European performance is slipping through boundaries, transforming relationships between film, dance, painting, dramatic texts and the human body and in all this apparent chaos which redefines live performance, the world of the “post-text” and all forms of creation in space speak equally to each other in unexpected ways. In Canada, Robert Lepage opened the performance space many years go to this kind of visual/corporeal/technologically based work that one could no longer call simply “theatre” but that seemed to relegate the text to another conceptual dimension, thanks to his collaboration with European festivals and creative centers across the Western world. Now, a lot of companies are moving in that direction, apparently feeding off the imaginative style of Italian performer Romeo Castellucci’s work that unites the troubled subconscious of victims of violence of our contemporary world. His bits of spoken word and dialogue often based on the great founding narratives of the Western World, take audiences far away into visually disturbing places of pre-civilization, where we can rediscover the human body and rethink its role in the human uhrschleim of existence. 

In 2003, Castellucci created a cycle of eleven ongoing performances entitled La Tragedia Endogonidia. Each one based in a different European city which became a source of inspiration to examine different notions of Tragedy understood as an Aristotelian–theatrical concept. Thus, at each stage of these different moments of the Endogonidia, the title of the segment referred to the individual city and some particularity that defined it. Castellucci attempted to create visual, musical, corporeal, and other performative elements with the intervention of technology, producing a portrait of the subconscious, acquired from each urban space, given its recent history and special attributes.

Currently, the Barcelona based Company La Veronal, under the artistic direction of choreographer, Marcos Morau, has just finished its run of Siena at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where this Company seems to conceive its work in a similar way. Morau refers to the great European cities whose undercurrents were reimagined by Castellucci in the Tragedia. Of course, Castellucci is a visual artist, and someone closer to theatre whereas Morau thrives on dance-(theatre) and corporeal performance, but all these artists use multiple forms of creation so that each specific form seems to lose its original function and acquire new ones. Painting acquires the categories of dance or film, dance acquires the categories of acting bodies or even gazing bystanders, moving bodies become frozen tableaux that refer to frescos painted on walls and canvasses whereas portraits come alive and gaze directly at those who behold them so the portrait becomes the voyeur and not the artist. All this crisscrossing forces us to readjust our gaze and that is the most exciting aspect of these events.

Using Siena, the Italian city with its reputation as the site of the high renaissance period and depository of the great works of art of the Cinquecento, Marcos Morau, choreographer of this piece, confronts a dramaturgical text announced by an off stage voice, a group of dancers almost acrobats, set designers, corporeal experimentation, varieties of sound, a space in constant transformation, to create a form of counter narrative that perhaps corresponds to the artistic existence of this specific urban space or at least, tells us something about the postmodern era of theatrical performance: nothing is stable, all is in constant movement, all swirls in constant change as Heraclitus told that we can never step twice into the same river because the world, as the act of performance, is in state of constant flux, all things pass and nothing stays immobile...! Siena captures the constant mobility of art that roles forward like a film even at the end when death surges forth. But even then, does the process stop? It is not certain.

At the beginning, lights come up on a large space that resembles an art gallery. There are benches front of stage. A door opens to a dark area behind the portrait on the wall. At the back, the sound is rumbling. A woman sitting on a bench with her back to us seems to echo an offstage female voice telling us how she came to this space that has become a museum. At the same time, a man in a black suit stands off to the side apparently watching her as she appears to contemplate a huge canvas against the upstage wall. It’s Titian’s Venus d’ Urbino, the work of the great Italian master of the high Renaissance. This site of near silent “Adoration” of the work of art suggests something almost religious is in progress, as a female voice-off from behind the portrait, explains how she came to this room, how she has seen it before, how she thinks she recognizes it, how it strikes fear in her. We are not really sure who is speaking or if there is another presence “off” watching these events. The mystery thickens.

Suddenly a group of dancers/acrobats moves into the room and they begin performing muscular, intertwining movements with each other’s legs, arms, heads; dancing appears to be a form of violent mime creating an atmosphere that counteracts the immobility of the woman’s recorded voice off stage, we assume, stating that the face of Titian’s nude woman seems to resemble her’s. The nude’s face lights up as though it were watching her and the woman says she feels she has met this reclining woman in the portrait before and that she is looking at herself. “I feel I have done this before” so who is watching whom? Whose gaze is fixed on whom? And who am I? Is the figure watching me? Have we discovered a state of double consciousness professed by W.E.B. Dubois (the Souls of Black Folks) who describes the oppressed individual’s sensation of feeling as though his/her identity is divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have a sense of unity?

At that point, our attention is solicited from so many points of view at once that it is almost impossible to focus our gaze at any point in particular as each space is fulfilling its own desires so we tend to cling to outstanding moments to see how our own experience contributes to producing meaning.

A voice-off describing the portrait of a beautiful black man that is the antithesis of the Titian portrait on stage creates the impression that we have been shifted back to another time period as if the world were inverted by those multiple conflicting gazes. The sign of a space quickly turning into a true theatrical performance constantly in progress, moving, constantly watched by the woman on stage who also feels she is being watched by the portrait and by the man in the black suit at the corner of the room.

Singing voices flood our ears as the dancers invade the “museum” space of the theatre and morph into a mass of undifferentiated bodies that suggest dark greying human shapes spread out below the huge Titian portrait in a tableau of a Last Supper of confused bodies in striking contrast to the shining warmth of the human fleshy forms of Titian’s nude. 

The set changes and a new tableau of death appears. A woman lies in state on a casket with a bright red wreath at her feet. The voice-off recognizes the body as herself lying in a deathly state. What was beautiful and exhilarating has become the end of life and all sounds now relate to a post-life of terror and drama as the living and the dead meet.

Memories of political speeches from a hysterical dictator and roaring crowds yelling as guns crackle, bells toll. The narrator tells us she is terrified so let’s look “beyond the picture.” “I see myself in that body lying there before us” as a requiem swells in the background. The stretcher bearers will take her away beyond the gunfire and the flames. What are those memories of suicide as a black body, arises like a zombie out of the ashes of his casket, a creature destroyed by fire starts lurching out of control leaping and gyrating like the dancers earlier except where he removes his costume before us and becomes the man in the black suit who observed the woman in the museum at the beginning. Now we have come full circle as the rain which drove the women into the museum at the beginning, invades the gallery and pours into the room.

The circle is closed, but the movement continues because a circular cosmology can only continue with no end in sight. La Veronal has captured something essential about the continuous flow of contemporary performance and we must wait for the next episode to see how it evolves.

Siena co-produced by La Veronal, Mercat de les Flors (Barcelona), and Hellerau European Centre for the Arts (Dresden).

Marcos Morau: Artistic director, Choreography: in collaboration with the dancers.

Pablo Gisbert-El Conde de Torrefiel: Text and Dramaturgy

With a Company of ten dancers.

Space and lighting design: La Veronal, Enric Planas

Costumes: Octvoia Malette

Voice-off: Victoria Macarte, Benjamin Nathan Serio

This article first appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on February 4, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.