Friday, 29 August 2008

tout bouge

In the late 1970s Simon McBurney studied English at Cambridge University, where he was a performer and writer in the Cambridge Footlights alongside Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Annabel Arden. After graduating, he trained at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris before returning to London in 1983 to co-found Theatre de Complicite with Annabel Arden, Marcello Magni and Fiona Gordon. After almost thirty productions in the past twenty years, many of which have toured extensively, Complicite has established itself as one of Europe’s most popular, critically lauded and influential theatre companies. Successfully navigating the apparent divide between avant-garde experiment and a popular mainstream, Complicite has become known internationally for the physical dexterity and darkly comic inventiveness of its collaboratively devised work (1), and the fluid dramaturgies of its productions of classic texts (2) and adaptations of contemporary fiction (3). As artistic director of Complicite, McBurney has directed almost all of the company’s shows in the past ten years to produce a body of work of remarkable focus, energy and diversity. At the same time, he has continued to work internationally as a freelance theatre director and an actor in both film and television (4)

Having trained as a performer with Lecoq, McBurney brings an embodied understanding of the predicament of performers to his work as a director, and in particular to the necessity for collaborators to generate a common language. At the outset of any devising process - and all of McBurney’s work should be viewed through the lens of devising, including the work on existing texts (5) - his primary concern is to try to invent the conditions for invention through the preparation of bodies, voices and imaginations: ‘I prepare them so that they are ready: ready to change, ready to be surprised, ready to seize any opportunity that comes their way’ (McBurney 1999: 71). A number of McBurney’s long term collaborators also trained with Lecoq, and they share a certain shorthand in terms of exercises, discourses and dispositions towards the making of performance. Over the years, however, Complicite has become an increasingly loose alliance of collaborators rather than a permanent company, with new members joining those with some greater continuity for particular projects. In addition, McBurney’s freelance work brings him into contact with actors largely unfamiliar with the unpredictable and difficult joys of devising, the occasional terrors of setting off into the unknown and getting very lost. In recent years, for example, he has directed productions for the National Actors’ Theatre in New York (Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 2002, with Al Pacino, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi), and with members of Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre (The Elephant Vanishes in 2003).

McBurney happily admits to the legacies of Lecoq in his work: the centrality of the ensemble as a kind of multi-headed storyteller, swarming and shoaling as one multiple organism, ‘like a flock of starlings’ (McBurney 1999: 74); the ideals of embodied lightness and disponibilité as prerequisites for the emergence of forms and images in complicitous play, of emotion from motion, of laughter that is both celebratory and critically corrosive; the creation of suggestive, incomplete forms that invite imaginative complicity from spectators, activating their creative agency; above all, an amplified quality of attentive listening to and engagement with rhythm, tempo, musicality and the dynamics of space as core components in elaborating and evaluating live theatre:

‘an analysis through the use of movement of how a piece of theatre works: how it actually functions in terms of space, in terms of rhythm, almost like music in terms of counterpoint, harmony: image and action, movement and stillness, words and silence’ (McBurney 1994: 18).

At the outset of a rehearsal process, particular emphasis is placed on the establishment of a play space, with all sorts of objects, materials, research documentation, games and other rule or event-based practices available for individual and collective exploration; McBurney has used the word ‘playground’, and often reiterates a connection with team sports. The precise nature and use of texts, music, objects and other scenographic materials within a production, as well as the detailed texture of its compositional weave, are all determined over time in the studio according to a pragmatics of what seems to support and feed the emergence of a shared, deep-breathing ‘world’. In broad terms, the devising model stems from Lecoq’s autocours, a heuristic pedagogy of the imagination in collaborative making contexts, a flexing and toning of the ‘muscle of the imagination’ in search of a ‘moment of collective imagining’ (McBurney 1999: 71). On another level, it relates to the informed sink-or-swim predicament of street theatre and stand-up, or the patient immersive hot-house of certain choreographic or physical theatre practices that endeavour to spatialise the topographies of internal journeys. On yet another level, perhaps less visible but materially constitutive, McBurney’s modus operandi is informed by the psycho-physical attunements, layerings and expressive unfoldings afforded by a close study of Feldenkrais technique with the remarkable teacher Monika Pagneux.

Aesthetically and dramaturgically, McBurney is no less catholic in his sources for stimulus, drawing in particular on aspects of Brook, Meyerhold, Brecht and Kantor, as well as the neo-expressionist dance-theatre of Pina Bausch and Josef Nadj, the transformative manipulations of object-theatre and puppetry, the spatio-temporal polyrhythms and mobilities of film languages, and the critical intelligence of John Berger’s fiction, to create something unique in contemporary popular theatre. For McBurney’s work since the early 1990s proposes a distinctly European, multi-lingual poetic integrating image, narrative and a choreography of bodies, objects and space to produce a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk. Within this symphonic form, the creative agency of performers and their bodies comprises the very foundation for a compassionate celebration of the extraordinary in the everyday and the marginalised, and an articulate humanist enquiry into a ‘politics of the imagination’ (McBurney 1994: 22).

One of McBurney’s most remarkable attributes is his facility for creating images that defamiliarise and redirect the geometry of conventional, received attention to reality, and etch themselves into our imaginations. Here ‘image’ is not simply pictorial representation or coup de théâtre, but rather a complex, dynamic syntax allying and layering movement, rhythm, text, music and object, engendered by the poetic logic of the forms and narratives at play within a production: image as the fusion of form and content in an embodied if fleeting ‘world’. Mnemonic, for example, is haunted by the ambiguities of new technologies of communication (the mobile phone) and recording (video). The phone line breaks up at moments of intense ‘proximity’, painfully reinstating distance and absence, and memory is replayed and fast-forwarded repeatedly, as if it were a VCR, in an obsessive search for the ‘real’ and for ‘origins’. At times the discontinuous rhythm of the remote control or the edit suite consciously determines the staging itself; live sequences are ‘rewound’ at vertiginous speed and replayed again and again in a cycle of repetitions with difference.

