CS
9.11.2023, 10:27:44   |  Photo: Alena Češková  |   Category: Space & context, Interdisciplinarity, Process of making

Baroque Walks as multilayered encounters, as a parallel for the transformation of non-binary bodies, as an emotional bypass of intellectual experience, as a reconstructing and stitching back together of historical threads and much more

Key words:

I spoke with Becka McFadden and Daniel Somerville of Beautiful Confusion Collective about their upcoming performance Baroque Walks during and shortly after their residency “Art Cluster” in Žďár nad Sázavou Estate. I was so much interested into their work particularly for the reason that I have been too, working with Baroque references from architecture and music as a choreographer. I dive into their imaginative bubbles, to their multilayered spacious universe, which attracts me in a way that I wished to intervieved not only once. Wish you good read!

What fascinates you about the Baroque?

Daniel: My hesitancy in answering that is actually in the word fascinates. Because, in my mind, to be fascinated is to be somehow mesmerised and drawn in and captured, held. And that relates to something we were talking about earlier with the architecture specifically. It's really difficult to get past the ornamentation of it. But to answer the question, why am I attracted to the Baroque? And if I think about that, in relation to the music that we've been working with, which is largely drawn from operas, it's a world of possibility. It's a world of imagination. It's a fantasy world, a gender playground. It's these huge allegorical stories, escapism.

Becka: If I try to think about how I would have answered that question prior to this project and time here, I’d say I am intrigued by how much the built environment of the Czech Republic is Baroque.  So in living here  — far more than in other places I’ve lived — I’m conscious of living in an environment shaped by the Baroque period. And I’m broadly interested in how the built environment shapes how we negotiate space and deal with each other. So to really stop and look at the Baroque, to consider it, is interesting.  And also in my proprioceptive writing practice I’ve learned that a lot of Baroque music — Bach’s solo cello works, for example — are the same tempo as the human heartbeat. And I feel like what I'm often trying to do in artistic process is to get my head and my heart and my nervous system all in line with one another, so that I'm not projecting myself forwards or backwards in time. So I associate this music with a quality of presence that is appealing.

 

In which phase of the work are you currently in?

Becka: Right now, we are in kind of planning and preparation stage of the work. We are planning theatrical and site-specific version in 2024. We know that theatrical premiere will occur in Venuša ve Švehlovce. We are still looking for partners for site specific version. It would be very interesting for us to continue working with SE.S.TA. During the Art Cluster residency at  Žďár nad Sázavou Estate we were able to identify strands of work that feel juicy and interesting for us. We were also curious about our relationship onstage, how it is going to be read. For me personally, looking over back to our residency it is clear, where I want to focus, what areas of material are emerging for me, that I want to take further in dialogue with Daniel. When we will go back to the studio, we will start to think about composition, coming back to the material from Žďár and the site-responsive process, which will be about taking the ways of working and material that we have and deploying them in space.

Daniel: We were initially thinking about micro dances, sort of everyday action muted by extra daily ways of moving. And what was interesting, was that we realised in Žďár, that we didn’t like this idea anymore. What we really discovered there was a relationship to the environment, to the indoor and outdoor space: architecture, landscape. And also that music illuminates or rewrites those spaces and the reactions of the spectator. Architecture was enlivened by our presence, and the presence of spectators with the music. So we have gone on quite a journey of discarding a lot of initial material and found new ideas new ways of working, new types of material, new approaches. What I am really interested in now is how contemporary spaces will react when we bring baroque there.

One more discovery from Žďár nad Sázavou were the fishponds on the Estate. I had a moment of enlightenment there. We did a few exercises there and it had an extraordinary effect on me in terms of linking the narratives of operas we were listening to with that spaces. We don’t know yet what we are going to do with that. But somehow the theme of transformation, particularly of non-binary bodies, opened up a lot of associations and a string of connections.

 

How did you come up with walking format of the piece?

Daniel: So, the walk in the title is a placeholder, a substitute. An idea that relates to the ordinary, the quotidian, something very simple and not elaborate and not decorative. And so all the things that Baroque is, I don't find in the idea of just walking. And walking, although it presents lots of challenges in a theatrical contexts, especially in Butoh where there’s a big focus on walking, it’s sort of the baseline as performers, as actors, as dancers. So just walking is the closest I can get to just being normal. I appreciate how loaded the word normal is, especially in the context of anything queer-related, but it's there in the title as a deliberate juxtaposition with the idea of the Baroque as very decorative, elaborate, glamorous.

You know, the idea of glamour and glamouring and fascination, which comes from the previous question, are actually interrelated. Because, to be glamoured, to be fascinated, is to go into a kind of dream state where your rational thought might be suspended. So walking is the juxtaposition of fascination and glamouring. But then, what has come from that is also the possibility that what we're performing on stage are kinds of walks, what the audience are doing is a kind of walk. Anything that is just a mundane quotidian thing to do. Blowing bubbles. Opening a door. Drinking a coffee. It's all a kind of walk in my mind.

Becka: Yeah. I think every step taken on the estate is a Baroque walk.

