The idea of “meeting” is at the core of all the work we do as community artists. Here at the festival, we are meeting with one another in every sense of the word. Over the course of the past few days, some of us have been meeting others for very first time, and also meeting with old and dear friends after a pause of too many years. What a marvel it is in both instances.
On Saturday, I was thrilled to reconnect with Dijana Milošević, co-founder and director of Dah Theatre Research Center in Belgrade, Serbia. I first encountered Dijana at the 2014 ICAF and though I didn’t actually speak with her then, she unknowingly made a profound impact on me. One morning that year, the first session was presented by Cornerstone Theater Company of Los Angeles. We were going around the circle, all of us introducing ourselves and saying a few words about what we do. When Dijana’s turn came, she described how her theatre company is dedicated to collaboration with communities. Because of her accent or perhaps because of my inattention that morning, I misheard what she said. I thought she said that her theatre company was dedicated to co-liberation with communities. This idea dazzled me and I quickly jotted it down in my notebook, underlined it and added several exclamation points. It took me just a moment to realize that I’d misunderstood her, but then I smiled to myself as it dawned on me that this term actually embodies a foundational aspiration of our work. Rather than descending as if from on high to liberate others—we are at our best when we “meet” the people in the communities with whom we work for the benefits of mutual exchange, mutual enrichment and, indeed, co-liberation with them.
On Saturday I attended James Thompson’s workshop on Care Aesthetics. Expanding on the ideas he’d previously offered in his lecture, James led us through some hands-on activities to experience what this register of care might look like in practice. We stepped into the world of his basic premise to treat “care” as more than an ingredient in the work we do, or peripheral to it. We investigated the implications of building our entire practice on a foundation of care. What does it look like for an act of care to be completed in the doing of the work with the group, right there on the floor together? We experimented with several ethically problematic theatre games/activities and, as many of us already do, we gave some thought to how we might adjust the details of the exercises to suit the needs of the situation at hand. In this case, the task was not simply to make them a bit more caring, but to actually ground them in the very act of care.
As we experimented with these few activities, testing different people’s ideas for how to adjust them, I found myself thinking of a passage from James’ 2009 book Performance Affects in which he wrote about the value asking a group to approach the notion of beauty.
“The point here is not to say what beauty is, but to suggest the importance of asking different groups what beauty might be [. . .] the struggle to understand beauty, and more particularly the experience of beauty, is an important part of its appeal. It stimulates a desire to know what it is.” (Page 141)
As James invited us to redefine the centre of our practice around care, it felt that we were following this same impulse. If, as he suggested, beauty can be disentangled from some fixed expectation of what defines beauty, and instead opened to a collective exploration, negotiation and definition of what beauty is according to those in the room, can we not approach the experience of care in the same way? This brings us back to “meeting” each other because it is within this circle, drawing on offerings from our diverse insights, that we began collectively to understand what care is according to those in the room. It is in the meeting that we forge new knowledge. Sure enough, as we struggled to work our way through the activities, fresh ideas emerged that, if implemented, would profoundly shift the axis of how the work is held.
I was thoroughly delighted to see and hear The Cabbage Field Opera by the Šančiai Neighbourhood Community from Kaunas, Lithuania. For those who weren’t able to catch this one, the description in the ICAF programme gives a good flavour of it:
“The co-creative ‘Cabbage Field’ opera process began in 2018 when residents of the
neighbourhood were invited by local community artists to join the creative process. The
opera rehearsals took place in public sites, so that everyone could access and take part.
‘Returning home from work I got off at my bus stop and saw a colourful community opera
bus parked at the side of the street. I heard the sounds of music in it. Someone called me
from within: ‘Come in, sing with us!’ I jumped onboard and I sing in the opera ever since.’
(Dangira Pikšrienė, performer)
The libretto was created during writing workshops by 11 nonprofessional writers. The music was composed by Vidmantas Bartulis, a recipient of the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts, who sadly passed away before the last part of the opera was finished. The director and choreographer of the opera is Lina Puodžiukaitė-Lanauskienė, and the initiators and producers are community artists Vita Gelūnienė and Ed Carroll.”
After the show, while savouring a bowl of cabbage soup made by members of the ensemble and served to audiences following each performance (truly the most delectable cabbage soup I have ever tasted), I talked with co-producer Vita Gelūnienė about their process. What I heard in our conversation could easily have been taken from a thesaurus entry of synonyms for the word “meeting”. Vita spoke about how, over the course of their work together the neighbours were witness each other; they were present; they were alongside. They all learned about each other; they all learned about Dutch culture; they all learned about jokes that had meaning for each other. Many said to others in the group, “I want to introduce you to people you should know.”
Yes, the singing (and choreography) was marvelous. Also marvelous was how the entire project sang with the spirit of humans meeting one another and being mutually enriched by the experience of that meeting.
From a meeting of hearts in the morning through the aesthetics of care, and a meeting of spirit in the afternoon through the mosaic of a community opera, we were witness tonight to a meeting of bodies. Corpo Maquiná in the Netherlands presented It takes a Child to raise a Village / football meets dance. These acrobats, gymnasts, contact improv dancers, and football (soccer) virtuosos gave a palpable, felt experience of what it is for bodies to meet other bodies through playfulness. Adults and children met in combinations that celebrated their capacity to connect with each other. They all repeatedly defied gravity as their bodies met the space up in the air. When their bodies met the floor, it was as if the floor was their friend, not their foe. Feet, shoulders, necks and backs met spinning, rolling balls, and those balls seemed perfectly happy to play with the humans. Violin bow met violin strings. Hands met drum skins. This was the essence of the performance. If the implied question was, How do we “meet” The Other, no matter who or what The Other might be?, then the answer they gave us tonight was simply this: we meet together in joy.
One more final blog to come.
Until we meet again.