McBurney’s dramaturgies of emergence and dissolution allow highly focused ‘image-worlds’ to appear from the deployments, interactions and transpositions of bodies and objects, to crystallise into ephemeral sharp-edged form before their constituent elements are dispersed and returned to a state of energised potentiality. In The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, for example, an explosive manipulation of wooden planks is used to represent the dynamics of desire and the precarious uncertainty of refuge as Jean and Lucie make love in a ‘barn’. In Mnemonic, a broken wooden chair (already a mnemonic-by-association for the main character Virgil’s father and his absent lover) is puppeted then laid out to represent the leathery remains of a 5000-year-old Neothilic ‘iceman’ recently discovered in the Tyrolean Alps. With the economy of a haiku, a white cloth is thrown over it, and the chair becomes a glacier. Since the elastic temporalities and magical metamorphoses of The Street of Crocodiles, in which the laws of Newtonian physics seemed to be momentarily suspended as books flapped and flew like birds, and a spectral figure strolled vertically down the back wall and into the space, displacement, connectivity and the fluidity of memory and identity have become recurrent themes in McBurney’s work. Accordingly, in all of his productions the material components of scenography are encouraged to mutate and recompose, to displace, transform and reinvent themselves temporarily, adopting ephemeral configurations and identities within a theatre language that itself is always migrating, transforming, always on the move. The only constant is change, the protean ‘play’ of people and things in their becomings: tout bouge (6). As the father says in Street of Crocodiles, ‘The migration of forms is the essence of life’.

From his early days in knockabout clown-inflected work to more recent investigations of alienated, sped-up hyper-modernity using sophisticated video mediation in live performance (Mnemonic, The Elephant Vanishes), McBurney has returned consistently to material of substantial existential gravity, political resonance or ethical complexity. Anxiety about mortality, for example, in the painfully funny A Minute Too Late (1984), in part a response to the recent death of his father; the fragility of imaginative life under repressive regimes in The Street of Crocodiles (1992), which directly referenced the murder of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz by the Nazis, and in The Noise of Time (2000), in which Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 15 in E Minor was re-membered in the context of Soviet history and the composer’s troubled life under Stalinism; exile, desire, loss and the slipperiness of relations between history, archaeology and memory in Mnemonic (1999); the tyrannies of extremism and xenophobic fear in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, McBurney’s New York production offering an explicit critical engagement with the brutish ideologies of a hawkish and morally bankrupt US administration.

McBurney seeks to contest and affirm - often at the same moment – and his work might be characterised paradoxically in terms of both its philosophical seriousness and its consistent lightness of touch. Within these tragic farces, celebration coexists with desolation, reparation with separation, reverie with nightmare, grace with gravity. In McBurney’s best work, the social and aesthetic act of collaboration itself eloquently affirms the vibrant creative potential of encounter, attention, imagination and connective energy, while the transience of the theatre event and of the forms that are its building blocks asks us to engage with the precariousness and transformative potentialities of our own lives as social and creative beings. ‘We have to invent our own circumstances, as we have now to reinvent our theatre’ (McBurney 1999: 77).

(1) These include Put it on your Head (1983), A Minute Too Late (1984), More Bigger Snacks Now (1985), Anything for a Quiet Life (1987), Burning Ambition for BBC2 (1988), Mnemonic for both theatre (1999) and radio (2000), and The Noise of Time (2000) with the Emerson String Quartet.
(2) Dürenmatt’s The Visit (1989), Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1992), Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1997), Ionesco’s The Chairs (1997).
(3) The Street of Crocodiles (1992), adapted from texts by Bruno Schulz; Out of a House Walked a Man (1994), from Daniil Kharms; The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (1994), from John Berger’s Pig Earth; Foe (1996), from JM Coetzee; To the Wedding (1997), from John Berger, for BBC Radio 3; Light (2000), from Torgny Lindgren; The Elephant Vanishes (2003), from Haruki Murukami.
(4) As an actor, McBurney’s film credits include Sleepy Hollow, Kafka, Tom and Viv, Mesmer, Cousin Bette, Onegin, The Last King of Scotland, and the title role in Eisenstein.
(5) ‘There is a curious and very different sensation when you apparently have something in your hands – a play – and when you have nothing but fragments, scraps and imaginings when you are devising; yet strangely I feel I start from the same place: until I start to feel and experience something, there is nothing’ (McBurney 1999: 67).
(6) Tout Bouge (‘Everything moves’) was the title of the lecture-demnonstration Jacques Lecoq performed internationally to great acclaim from the late 1960s onwards. As McBurney points out in his foreword to Lecoq’s The Moving Body, it was also ‘a central tenet of his teaching’ (Lecoq 2000: x).

McBurney, Simon (1994). ‘The celebration of lying’ (interview), in David Tushingham (ed.), Live 1: Food for the Soul, London: Methuen, 1994, pp. 13-24.

McBurney, Simon (1999). Interview in Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst (eds), On Directing: Interviews with Directors, London: Faber and Faber, 1999, pp. 67-77.

Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre (trans. David Bradby), London: Methuen, 2000. Foreword by Simon McBurney.

