about the role of the audience. This box is for how their vocabulary of gestures points to the absurdity of our social conventions. A box for their spatial relationships, communicating how individuals desire both collective and isolated experiences. A pop culture commentary box to put their music, t-shirts, sneakers, Gatorade, and rolling office chairs. Visually sparse, with repetitive action and no traditional story line to follow it was easy to take note of these details and choices.
The more I thought about these boxes, though, the further away from the piece I felt. In the end, what really gripped me as I watched was a heightened awareness of being in a theater, in the presence of other people, while also being less aware that I was watching a performance. That sensation didn’t fit in any of my boxes. But, I still couldn’t pinpoint their agenda. For such an uncomplicated piece, this bothered me.
At the chat, Liska explained their early development process. He rolled dice to determine the length of scenes. He broke the stage into a grid. He used dice to determine how many times each performer would move during each scene. Since there would be 4 performers, he used a dreidel to determine which performers would appear in each scene. This initial script, pages and pages of numbers based in chance operations, provided an unemotional base on which to build the piece. Dice! A dreidel! Duh!
There I was, looking too hard for the philosophy. I was determined to find a political message, a worldview, something, anything, for the piece to be about. After hearing Liska and his company talk, I realized that this piece is ultimately about the process of creating this piece. It is about performance, both intentional performance on a stage and the performance inherent in our everyday activities. It is about this specific group of people reassessing their own poetics. The audience is not manipulated. There are no illusions or realism to believe. Poetics is more concerned with real life. The act of sitting in a theater is real life. The act of dancing in front of others is real life.
Kelly Cooper, Liska’s partner and co-director spoke to this, describing Nature Theater’s mission to get away from the psychological character. No matter how skilled an actor or how convincing a performance, you’re always aware of the actor playing the character. “It always seems so fake,” Cooper said.
“Ahhh,” said the audience.
Cooper continued, “We found ourselves enjoying being in the same room with them (the performers), enjoying them as human beings. We wanted to see their faces, wanted them to look at us.”
Building from their responses to numbers and chance sequences, the company successfully constructed an elaborate dance out of ordinary experiences. Standing. Waiting. Sleeping. Watching. Being watched. Michael Jackson. Poetics is not about the refined technique, convincing acting, or complicated story that drives our more familiar theatrical experiences. Poetics is about rediscovering why theater is of any interest at all: people in front of other people using what is familiar around us to communicate a message, to amuse. It is not so much what is being communicated that matters. Rather, what matters is presenting the desire and urgency of communicating.
The audience, seated on stage facing an empty house, is given an unfamiliar perspective of the theater space, and the performance extends into unexpected corners. The audience is forced to notice rather than escape the confines of the building. It is as if Nature Theater of Oklahoma treats the theater as an alternative performance space. Poetics asks the audience to notice and redefine their relationship to the action. In developing this piece, Liska and Cooper challenge the definition and role of the director, the actor, and the audience as well.
The result is a performance of honest, compelling, shared humanity. It is silly, and it is fun. Though humor is at the heart of every scene, Poetics never defaults to easy laughs or pure spectacle. Each element—from the gesture, to the use of space, to the methodology—is unexpected yet in careful service to the piece as a whole. Poetics is not made compelling by dramatic structure or emotionally manipulative elements. Poetics is compelling because it finds the spectacle, the juice in our everyday life—moving through space, looking at each other, being looked at, and noticing how multiple bodies in a room effect each other.
posted by Kirsten Collins