Miet Warlop / Irene Wool & NTGent, ‘Histoire(s) du théâtre IV: ONE SONG’
What happens at the Festival d’Avignon? Are The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde and our own dailies still doing well? When Miet Warlop premiered ‘ONE SONG’ at the world’s most prestigious theater event last summer, it received great reviews at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the performance is a direct mockery of the theatre’s moving potential. Not a sensible word, not a poetic thought, not a speck of sophistication: has it come to the point where the so-called theater enthusiast gets a standing ovation for a performance that declares every aesthetic and human ideal dead?
The interior is a gymnasium, with instruments scattered here and there. The Master of Ceremonies sits high on a stand, a babbling passive mover who directs what is to happen. After being made seemingly insignificant by the instructor with coach, five young musicians take their place one by one. Indeed, a glimpse of elegance: a violinist balancing on a beam, cheered on by five assembled supporters and a male cheerleader! Unknown to the public yet, this sets the stage for about an hour more of the same.
Indeed, the title proves itself: ‘ONE SONG’ effectively consists of one song which is repeated systematically. At varied paces, with different intensities, but due to the tendency to accelerate moves ever closer to the physical limits of the human body. Is this man a victim of the incomparable rhythm of the industry, the market, the system – a man toiling to death? The man who believes that he must realize himself to the utmost in order to exist? The person who keeps repeating themselves and doesn’t even seem to realize it?
However, the program text refers to “a celebration”, “a ritual”, “the human condition”, or even better: “how one song can give meaning to an entire society”. You just have to dare. In particular, it is absolutely not clear whether with ‘ONE SONG’ Warlop is protesting against man and his tragic Sisyphean work, or glorifying the body and the primal power that emanates from it. This performance is most reminiscent of the latter: young performers who, like real athletes, train themselves to be musicians on a treadmill and a climbing frame, either cheering endlessly or dancing endlessly. After all, the energy released during that process forms the core – that’s all there is to see. But what does this punch mean?
It seems that Warlop feeds on the effect that Marina Abramović explored half a century ago during her performances: the stretching and transgression of physical limits, and thus the fragility, but above all the potential of both the physical and the mental (endurance) capacity of show man. Jan Fabre has also explored this theme several times in the meantime. In short, is Warlop really performing a ‘Histoire(s) du théâtre’ – which is the name of the series in which NTGent director Milo Rau invites artists to create a personal portrait? She restores the foundation of body art and art of enduranceand should it fit a sketch of modern man?
In itself, it is not a sin to revive art history, although there is a significant difference. Abramović’s transgression concerns only her own body and limbs: she tortures herself, thereby questioning the status of the spectator. Is watching a form of complicity, and does the status of unwanted voyeurism lead to moral friction? These are questions that also appear throughout Angélica Liddell’s ‘Histoire(s) du théâtre III’, where she deals with self-mutilation. Warlop goes a step further by mutilating the public as well. The music – or what passes for it – blares loudly from the speakers, to such an extent that everyone feels the deep bass vibrating in their stomachs and chests. In the noncommittal context of a theater, where attempting to escape compromises the experience of other spectators, it is a misdemeanor.
Conceptually, however, such an excess fits perfectly with the performance. The annoying monotony of (non-)action, the bankruptcy of even the smallest intellectual input, the bankruptcy of aesthetics: the violation of respect for the spectator’s sensual comfort can be added to that. Apparently the experience sets in so radically that people even today don’t know how to adopt a stance other than jumping up to a standing ovation. However, no one can tell afterwards what exactly was so exceptionally good about this production.
Hooray for what is young and vital and loud because it embodies a primal instinct? Let us then ask ourselves what role art can play in our existence. Art can question instinct, but should at least try to transcend it – after all, artistic is transcendent by definition. What Warlop does, however, is the opposite. She radically relegates wisdom, beauty and moral highness to the wastebasket, to the benefit of nature’s impulses. Thereby she captures everything but the human condition, for she leaves the supersensible out of consideration. Therefore, ‘ONE SONG’ is an artifact without a soul. Art is reduced to show, to acrobatics, to a spectacle of bodies. Art that does not touch – the physical idiosyncrasies are of course disregarded.
Seen in Leietheater Deinze on 18/11/2022.
Photo copyright: Michiel Devijver