Theatre de Complicite. Complicite Plays 1 (The Street of Crocodiles, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, Mnemonic), London: Methuen, 2003.

Text first published as 'Simon McBurney' in Maria Shevtsova and Shomit Mitter (eds), Fifty Key Theatre Directors, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, 247-52.

Photograph: Simon McBurney in Renny Bartlett's film Eisenstein (2000).

For Theatre de Complicite website, see here

working (in) the in-between

(an essay about contact improvisation and ethics,
in memory of my friend anne kilcoyne)

With reference to an ethics of alterity as elaborated by Emmanuel Levinas, this essay will explore contact improvisation as a site for a playful and tactical negotiation of inter-subjectivity. As social praxis, contact improvisation can embody and inhabit the spaces between a range of conventionally hierarchical binaries, most of which constellate around the pairing 'self/other', perhaps the core opposition of Western onto-theological philosophy (1). The boundaries between these supposedly discreet terms can be destabilised in contact, allowing what are often conceived as oppositional borderlines to become dynamic and porous thresholds in an ethical economy of exchange and flow. And it is from Hélène Cixous's rather breathless articulation of such an economy at work in écriture féminine that I borrow my title:

" ... working (in) the in-between, examining the process of the same and the other without which nothing lives, undoing the work of death, is first of all wanting two and both, one and the other together, not frozen in sequences of struggle and expulsion or other forms of killing, but made infinitely dynamic by a ceaseless exchanging between one and the other different subject, getting acquainted and beginning only from the living border of the other: a many-sided and inexhaustible course with thousands of meetings and transformations of the same in the other and in the in-between" (2) .

Con()tact: 'Cooperation becomes the subject'

"The open horizon of my body. A living, moving border. Changed through contact with your body" (Luce Irigaray) (3).

Contact improvisation has its roots in the pedestrian (task-oriented) practices of American post-modern dance in the 1960s, social dance, release techniques, martial arts (particularly Aikido) and sports (4). Its initiator in the early 1970s, dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton, conceived of it as an 'art-sport'. Contact is a non-hierarchical duet movement practice in which improvising partners share an attitude and an ideal of "active, reflexive, harmonic, spontaneous and mutual forms" (5). The vocabulary of these forms is flexible, inviting the moment-to-moment specifics of relatedness, leverage, speed, (dis)orientation and so on to be re-invented with each partnership on each occasion. As Paxton suggests, if both parties' intent is "minimal", and their sensing of intent "maximal", then "cooperation becomes the subject - an 'it' defined by the balancing of inertias, momentums, psychologies, spirits of the partners" (6).

By working around and through the vectors of an ever-changing point of contact between their bodies, each person gives and receives weight, passes and receives information through touch, accepts or provokes imbalance and regains (an always already temporary) 'extra-daily' balance (7). This nomadic and hybrid point of contact, which I will call con()tact, generates momentum and movement(s), as the partners endeavour to discover and work along "the easiest pathways available to their mutually moving masses" (8).

In contact - in life - no two bodies, no two qualities of energy are alike, or even consistent. As Mark Minchinton suggests:

"Of course, the giving and receiving of weight are not neutral things. Not all people give weight in the same way, even if they share the same physique. There are differences in the intensities of weight and support. People can be said to have intensive or extensive, flowing or blocked, centred or peripheral energy. Their physiques, experience and individual psychologies will go some way to determining the manner in which they use and are used by their bodies" (9).

Indeed no one body is identical with-in itself, it is always ghosted by its 'others'; intensive alternates or coexists with extensive, flowing with blocked, centred with peripheral. As soon as a body in relation has flow it is not in flow. What's more, each body-self will be further displaced and marked by contact with the unfixable alterity of the other, as well as by the dynamics and intensities of the third party in the dance, the point of con()tact: that fugitive and always temporary 'centre' and 'edge' common to both yet outside both, a 'blind spot' through-in-with-around-for-and-by which the two bodies orient their play.

In his article 'On Ambiguity', David George describes the dynamic, relational space between the two terms in any binary that creates out of difference "a third state of pure potentiality":

"All binaries need now investigating not for their deceptively reassuring ability to be collapsed into stable - and static - units, but the very opposite: that all binaries are 'really' hidden - and dynamic - triads. Because any two terms necessarily postulate the notion of 'relationship' as the necessary - third - factor which simultaneously separates and joins any two related forces or factors ... The crucial factor here is not how many ways two different units can relate to each other, but recognition that this 'third element' is not a unit but an axis, not an entity but a state of being, less a relationship than an act of relating" (10).

Writers from many different disciplines have attempted to articulate this 'third party' in the self/other binary. For Michel de Certeau, for example, it constitutes a "frontier region", "the space created by an interaction" (11); for Deleuzian psychoanalyst and artist Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, it is the "metramorphic borderlink", "the becoming-threshold of borderlines" (12); for Luce Irigaray, it is the "angel-as-intermediary" in an ethics of sexual difference (13).

Hélène Cixous describes it as the "non-place", the possibility of a contestatory écriture féminine: "the breach, the opening, the entrance ... the entire surface of the domain, [which] enervates the limits and the traces, blurs the localisations ... the migrant that can be found everywhere" (14); for the poet Octavio Paz, it is the paradoxical space of writing, the "dizzying repose" of "worlds in rotation" that temporarily converge (15); for post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman, it is "the place of soul" and "soul-making" that de-means and dismantles the Cartesian cogito (16); and in Japanese aesthetics, it is the 'filled emptiness' of Ma (17).

