Having not really checked my programme properly, I didn’t know much about this double-bill before I saw it. A couple of hours (give-or-take) later, I was perplexed: why would you twin Playful Body, which is a taut, meticulously made, excellent piece of work, with On Tenderness, which, was frequently, severely misjudged (and that’s the polite version of what I thought). The creator and performer of the latter clearly didn’t have a fraction of the talent of the former. You can see where this is going, right? Andreea Novac, the creator-performer of the latter piece, was also the choreographer/director/dramaturg of the first piece.
Playful Body, performed by the Romania-based Hungarian István Teglás, is a (roughly) fifty-minute solo. Teglás, who has been standing on stage as we enter, making near-hostile eye-contact, signals the start of the show by turning his back on us and putting up the hood on his hooded top. The house lights and workers are cut, and he switches on a floor-standing theatre-light (I couldn’t tell you which sort. Par-can, perhaps). It mostly lights the black rear curtain of the stage. Teglás is leant against it, the light picking out, accentuating the folds of his street clothes into jagged black and white relief. A Caravaggio painting, if Carravaggio had painted hoodies. Or the stark drama of a Francis Bacon Pope. He moves incredibly slowly. He walks forward in miniscule agonising steps. He retreats again. Then, all of a sudden, he’s upside down, pinned against the back wall in a handstand, then a one-handed handstand. Suddenly he’s transformed from a surly youth into something reminiscent of a salamander scuttling down a sheer wall.
The section ends, and he turns on a different light, downstage. He brings on a large inflatable bed. He brings on a portable CD player and a plug-in electronic pump. He fills the bed. He might play us a tune as we wait. Then he’s on the bed. Then he’s hiding behind it. When he emerges, he is naked. A sequence follows in which he appears to mimic one of those arguments Gollum has with himself in Lord of the Rings. Then there is more movement. He cavorts, sinuously on the bed. Then, again, up against the back wall. The tone has changed from sinister or threatening to light and playful. There are visual gags – which is no mean feat for a guy hand-standing upside-down fully-frontally-nude. It is witty, full of impressive feats, and one of those pieces where you swear to God you’re going to exercise more having seen it.
[actually, there is an interesting piece to be written (or read by me if it’s already been written) about what we do with our experiences of watching dancers’ actual bodies. About what desires they may or may not provoke – from envy and self for self-betterment, through to potentially lust – and whether those responses are legitimate, or problematic.]
The piece, running at about 50 minutes, is pretty much just that: a man, starting in clothes, ending naked, having displayed some intensely impressive physical control, and a fine sense of humour, leaves the stage strewn with his clothes and the re-deflated air-bed. It feels a bit more profound than this gives credit for, but it doesn’t feel like a massive ache for poignancy is the real point. This is more an artful entertainment than a philosophical treatise. Still, it’s a deftly made and executed one.
What is curious, then, is that in theory On Tenderness follows a similarly episodic structure. The performer, Novac, happens to be a larger woman rather than a staggeringly athletic man, so from the off I suppose I was monitoring my responses as best I could as a western, heterosexual male who’d like to do their best to be a feminist.
What was odd, though, is that I think what actually informed these initial responses to the piece were much more what I’m used to seeing bodies being deployed to mean on British stages, than anything to do with my Male Gaze. Put simply, Novac is tottering about the stage in vertiginous “stripper heels” (the ones with platform soles and then stupidly long actual heel bits) a very brief silky dressing gown and undies. She is performing a kind of burlesque of coquetry, draping herself over a low armchair, and then slipping off, either due to her heels or to her lack of balance. I found it oddly uncomfortable, because for me it didn’t seem clear precisely what she was parodying here. Or even if it was a parody.
And this seemed to be a recurrent problem throughout. I just could not get a fix on the tone. I’m prepared to believe it was a trans-cultural thing (although chatting to others from my grounp afterwards (Bulgarian, Canadian-in-Prague, Pole, Hungarian), no one else had really seemed to get a fix on it either). Elements not dissimilar to those I’d found witty in Playful Body here seemed worrying and contrived. Perhaps that problem was that in On Tenderness, the playfulness had been replaced by an almost painful level of sincerity. But sincerity that it was impossible not to read as possibly ironic. It’s odd how unsetling “not knowing where you are” can be when trying to watch a piece of work.
That said, there was also the matter of execution and concept, both of which seemed to be sketches-toward... at best. At one point Novac dances slowly and “sensuously” to a piece of music under a red light for a full five minutes (approx.), and at another point, she tells us how she imagines a man with a guitar walking slowly across a room just appears. The man duly does appear, and proceeds to cross the room slowly playing the guitar for another full five minutes. All these elements sound like they could add up to a great show, and perhaps one day they will. For the first part of the show, while trying to work out the mode, my colleagues and I agreed that it seemed most interesting when it might have been a Forced Entertainment-style piece about failure, or something exploring that sort of “boredom”. But what I perceived as the piercing level of sincerity somehow seemed to get in the way of that.
That said, clearly from her choreography and dramaturgy on Playful Body, Novac is a real talent, albeit one who should perhaps make sure she has a more rigorous outside eye on her own solo work.