Daniel: And we're talking about how people walk when they're in the Baroque environment. How we walk in the Baroque environment, how we evoke the Baroque environment through our walk. So the walk is there as a problem, maybe?

Becka: I feel too, like it's emerging as a vessel for all kinds of things. Like we have the long walk where the point is to walk for a durational period of time. But then also, some of the small dances that we're making are things that can fit within the vessel of a walk. And I quite like that.

 

What particular tools and methodologies from performing arts practices have you been using?

Daniel: We are relating to the Baroque from our own perspectives. Becka has been working with Movement/Architecture and my practice is Operatic Movement, through which we have been exploring Baroque phenomenon. By exchanging these methodologies between us, a new practice is emerging, perhaps we are creating kind of coded methodology. But we also both have an acute awareness of the queer, of queer performance, of drag, of being glamorous, of fashion, of pleasure activism. So, it is indulgent in places, it allows itself to move to the music, allows itself to be heightened, to be camp, and there’s also — and this came up yesterday — the Bruegel version, which — and I suppose this comes from watching the film Farinelli and being really inspired by the idea that the Baroque world beautiful, decorative, all of those things, but also kind of grubby and a bit dirty and then to day looking at that wing, the yet to be restored wing [of the estate] and the dust and not decay, but just —

Becka: Baroque mess. Baroque trash.

Daniel: Yes. Those pieces become really theatrical, really meaningful. And in those rooms, there are objects from the communist era which have been stored, they're not thrown away. They're just sort of suspended. But there are also bits of Baroque detailing which have been stacked and kept and will be reused. It’s being held, it’s not eliminated.

Becka: I think it's kind of what we were talking about in the hallway, about this sense in which this [estate] is the projection a particular idea onto landscape, like the landscape and the buildings are an expression of a particular set of values, interests, a particular way of understanding the world. And we live in a world that has been impacted by that. But not all of those ideas, or even most of them, are still operative. So there's an interesting simultaneity of having a present in something that is, in some ways, over, even as it continues to be. And that's a kind of juicy, layered setting in which to think about the things that we're looking at: the intersection of the Baroque, the contemporary, the heightened, the quotidian…

Daniel: Part of that conversation in the corridor was also — and I’m now interested in this idea — how baroque architecture and landscape erases something, and how the contemporary world also erases something in relation to baroque architecture, that if you live with it, and in it, there's a need to erase some of the ornamentation around you, otherwise you would be constantly caught in its web and unable to operate on a normal, day-to-day basis.

Becka: And at the same time, don’t you think that living in it causes a form of erasure, a kind of flattening out of specificity so that what we think it is, and what it actually is, are very different. I've discovered some of the things I thought were totally wrong, or, rather, what’s happening is much more complex than then I realised.

 

How does working in Baroque spaces influence your thinking about the site-specific version of Baroque walks?

Becka: It seems to work in two ways. First, putting us in Baroque spaces and seeing how the intersection of bodies, space and music enlivens or sheds new light on them. And there is also the idea of taking material made in a Baroque-saturated environment into non-Baroque environment. If we take this Baroque material from the residency in Žďár, for example, and fuse it with references from music, sculptures and other elements we’ve immersed ourselves in and then put it in an early twentieth-century building, we would have a juxtaposition of multiple periods and spaces.

 

What methodologies have you been using to integrate the audience into your piece?

Daniel: Part of that just playing with title - we are walking, so audience is walking too.

Becka: Bearing in mind that both theatrical and site-responsive performances will emerge from this process, we’re planning that there will always be opportunities for the audience to be the ones walking through a Baroque landscape, whether that's to do with landscape and architecture, or music, or both. And the way we've been working with spaces, we’ve talked a lot about staging, almost, or providing a soundtrack for people’s encounter with Baroque space and setting up opportunities to encourage revelation of space through very simple interventions in space, not necessarily involving the body, maybe involving something like blowing bubbles, that draw the eye in a particular direction, and highlight a particular quality of the space.

Daniel: Yes, and we have thought about the audience, in terms of the masquing and mumming tradition and including the audience in a way that breaks class barriers and forms a kind of equality between the spectator and the performer at certain points in the performance. Traditionally, that would be the beginning, but also in the more formal kind of opera house setting where there’s a quite clear class structure in the architecture of the building. Nonetheless, they're not spaces of pure focus on the stage and what's happening on the stage, but people are there to be seen as much as to see. They are sometimes engaged in other activities, eating, drinking, talking, reading. But because of all of those considerations, that the audience are part of the performance, there is a participatory element as such. And we have talked about the way in which we engage the audience with the eye. And that comes from the more contemporary idea of queer performance where the performer and the audience are in on the joke. And we're really looking at them and sharing what we're doing. Sometimes in a satirical way. There doesn't have to be a seriousness.

Becka: The wink.

Daniel: The knowing glance, yeah. And I feel like those are the kinds of glances that one might imagine in the Baroque opera house. And if we think about the opera house as a queer space, which I do, then it was also probably the best place to pick [people] up as well. The kinds of people that were attracted to the opera and exposed to these expansive ideas of gender representation might also have been the queer people of the day. And that's an environment in which they could see themselves represented within the performance but also literally meet each other. And the opera house continues to this day to work like that, certainly for gay men anyway.