In contact improvisation, the point of con()tact - the dynamic fulcrum of what some contacters call 'mutual weight dependence' - becomes an ambiguous but palpably 'real' third party in the duet: an-other axis that both joins and separates the two partners, a hyphenated space of pivotal torsion, "a sort of rubbing together of spaces at the vanishing points of their frontier" (18). Con()tact cannot be resolved in (homeo)stasis. As it shifts, 'it dances' (the two partners) from and in the in-between:

"This is a paradox of the frontier: created by contacts, the points of differentiation between two bodies are also their common points. Conjunction and disjunction are inseparable in them. Of two bodies in contact, which one possesses the frontier that distinguishes them? Neither. Does that amount to saying: no one? ... The frontier functions as a third element. It is an 'in-between', a 'space between', Zwischenraum ... A middle place ... a sort of void, a narrative sym-bol of exchanges and encounters" (19).

As 'it dances', con()tact marks the flux of partners' proximity and distance by tracing spirals around the surfaces of their bodies; at the same time, partners employ skeletal supports and levers within the their own and the other's bodies. Both bodies therefore need to be segmented and multi-directional in terms of impulse, action and attention. In addition, they can become open to a synaesthetic blurring in the sensorium, facilitated by their adrenalised status (20); for here tactility can become an-other seeing and listening, peripheral vision an-other touch.

Contact is dependent upon and celebrates these surprising, risky and pleasurable detours of difference; the improvised 'saying' of what is 'said' is radically contextual, relational. And the literal and metaphorical point of con()tact, as in-between or go-between, is another space in which the 'I' is both implicated and (re-)conceived; it is the articulation of meeting-in-difference. For each of the partners, con()tact constitutes the possible coexistence of form and spontaneity, rules-of-the-game and dance, cause and effect, centre and margin, proximity and distance. It is the 'play' with-in the obdurate 'fixity' of corporeal identities, its 'give', its supple-ment, its différance (21); the unstable borderlands where an ethics of alterity occurs.

As a result, contact can radically dis-orient one's constituted sense of self, as if 'self' it-self leaks, unravels or frays; it becomes impossible to locate intentionality, source of impulse and so on with any stability. As Trinh Minh-ha writes, here "identity is a product of articulation. It lies at the intersection of dwelling and travelling and is a claim of continuity within discontinuity (and vice-versa)" (22). Ultimately in contact, identity as a concern can give way to a quality of inter-personal listening that is both active and passive, quiet but not quietist, an actively meditative (23) quality one might call patient attention: a festina lente consciousness of a self-in-process that is unmappable (u-topian) through any conventional cartography, and more-than-one (24), endlessly (un)weaving itself through its acceptance of the pressing responsibility of relatedness. In this way, Contact can be a site of becoming, although it necessitates the deposition of a totalising ego, and a disposition that recognises the radical provocation and pleasure of moving elsew-here and other-wise.

prefix, of Latin origin. The form assumed by the Latin proposition com (in classical L., as a separate word, cum) before all consonants excepts the labials ...
The sense is 'together, together with, in combination or union', also 'altogether, completely', and hence intensive (25).

Face-to-face with Levinas

"The irreducible and ultimate experience of relationship appears to me to be elsewhere: not in synthesis, but in the face-to-face of humans, in sociality, in its moral significance ... First philosophy is an ethics" (Emmanuel Levinas) (26).

In this discussion of contact as an ethical practice, 'ethics' is taken in the French-Lithuanian-Judaic philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's sense of the word, as the exigency for a negotiation of an inter-subjective responsibility to re-cognise alterity. This responsibility, for Levinas, is inordinate, irreducible and infinite, a being-for-the-other before oneself. As Simon Critchley explains:

"Ethics, for Levinas, is critique; it is the critical mise en question of the liberty, spontaneity and cognitive emprise of the ego that seeks to reduce all otherness to itself. The ethical is therefore the location of a point of alterity, or what Levinas also calls 'exteriority', that cannot be reduced to the Same" (27).

Levinas's critique of humanist essentialism inverts the hierarchy implicit in what he refers to as the 'egological': the ontic imperialism and ethnocentrism of the narcissistic self/other binary, within which the ego-self is demarcated psychologically and corporeally in terms of proper(ty), capital and ontology. Ethics destabilises the assumed self-sufficiency of être pour-soi, Cixous's 'Empire of the Selfsame' (28).

In what Levinas names the "face-to-face" (29), the unique encounter with an-other where ethics occurs, the 'ego-I' (homogeneous, self-contained and either deflective or recuperative of difference) is dislodged from its centrist axis in a dance of contiguity with difference:

"The face is a demand ... a hand in search of recompense, an open hand ... It is going to ask you for something ... The face is not a force. It is an authority; authority is often without force" (30).

In the 'awakening' of the face-to-face, the assimilationist ego-I is provoked off-balance by con()tact with an-other; this "event of oneself" occurs only when the ego defects, and one gives oneself to the other, bears the other's weight (31). In this way the self can be (re)made continuously in contextual and interlocutory proximity ('Saying') rather than in any constative and sedimental History ('Said') (32).

The face-to-face eschews synthesis (the Same, the 'final solution') in favour of the asymmetrical and dialogical (the play of difference). The tact-ical 'saying' of the dance of ethics, "the explosion of the human in being" (33), requires a stretching towards con()tact in the in-between. A folding into the diachronic time that is the (im)possibility of both proximity and distance, into that "most passive passivity" that "coincides with activity" (34). Into the 'meanwhile' between the diastole and systole of a heartbeat that cannot be said, but can only be ef-faced by death:

"The interval between the I and Thou, the Zwischen, is the locus where being is being realised. The interval between the I and Thou cannot be conceived as a kind of stellar space existing independently of the two terms which it separates. For the dimension itself of the interval opens uniquely to the I and to the Thou which enter into each meeting" (35).

