Eugenio Barba

STORIES OF BETRAYALS

 

In September 2015, in the corridor leading to Odin Teatret kitchen, I found myself vis-à-vis Lorenzo Gleijeses and Mirto Baliani. They were in residence at the Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium in Holstebro, concentrating on some scenes previously developed with the Italian choreographer Michele di Stefano. They took advantage of this permanence to show their work to Julia Varley who, since 2002, has directed Lorenzo in two performances.

I like Lorenzo. I appreciate his human and professional qualities. He is patient towards the work, able to guess what the process is pointing to, ready to embrace an unexpected situation even though he cannot dominate it rationally. He possesses the actor’s greatest virtue: he knows how to resist the temptation to be satisfied with the first result.

Lorenzo is an amphibious actor, able to live in the vast waters of traditional theatre and on the floating islands of the Third Theatre. Son of well-known actors, just eighteen years old, Lorenzo threw himself into a path of “work on himself” led by Julia. The training of the body-mind and the voice, typical of Odin Teatret and many other theatre groups, resulted in an actor dramaturgy. By this term I mean the actor's ability to independently create materials: ways of moving, walking, behaving, talking, writing or selecting prose or poetry, improvising scenes, fixing them and distilling them. The final text emerges gradually from these materials born out of imagination and individual experience, thus giving birth to the character.

I could say that there is a theatre that works for the text, interpreting and adapting it to historical and aesthetical circumstances close to us; and a theatre that works with the text whose strength is one of the many forces that make up the performance, a living organism that releases energy.

One day Julia, due to a commitment in town, asked me to observe the work of Lorenzo and Mirto. I was baffled. There were only six movements repeated maniacally throughout space in endless variations. My attention faded until complete extinction. I told Lorenzo that  I couldn't see anything in those abstract movements. I had only a vague association when he was on the ground and writhed like a cockroach upside down on his back. Jokingly, I told him he could call his performance The Metamorphosis, according to Franz Kafka’s story.

Meyerhold used to say that you should never joke with pedants, because they take everything literally. Lorenzo is not a pedant. You can name what he is since the next day, in the same corridor, he asked me to see how he had adapted his materials to the text of The Metamorphosis. During the night he had recorded Kafka’s text that now an off-screen voice recounted during his contortions on the floor. The result was embryonic, I didn't recognise if it was male or female, what it wanted to become, whether it had enough vitality to grow in the future. I was, however, impressed by the determination of Lorenzo and Mirto who in one single night had turned an ironic comment into a stage reality: a standpoint.


I observed their work a couple of times, commenting on it vaguely. For my part there was a boundless sympathy for those two workaholic night owls, and no desire to get involved. When he left Holstebro, Lorenzo asked me if he could show me the development of his materials when I was in Italy. Of course, I replied, well aware of the difficulty to find free time when I tour with Odin Teatret. I teased him: Was he betraying the choreographer with a theatre director? He replied seriously that he imagined giving two different destinies to those six abstract movements. I liked his definition of betrayal: choosing a different destiny.

In the spring of 2016 Lorenzo called me on the phone: were Julia and I willing to give a public master class? He would present the materials of The Metamorphosis and we two would intervene as directors: shorten and modify the scenes, come with proposals, elaborate details, sharpen the rhythm and suggest intonations. In short, a rehearsal open to spectators, just a few hours during a single evening. The International Festival of Naples was interested to include this rehearsal in its programme as a master class.

In June 2016, during that evening at the Galleria Toledo Theatre in Naples, I witnessed the long journey undergone by Lorenzo and Mirto since I saw them last in Holstebro. The tiny embryo had grown, showing off new features and cadences, a profile of dynamic and evocative patterns with a potential of images that aroused my desire to accompany their development.

Thus Lorenzo, Mirto, Julia and I - and the indefatigable alter ego Manolo Muoio - decided that, together, we would let the performance grow. We confirmed the title: An ordinary day of the dancer Gregor Samsa. It would be a collective creation. We brainwashed ourselves to discover periods in our calendar when we could meet, and ways to proceed even at a distance. Whatsapp and email, video and skype can help, but do not transmit pulsating energy. Lorenzo and Mirto had the responsibility of exploring and making the embryo grow. It was their task to add texts, invent scenes, music, introduce other partners - technological objects or gadgets. The real difficulty was to find periods, even short ones, to cancel the 2,000 kilometers that separated us, and restore the intense intimacy of rehearsing applying the essential principle of shaping, turning upside down, trimming. To remove is to add, to add is to remove. It was a totally unusual and unsettling situation for me, used to accompany the actors and the growth of a performance day after day during several months.

