Monday, September 26, 2011

Madrid Journal: 21 lights. 21 Lives.

Madrid, Spain - Sunday, September 26th

21 lights. 21 lives.

“This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers., instead of growing on good rain and black loam. Even fireworks, for all their prettiness, come from the chemistry of the earth. Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality. Do you know the legend of Hercules and Antaeus, the giant wrestler, whose strength was incredible so long as he stood firmly on the earth? But when he was held, rootless, in midair by Hercules he perished easily. If there isn’t something in that legend for us today, in this city, in our time, then I am completely insane.”

- - -- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Tonight my real journey in Spain began. Belén, my guide and interpreter arrived at the hotel to take me through the streets and down into the Madrid Metro to the first performance of my time here. The evening air was full – not exactly humid, but dense nonetheless as we scampered through the streets to the underground and into it. Sleek white trains that don’t look quite like any other line I have seen – exceptionally smooth, precise and yet somehow cold. You didn’t need to hold the poles but you also didn’t have any sense of life in the system, which surprised me. It did the job, but it told you little, unlike the system in, say, Moscow, which is all personality (a word that can mean many things in this context) and battered efficiency. You could talk at a normal level in the Madrid metro. In Moscow’s it really was all sign-language and curiosity at the commuter dogs that populate the system.

From the station we came up onto a plaza of stunning fountains illuminated after sunset so that the water spurted white, magical as snow rendered viscous somehow, with stem-upon-stem of white flowers surrounding the entire central flow. Breathtaking, really.

Down narrow streets filled with slowly strolling people and young men and women together in that lovers bubble that happens as it escapes parental view we walked quickly – I’d made us late – to a theater which, as small spaces often do, just appeared, as though carved into the conscious of the neighborhood yet set in so as to be unobtrusive.

Tiny space – a bit like the Mead Theater Lab in DC. No air conditioning. Perhaps 60 seats. For most artists a box to be overcome not embraced.

Not this time.

As you entered the black box the performer sat on a saran wrapped drafting chair, diagonally placed so she was looking upstage left. Behind her on the same diagonal a large canvas, bare save for a silverback gorilla similarly facing away from you but present enough to leave you to ask what he was looking at.

Over the course of perhaps an hour a journey between Maite Larrañeta, the choreographer and performer ebbed and flowed in an intimacy only the most gifted performers can sustain. In a space so small, with a performer determined, elegantly, to confront the audience, it becomes personal, intimate.

She was, at first, the gorilla, supple, stretching technique in service of emotion so that you understood her command of movement but forgot in the moment that she was a “dancer,” and not a creature removed from her evolution and restored to something elemental.

At one moment, deep into the story, evolved into a modern woman emerged from a shower, she sat again in her chair, back almost to the audience, and took a long serrated blade and sliced long strips of flesh from her left leg, placing them languidly into a bowl by her right arm on a tiny table. The effect, in less skillful hands, would be trite. But with her, with the environment she had built, it was terrifying. You had come into her world and the slow movement of the long blade felt as it was on your own skin. Later you would look reflexively at your own leg and wonder if it were still whole.

That ability to remove the space between audience and artist is what I find myself seeking constantly. It is the intimacy between us that is so often absent in performance today, especially in the States. Its what Ohad has, what his “Mamuttot” did for an to (and still does) me. Ms. Larrañeta, in her way, achieved the same.

The title of her work is “What Would You Do if Your Were Medea?” For me there was a journey of ecology, of environmental violence against the creatures we share a planet with. For Belén it was a different journey reflective of her life and aspirations. That the two experiences were utterly different is, I think, the magic of it.

In this theater, which contained only 21 lights, there was an audience of 21 people. Each had their world, I think, altered.

At one point yesterday I was talking by Facebook message with my friend and colleague Dana Ruttenberg, who was at that moment in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow bound for a small Russian city to perform. Our conversation was about the power and impact of performance beyond the major venues and cities, ones where you reach people one-at-a-time. Somehow the world seems to see those as less meaningful, less prestigious. I disagree. The world changes by degree, and to affect it one life at a time is an extraordinary thing.

At breakfast this morning here in Madrid I came upon the bacon waiting in the bin. Warm, greasy, sizzling. Yesterday I would have taken it.

Not today. Not yet. The story of Medea, of the deep history of literature, has pores. It has features and, in a moment in a theater of 21 lights, the faces of life.

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