Levinas interrogates and disrupts the tyranny of an egological 'either/or'. His call to responsibility asks: What are the relations between my freedom, the freedom of the other(s) and justice? Does not my narcissistic and imperialistic claim to possess (to have) freedom deny the other's (and indeed my) possibility of being in freedom? Must my proteophobic (36) ego perpetuate the 'war' of mechanistic resistance and counter-resistance, all inter-personal con()tact reduced to the insistent click-click-click of Newton's chrome balls? How do I prevent the in-different murderousness of my ego's self-constituting drive either to deflect and exile the difference of what-is-not-I, or to ingest and erase it by recuperation? By persisting in being-for-myself, do I not kill? (37)

"The true problem for us Westerners is not so much to refuse violence as to question ourselves about a struggle against violence which, without blanching in non-resistance to evil, could avoid the institution of violence out of this very struggle. Does not the war perpetuate that which it is called to make disappear, and consecrate war and its virile virtues in good conscience? One has to reconsider the meaning of a certain human weakness, and no longer see in patience only the reverse side of the ontological finitude of the human. But for that one has to be patient oneself without asking patience of the others - and for that one has to admit a difference between oneself and the others" (38).

Significantly for this discussion of contact improvisation, Levinas tells us that "The whole human body is more or less face" (39). The face, like con()tact, is "what one cannot kill, or at least it is that whose meaning consists in saying: 'thou shalt not kill'" (40). The face, like con()tact, is uncontainable and unsythesisable alterity; it "leads one beyond" (41), outside the fortified parameters of a self constituted as integral, full(y present), a totality. It brings this self face-to-face with the vulnerability of other-ness, both outside and with-in. In this way, the face, like con()tact, comprises a "wind of crisis ... [a] spirit - which blows and rends, despite the knots of History which retie themselves" (42).

'I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible'

"The expression 'in one's skin' refers to a recurrence in the dead time or the meanwhile which separates inspiration and respiration ... It is a restlessness and patience that support prior to action and passion. Here what is due goes beyond having, but makes giving possible. This recurrence is incarnation. In it the body which makes giving possible makes one other without alienating" (Emmanuel Levinas) (43).

In the face-to-face encounter, the other's alterity demands that I accept responsibility (response-ability), that I respond. To his/her call, "Where are you?", my-self replies, "Here I am". Me voici (44), 'here is me'. Here my-self is in the accusative (me); and subjectivity itself, in its claim to essential and autonomous 'totality', is under accusation. 'I' is un sujet-en-procès ('subject-in-process/-on-trial').

Levinas protests against totalisation by locating responsibility for the other (ethical inter-subjectivity) as the fundamental structure of subjectivity. Responsibility here means "having-the-other-in-one's skin" (45), and "I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible" (46). In order to sense the heteronomous singularity of self-as-process, and to let go of nostalgia for the totality of ego-as-essential-being, Levinas proposes:

"One must understand the subjectivity of the subject beyond essence, as on the basis of an escape from the concept, a forgetting of being and non-being. Not of an 'unregulated' forgetting ... but a forgetting that would be an ignorance in the sense that nobility ignores what is not noble" (47).

In other words, individuation is an ethical (self-) forgetting, an actively chosen detour from egology that invites a continuous re-membering and re-making in relation. So in Levinasian ethics, I (re)orient my-self through con()tact with an-other; 'cooperation becomes the subject' (Paxton). In this context, Arthur Rimbaud's "I is an other" (Je es un autre) can slide from a figure of alienation to a site of potentiality and multiplicity, towards Kristeva's "polymorphic body, laughing and desiring" (48); and the threat and negation of Jean-Paul Sartre's aggressively objectifying 'Look' (le Regard) can give way to mutual and interactive regard.

However, as Simon Critchley points out, Levinas recognises that the ethical relation of the face-to-face cannot ever be self-sufficient, hermetically sealed within an apolitical private space removed from the public sphere. Levinas insists that ethics is always already social and political, for "the third party (le tiers) looks at me in the eyes of the other"; and it is this 'third party' who "ensures that the ethical relation always takes place within a political context, within the public realm ... [T]herefore my ethical obligations to the other open onto wider questions of justice for others and for humanity as a whole" (49). The inter-personal is political.

Like con()tact, the face-to-face does not endure; it must be recommenced perpetually:

"The Zwischen is reconstituted in each fresh meeting and is therefore always novel in the same sense as are the moments of Bergsonian duration" (50).

'Freedom' here is finite, difficult, it stammers as it makes itself up-and-over; although paradoxically the call to justice in responsibility for the other, and the rupturing of the ego-I's assumed self-identity it entails, are contiguous with in-finite possible futures: "At no time can I say: I have done all my duty" (51).

tact -
I.a. The sense of touch; touch. b. fig. A keen faculty of perception or discrimination likened to the sense of touch.
2. Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will; skill or judgement in negotiating difficult or delicate situations; the faculty of saying or doing the right thing at the right time.
3. The act of touching or handling (52).

Touch as 'inter-face'

"Where does it come from? From both. It flows between.
Not held or held back by a source.
The source already rises from the two caressing"
(Luce Irigaray) (53).