We managed to rehearse five days in Rome at the Teatro Quirino in June 2017 and for an equally long period in Naples in March 2018. Lorenzo came to Holstebro a week in September of the same year. In the end, again in Naples, we met for nine days in November 2018. Lorenzo continued to work in Italy with Mirto and Manolo. He sent regularly to Julia and me via WhatsApp new texts or changed scenes, receiving in return comments and indications.

When preparing a performance, there is always a moment of truth. In such a way the decisive confrontation between the bull and the toreador is called in a bullfight, when the toreador, with a swift, fierce stock, pierces the animal's heart with his short sword. In theatre, the moment of truth is usually the encounter with the spectators. But not always. Sometimes it is in all other circumstances that the actor reveals his artistic commitment and spirit of sacrifice towards the embryo that he has nurtured until to give it an autonomous identity of theatrical fiction.

 

The moment of truth took place between June 23 and 29, 2018. Once again, the International Festival of Naples supported the project of Lorenzo and his company. During a week, about thirty actors, directors and playwrights followed the rehearsals of the A ordinary day of the dancer Gregor Samsa. The venue was the NEST, Napoli Est Teatro. In the welcoming home of this enterprising collective, a “Collective Mind” took place. The announcement of participation explained the procedure:

In theatre, we can speak of a “Collective Mind” when an ensemble of motivated people is engaged in a creative process which doesn’t aim at realising an already clearly defined project. A “Collective Mind” integrates different specialisations, various degrees of experience and diverse responsibilities in an assembling process similar to that which happens in the individual mind in the course of invention: sudden changes of direction, detours, exploitation of serendipitous effects, leaps from one level of organisation to another (pre-expressive level, organic dramaturgy, narrative dramaturgy, shaping of the space, musical universe, etc.). The “Collective Mind” operates with the same amount of energy in programming as in knowing how to demolish its own programmes. 

 

After attending the rehearsals, the participants will gather to ask questions and discuss the day's work with Eugenio Barba and his collaborators and will have the opportunity to suggest changes and new directions. During the rehearsals, new narrative threads emerge, mix and get lost. At the same time the “Collective Mind” tries to deepen and elaborate the materials already developed. New solutions, techniques and attempts are proposed that can reveal where these materials may lead, which new stories trigger and which could be the most appropriate endings.

Three months had passed since our quintet had rehearsed during five intense days in March. We had established the structure from which to distil the final part of the performance. We departed giving Lorenzo and Mirto free hands to make further proposals. At NEST, I anticipated the pleasure of the novelties with which they would surprise me. I was dismayed. In a burst of creativity, Lorenzo and Mirto had smashed and reshaped the entire structure, infusing into it, a completely different meaning.


 Lorenzo showed Julian me the new and final phase of the performance. The silence lasted a long time. I felt behind me the impact caused in the participants of the “Collective Mind”. Julia waited apprehensively my reactions. Lorenzo and Mirto waited confidently my appreciation for the radical transformation they had managed to achieve.

How to say that I felt betrayed? What words could express my regret over a deep expectation that had been cheated? What had disappeared from the previous version that I had kept alive inside me for months and months, filing a detail, a pause, an attitude?

I asked Lorenzo the reason for the radical change in the structure we had agreed. His arguments were relevant and the results attested their effectiveness. The reactions of the participants were a proof of this. But I lacked the discomfort and irritation that Kafka's text provoked in me. Now the absurd story of a man who becomes an insect no longer bothered me. I was not shaking skeptically my head, in dismay, almost panic, something that concerned me directly, though I didn't understand why. Was the reptile part of my brain no longer reacting? Was the literary metaphor just a conceptual construction, artistically well packaged, but no longer “biting my flesh”. A spectator, once, gave me this definition, in order to measure a performance.

I explained to Lorenzo and Mirto that we had to forget their version and reconstruct the previous one. At that moment I admired Lorenzo and appreciated his strength. He replied only: I agree, let’s start to rebuild it. And we succeeded during that week thanks to his superhuman effort.

In Lugano, a city that in the past housed the Italian anarchists in exile, one day Julia met a friend who asked her: is it true that Eugenio is betraying his actors and does a performance outside his theatre? He was telling the truth: for 55 years I only staged Odin Teatret actors and Asian masters from the Theatrum Mundi Ensemble. Why did I betray my habit, vocation or laziness?

There are betrayals that are a pleasure, and betrayals that are an escape. Betrayals that are a form of renewal, or the choice of a different destiny. But the betrayal of Julia and mine with Lorenzo, Mirto and Manolo was a return home to my world. What world does my theatre belong to? If it were an element - earth, water, fire, air - it would be the sea. I don't know the art of staying afloat alone. I look for the hand of another - a desperate, confident, ambitious or naive individual, deeply hurt or wanting to escape. An individual who is ready to push the sea with me towards that muscle which pumps blood. And when, exhausted, we feel that it is impossible, the sea is a drop that drips blue on the cheek of a spectator.

It sounds sentimental, but the effort is worth it.