Straight-facedly in search of the superlative of slow motion: Maria Hassabi’s ‘Premiere’
Funny how the dullest evenings in a theater can be the ones that stay with you the longest. Whereas the only thing you could think while you were watching the performance, was: hope this ends soon. But when you’re home, you realize the questions keep your mind busy. Why on earth did they do what they were doing? What was it they wanted me to experience? Premiere, by Cyprus-born, New York-based, director/choreographer Maria Hassabi, whose work (aptly described by The Financial Times) ‘appears as often in white boxes as in black’.
Last time I saw her, it was in a big gymnasium in Venice, where she was doing strange things on the risers. I’m talking about the Venice Biennale (2013), and Maria Hassabi’s contribution to the Lithuanian pavilion. Premiere debuted at Performa 13, in New York, last year. On that occasion Hassabi was interviewed by that renowned American magazine Interview and by Time Out, and her performance was reviewed in The New York Times and The New Yorker (‘an absorbing study in time distortion‘). The Financial Times gave it four stars out of five (‘deriving power and poignancy from the tension between the aesthetic and the theatrical – the art object and the human subject‘) Needless to say that I was eager to see it, as it was presented in Brussels (Kaaitheater) by the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.
The opening image is a strong one. As we were walking into the theatre, the five performers were waiting for us on stage, motionless and expressionless, while the light was coming from both sides of the stage, where an enormous array of spotlights was fixed. All the seats were removed from the hall. We had to walk past the performers, on stage, to take a seat behind them. All the while, the performers didn’t move. While we were taking our seats, we kept on seeing just their backs.
When is it going to start, I was wondering, just as everyone else in the audience. And then, slowly, I noticed a hand or a foot, moving just a little bit. Slowly that sculpture did start moving. Very, ve-ry slowly. A head was turning, a leg was stretching. One could compare it to a game of Twister in slow motion, but without the colored dots on the floor. I was wondering when one of the performers would fall over, or when one of those denim pants couldn’t take the stretch anymore and would tear. The only noises were the screeching sounds the shoes made on the floor. And once in a while some static (the sound scape), resembling the noise really hot spotlights can make.
It went on and on. The same slow pace. The same expressionless gazes. After a while, I started losing interest. Because there wasn’t anything to look at, anymore. Just five bodies, moving really slowly. I’m patient, but I felt I had taken in what they wanted to show or tell me. At that moment I also realized that it would take some courage to leave, because leaving meant: walking across the stage, and everybody noticing that I was leaving. I felt as if I was taken hostage, in a way. It added to my feeling of discontent.
The lights went out, came back on again, and the performance continued. Towards the inevitable end: the same ‘sculpture’ from the beginning of the performance, but turned ‘backwards’. Now the performers were facing the audience. Over and out? Yes, the lights went out to make that clear. And then went back on again. Applause. And once again, we all had to walk past these five motionless performers, towards the exit. As I looked back over my shoulders, they were still standing there.
Why? That was the question. ‘A dance made of a million premieres’, The New Yorker wrote. By stretching time, Premiere indeed becomes an endless series of tableaux, as a live slide show. Hassabi explains in Time Out: ‘I like this idea that in dance, we break images. Dance breaks images. That’s what it does, because it’s moving. And then I’m breaking images in another way through stillness, because it’s never still. I’m presenting images, but I’m still breaking them because there are the trembles and the shakes and the tears.‘ And: ‘My values are within live performance. One of the biggest elements of that are the performers themselves and having the time to look at them and see them as human beings. (…) Then within live performance, there is the use of space, lights, the audience. These are really the elements I always work with in different ways each time, but something that is always there and has been always there is extended duration and precision. Sculptures as opposed to movement. And why is that? It gives time to see the people.‘
Yes, Premiere makes you aware of time, of space, of movement, of your position and gaze (and the performer’s position and gaze), and apparently it refers to the concept of ‘plasticity’ (by French philosopher Catherine Malabou), but surely, there must be more interesting ways to play with these elements, and make an audience experience them. No matter how hard I tried to find reasons to like Premiere, for its courage, stubbornness and consistency, I still couldn’t help feeling that I had spent a long, tedious evening in a theatre. Or: the discrepancy between all the things a performer wants to transmit, and how you perceive them as a spectator.