It is clear that the enveloping epidermal surface of the body is particularly receptive to information from both inside and outside; skin constitutes a radically ambiguous limens between endogeny and exogeny with-in the world. And touch as contact sense is in a privileged position to entertain in coexistence both activity and passivity, mind and body, self and other. As Elizabeth Grosz suggests in Volatile Bodies, in informational terms touch is impressionistic, successive and momentary (i.e. diachronic), its perception of qualities - shape, texture, heat, energy etc. - comparative and differential; it is "a modality of difference" (54).

Inter-personal touch is coincidence in non-coincidence, an irreducible inter-lacing; it is reflexive and potentially reversible, it folds back in on itself in asymmetrical exchange. For touching by definition entails being touched. Both self and other participate and are implicated at the point of con()tact; both toucher and touched experience the dialogics of being both toucher and touched. It is for this reason that Merleau-Ponty locates touch as the locus classicus of what he calls the "double sensation":

"This is the twisting of the Möbius strip, the torsion or pivot around which the subject is generated. The double sensation creates a kind of interface of the inside and the outside, the pivotal point at which inside will become separated from outside and active will be converted into passive" (55).

Touch and balance are the two key senses in the practice of contact improvisation. Partners touch each other, the floor and "themselves, internally" (56), and employ the informationally dense tactility of con()tact to orient themselves in relation to (im)balance and gravity:

"The point of contact is focused on ... because a lot of the training is to do with allowing your partner to sense your leverage potential through touch. What you can do, what you can support, how you might move - potential that exists in position; and at the same time vice versa, you are sensing your partner's level of potential, he [sic] is sensing your's, so you are moving ... mutually sensing by touch what is available to you through that medium" (57).

In addition, the practice of contact encourages a very particular form of visual perception that one might describe as 'tactile': non-possessive and open, in which peripherality, a receptive 'softening' of vision, has primacy over focus:

"For many people vision is a kind of tool which reaches out and grabs things ... It's a probing instrument. For other people, it's a receptive instrument ... Peripheral vision training is partly to allow the world to enter, because it is softer, not so much a tool as focus is. Peripheral vision is more apt to allow you to hear and feel" (58).

So the practice of contact actively blurs and interrogates the conflation 'eye/I' of a totalising scopic epistemology and economy (59).

Levinas also privileges the tactile over the visual, locating the primordial proximity of the touch or 'caress' as one exemplary manifestation of ethical inter-subjectivity. For the caress actualises a con()tact with an-other that can neither overwhelm nor fuse with alterity, but can reveal the diffusion and vulnerability of the self-in-relation. For touch, the first sense to develop in the human foetus, is "an expression of love that cannot tell it" (60):

"The caress is a mode of the subject's being, where the subject who is in contact with another goes beyond this contact ... The seeking of the caress constitutes its essence by the fact that the caress does not know what it seeks. This 'not knowing', this fundamental disorder, is the essential. It is like a game with something slipping away, a game absolutely without project or plan, not with what can become our's or us, but with something other, always other, always inaccessible, and always still to come (à venir)" (61).

Never completed, never exhausted, always to come. As Zygmunt Bauman has suggested, the future (l'avenir) - like alterity, like con()tact - cannot be grasped; one's illusory 'hold' on it can never tighten into a grip (62). Both 'given' and 'hidden', its virtual outline can only be touched or brushed in a way that can neither possess nor 'know', but can still make (a) difference.