Becka: It’s interesting to me that, being in the theatre, we’re here to watch something. And at the same time, an environment is created where there’s a kind of conversation that’s happening, but it needs to be somehow coded, because you can’t ever fully overpower what’s happening on stage. At least not today. So it’s interesting to think about the communication systems that are in play, that allow those messages to be sent and received. It’s using the body in a heightened, communicative way that’s not dissimilar to performance.

Daniel: Concerning kinesthetic empathy there is a study on how watching operatic singing activates the throat of spectator even though they are sitting still. On the other hand, working with active audience engagement and idea of walks, I wonder if the audience might resist our invitation to promenade through a staged space accompanied by music. During our work-in-progress presentation in Žďár nad Sázavou, some of audience members were going to other parts of the space, exercising different behaviour than expected. And that’s fine, you can’t control the spectators’ behaviour. We all respond in very different ways.

Becka: This notion of the audience’s resistance reminds of James Elkins’ book, A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. He talks about how, in contrast to the theatre or the cinema, where we allow ourselves to experience the cathartic release of tears, the gallery is a space where we police our emotions. I wonder how heightening the gallery space through lights or music could give the audience permission to feel more and more deeply.

 

How do you feel about staging your own bodies in sharing space?

Becka: During the work-in-progress presentation in Žďár nad Sázavou we showed duets and solos, but also proposed simple staging the space itself, with the intervention of bubbles and apples. I personally am not terribly interested in physical contact between performers or uniform, depersonalised expression onstage. I am more interested in people’s idiosyncrasies and how they co-exist onstage. I often think of Kandinsky’s paintings in term of composition: the different shapes and colours exists simultaneously and suggest multiple relationships through their coexistence. Daniel and I share some vocabulary — specifically Butoh — which gives us complementary or even similar textures in our movement. That’s how I see our bodies coexisting on the stage. In regards of playing character I am imagining a stable, onstage self that performs different characters rather then dissolving completely into character and then returning to some sort of neutral space. 

Daniel: If you think of drag performances, you see the character and the performer at the same time.

 

How do you feel about staging your own bodies in sharing space?

Becka: During the work-in-progress presentation in Žďár nad Sázavou we showed duets and solos, but also proposed simple staging the space itself, with the intervention of bubbles and apples. I personally am not terribly interested in physical contact between performers or uniform, depersonalised expression onstage. I am more interested in people’s idiosyncrasies and how they co-exist onstage. I often think of Kandinsky’s paintings in term of composition: the different shapes and colours exists simultaneously and suggest multiple relationships through their coexistence. Daniel and I share some vocabulary — specifically Butoh — which gives us complementary or even similar textures in our movement. That’s how I see our bodies coexisting on the stage. In regards of playing character I am imagining a stable, onstage self that performs different characters rather then dissolving completely into character and then returning to some sort of neutral space. 

Daniel: If you think of drag performances, you see the character and the performer at the same time.

 

We were talking a lot about space, but how do you work with time references? How do you place historical events in dialogue with the present?  

Daniel: What I bring into the project is intersection of the operatic and Butoh. In Butoh, there is an understanding that time is elastic; it might be very slow, it might be very quick or there could be a gap in time. In opera, there is a possibility that a simple, fleeting emotion could last eight to ten minutes. When we think about time and duration it is already there, in our practices. We are thinking of time in very nonlinear way, and at the same time we’ve found ourselves in oppositional time paradoxes.

Becka: Regarding time and duration, we’ve also talked our difference in age, the different temporal journeys that have brought us to a shared present in which different relations to time are already embedded when we coexist onstage. Then you think about the space(s) we are in and the music that is playing — and we are already in a very dense layering of time.

 

What would you consider as the essence of Baroque Walks that you would like to communicate with an audience?

Daniel: For me the term emotion is quite important. Opera can bypass intellectual experience and take you straight to the emotional space. I also think about the context for the performance and who the audience are. At Venuše ve Švehlovce, for example, we can anticipate an audience that includes many queer people. Working for this audience lets us engage with elements of comedy and satire, as well as Baroque extravagance to create a unique kind of communication between us and the audience. There is a metaphorical link to the current discourse on LGBTQ+ people, particularly that we have always existed in the world and dealt with societal constraints across time. But it is also true that we still have a lot of time to explore message of the piece.

Becka: I agree, it is very interesting to me to think about stitching back together historical threads that have been cut and re-historicising the queer and non binary experience. Prior to this project, my strongest connection to the 17th centry was via the theatre of the English Restoration, which I studied at university and which contains a lot of gender play and coded speech. There is also the strong influence of Baroque religious  architecture, which often expresses itself in very camp ways. So I think there is a lot of interesting stuff to unpack here, even if is maybe too early for me to speak clearly about an essence.

 

Thank you for your time Becka and Daniel. We wish you a good luck with Baroque Walks and looking forward to the premiére!

SE.S.TA Centre for choreographic development.

Author: Katarína Brestovanská

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