Notes and references

(1) Although I risk reinstating them by speaking them, these binaries include: subject/object, identity/difference, fusion/fission, closed/open, active/passive, leader/led, demand/response, cause/effect, full/empty, momentum/inertia, stable/unstable, balance/imbalance, gravity/lightness, art/sport, mind/body, sight/touch, proximity/distance, inside/outside, centre/margin, here/there.
(2) Hélène Cixous, 'The Laugh of the Medusa', cited in Trinh. T. Minh-ha,
When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, p. 142.
(3) Luce Irigaray,
Elemental Passions (trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still), New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 51.
(4) For a detailed account of the sources of contact improvisation, see Cynthia J. Novack,
Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. For a comparison of Aikido and contact, see Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', Theatre Papers: The Fourth Series, 1981-2 no. 5, Dartington: Dartington College of Arts, 1982, pp. 4-5, 9.
(5) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', The Drama Review 19:1, p. 40.
(6) Ibid, 41.
(7) For a discussion of 'extra-daily balance', see 'Balance', in Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese (eds),
The Secret Art of the Performer: a Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 34-53.
(8) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation',
The Drama Review, op. cit., p. 41.
(9) Mark Minchinton, 'Notes towards Improvisation as a Body without Organs', in
Writings on Dance 10 ('Knowledges/Practices'), 1994, p. 48.
(10) David George, 'On Ambiguity: Towards a Post-modern Performance Theory',
Theatre Research International
(11) Michel de Certeau,
The Practice of Everyday Life (trans. Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 126.
(12) Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, 'The Becoming Threshold of Matrixial Borderlines', in George Robertson, Melinda Mash et al. (eds),
Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, op. cit., p. 44. Metramorphosis "deals with transformations in emergence, creation and fading-away, of I(s) and non-I(s), and with transformations of the borderlines and transgressions of the links between them ... Metramorphosis has no focus, it is a discernibility which cannot fix its 'gaze', and if it has a momentary centre, then it always slides away towards the peripheries. In such an awareness of margins, perceived boundaries dissolve in favour of new boundaries; borderlines are surpassed and transformed to become thresholds ... Metramorphosis accounts for transformations of in-between moments"; ibid, pp. 44-5. Italics in original.
(13) Luce Irigaray, 'Sexual Difference' (trans. Seán Hand), in Toril Moi (ed.),
French Feminist Thought: a Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp. 126-7. See also Elizabeth Grosz, 'The angel as intermediary', in Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989, p. 161-2; and Margaret Whitford, 'The between and the angel', in Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 163-4.
(14) Hélène Cixous, in
Un k. incompréhensible: Pierre Goldman, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1976, p. 33; quoted in Verena Andermatt Conley, Hélène Cixous, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, p. 49-50.
(15) Octavio Paz,
The Monkey Grammarian (trans. Helen Lane), New York: Arcade, 1990, pp. 153-9.
(16) See James Hillman in Thomas Moore (ed.),
A Blue Fire: the essential James Hillman, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 121.
(17) "
Ma, a cultural paradigm, is the empty space in a tea bowl, what is left unsaid in a haiku poem, the sound/silence ration in music, the foreground/background distance in an inkwash painting, the moments of repose in a Noh drama"; Vicki Sanders, 'Dancing and the Dark Soul of Japan: an Aesthetic Analysis of Butoh', in Asian Theatre Journal 5:2, Fall 1988, p. 161.
(18) Michel de Certeau, 'Spatial Practices', in
The Practice of Everyday Life, op. cit., p. 113.
(19) Ibid, p. 127.
(20) For a discussion of the implications of the endocrine system in contact, and in particular the dilation of time, see Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation',
The Drama Review, op. cit., p. 41; and 'Contact Improvisation', Theatre Papers, op. cit., p. 12 passim.
(21) "
Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacingPositions (trans. Alan Bass), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 27. Italics in original.
(22) Trinh T. Minh-ha, 'Other than Myself/My Other Self', in George Robertson, Melinda Mash et al. (eds),
Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 14. My italics.
(23) Cf. Buddhist meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche, quoting Jamyang Khyentse: "'Look, it's like this: when the past thought has ceased, and the future thought has not yet risen, isn't there a gap? [...] Well, prolong it: that is meditation'".
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, London: Random House, 1992, p. 75.
(24) Cf. The "nighttime consciousness" that James Joyce celebrates in
Finnegan's Wake, a consciousness that inhabits the space "between twosome twiminds", and enables "two thinks at a time". Quoted in Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Ideas of Creativity in Western Culture, London: Hutchinson, 1988, p. 368. Cf. also Octavio Paz: "Our most intimate reality lies outside ourselves and is not our's, and it is not one but many, plural and transitory, we are this plurality that is continually dissolving, the self is perhaps real, but the self is not I or youhe, the self is neither mine nor your's, it is a state, a blink of the eye, it is a perception of a sensation that is vanishing, but who or what perceives, who senses? ... the self that perceives something that is vanishing also vanishes in this perception; it is only the perception of that self's own extinction, we come and go ...": The Monkey Grammarian, op. cit., p. 55. Italics in original.
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
(26) Emmanuel Levinas,
Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (trans. Richard A. Cohen), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1985, p. 77.
(27) Simon Critchley,
The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992, pp. 4-5.
(28) See, for example, Cixous's 'Sorties', in Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément,
The Newly Born Woman (trans. Betsy Wing), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, p. 78 passim.
(29) See for example, 'Ethics and the Face' in Emmanuel Levinas,
Totality and Infinity (trans. Alfonso Lingis), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1969. For a useful summary of the 'face' and its place in Levinasian ethics, see Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., pp. 85-92.
(30) Emmanuel Levinas in Tamara Wright, Peter Hughes and Alison Ainley, 'The Paradox of Morality: an interview with Emmanuel Levinas', in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds),
The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 169.
(31) "The defection of the ego, or already the defeat of the identity of the ego ... can finally be said to be the event of the oneself"; Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 122. Levinas returns again and again to metaphors of weight-bearing, to describe ethical responsibility; e.g.: "The self is a sub-jectum; it is under the weight of the universe, responsible for everything ... supporting the weight of the non-ego ... Impassively undergoing the weight of the other, thereby called to uniqueness, subjectivity no longer belongs to the order where the alternative of activity and passivity retains its meaning"; ibid, pp. 105-6.
(32) Emmanuel Levinas,
Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 42. Simon Critchley defines the 'Saying' as "my exposure - corporeal, sensible - to the other, my inability to refuse the other's approach. It is the performative stating, proposing, or expressive position of myself facing the other ... It is a performative doing that cannot be reduced to a constative description [the Said] ... The Saying is the sheer radicality of ... the event of being in relation with an other": The Ethics of Deconstruction, op. cit., p. 7. Italics in original.
(33) Ibid, p. 121.
(34) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., pp. 104-5.
(35) Emmanuel Levinas, in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 65.
(36) I am borrowing this neologism from Zygmunt Bauman, who coins it to refer to "the confused, ambivalent sentiments aroused by the presence of strangers ... the apprehension aroused by the presence of multiform, allotropic phenomena which stubbornly defy clarity-addicted knowledge, elide assignment and sap the familiar classificatory grids ... Proteophobia refers therefore to the dislike of situations in which one feels lost, confused, disempowered. Obviously, such situations are the productive waste of cognitive spacing:
we do not know how to go on in certain situations because the rules of conduct which define for us the meaning of 'knowing how to go on' do not cover them": Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 164. Italics in original. The apprehension familiar to many people in the practice of Contact relates at least in part to Contact's 'delinquent' provocation to 'knowing how to go on'.
(37) In an essay called 'Ethics as First Philosophy', Levinas foregrounds the political implications of his ethical interrogation of one's 'right to be-for-oneself': "My being-in-the-world, or my 'place in the sun', my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man (sic.) whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing?"; Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 82. Cf. Simon Critchley: "For Levinas, I would claim, ethics is the disruption of totalising politics ... The philosophy of Levinas, like that of Adorno, is commanded by the new categorical imperative imposed by Hitler: namely 'that Auschwitz not repeat itself' ... Levinasian ethics is a reduction of war"; The Ethics of Deconstruction, op. cit., p. 221.
(38) Emmanuel Levinas,
Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (trans. Alphonso Lingis), The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981, p. 177. Quoted by Richard A. Cohen in his introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 14.
(39) Ibid, p. 97. My italics.
(40) Ibid, p. 87. Italics in original.
(41) Ibid.
(42) Ibid, p. 118.
(43) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 98. Italics in original.
(44) Emmanuel Levinas,
Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 100.
(45) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 6.
(46) Emmanuel Levinas,
Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 100.
(47) Emmanuel Levinas,
Otherwise than Being, op. cit., p. 177. Quoted by Richard A. Cohen in his introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 15. Emphasis in original.
(48) Julia Kristeva,
About Chinese Women (trans. Anita Barrows), London: Marion Boyars, 1977, p. 19. Quoted in Alison Ainley, 'Amorous Discourses: 'The Phenomenology of Eros' and Love Stories', in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds), The Provocation of Levinas, op. cit., p. 72.
(49) Simon Critchley,
The Ethics of Deconstruction, op. cit., pp. 225-6
(50) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 65.
(51) Emmanuel Levinas,
Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 105.
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
(53) Luce Irigaray,
Elemental Passions, op. cit. p. 15.
(54) Elizabeth Grosz,
Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994, pp. 98-9. Emmanuel Levinas described his friend Maurice Blanchot's literary writing as providing "above all a new sensation ... a new tingling in the skin as it brushes against things"; Levinas in Seán Hand, The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 153. Cf. Hélène Cixous's repeated recourse to metaphors of tactility in her accounts of Clarice Lispector's writings - a 'tact-ful' naming that keeps the other 'alive': "How to bring forth claricely: going, approaching, brushing, dwelling, touching; allowing-entrance, -presence, -giving, -taking" (Hélène Cixous, 'Coming to Writing', and Other Essays, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992, p. 64). Cixous champions Lispector's ability to be "in touch with the instant", and asks: "But how do we obtain this lightness, this active passivity ... this submission to the process?" (ibid., p. 113).
(55) Elizabeth Grosz,
Volatile Bodies, op. cit., p. 36. Emphasis in original.
(56) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation',
The Drama Review, op. cit., p. 40.
(57) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation',
Theatre Papers, op. cit., pp. 7-8.
(58) Ibid, p. 17, 7.
(59) For a detailed analysis of ocularcentric discourse and some of its critical dissidents, including Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, see Martin Jay,
Downcast Eyes: the Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
(60) Noreen O'Connor, 'The Personal is Political: Discursive Practice of the Face-to-Face', in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds),
The Provocation of Levinas, op. cit., p. 67. For an interesting critical reading of Levinas's notion of the 'caress', see Luce Irigaray, 'Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: on the Divinity of Love', in Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (eds), Re-reading Levinas, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. Irigaray locates Levinas's caress as subsuming sexual difference within ethical difference.
(61) Emmanuel Levinas, 'Time and the Other', in Seán Hand (ed.),
The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 51. According to Edith Wyschograd, Levinasian touch is not 'really' a sense at all: "it is in fact a metaphor for the impingement of the world as a whole upon subjectivity ... To touch is to comport oneself not in opposition to the given but in proximity with it": Edith Wyschogrod, 'Doing before Hearing: on the Primacy of Touch', in François Laruelle (ed.), Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas, Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1980, p. 199. Although I accept Wyschogrod's reading, in con()tact the implications of 'real' touch are no less 'real' for their saturated metaphoricity; there cannot be any clear-cut separation, for its movement functions psychologically, phenomenally and metaphorically.
(62) Zygmunt Bauman,
Postmodern Ethics, op. cit., p. 92. Cf. Chantal Mouffe on democracy as unfinishable becoming: 'The experience of modern democracy is based on the realisation that ... there is no point of equilibrium where final harmony could be attained. It is only in this precarious 'in-between' that we can experience pluralism, that is to say, that this democracy will always be 'to come', to use Derrida's expression, which emphasises not only the unrealised possibilities but also the radical impossibility of final completion'. From 'For a Politics of Nomadic Identity', in George Robertson et al (eds), Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 112. 14:1, 1990, pp. 79-80. 5:2, Fall 1988, p. 161.

This text was first published in Australia as 'Working (in) the in-between: contact improvisation as an ethical practice', in
Writings on Dance 15 ('The French Issue'), Winter 1996, pp. 22-37.

Photo: Steve Paxton, 2004

a free space frees

Peter Brook's CICT has visited Australia on two occasions. For the first of these, in the late summer of 1980, the Adelaide Festival hosted a trilogy of performances: Ubu, The Ik and Conference of the Birds. Viewed as a sequence, this body of work was in reality one three-part play, a conceptual and thematic whole reflecting recurrent concerns and agendas. Ubu, an explosive conflation of Jarry's anarchic cycle, was a "rough" performance that bobbed along with the playful violence of a silent movie or a children's game. The Ik, a sparse study of the tragic demise of a Ugandan tribe, was played out by the brittle human debris of the material and spiritual wasteland Ubu leaves in his wake: a sad and bitter song of disillusion and defeat - the world as it is for so many. Finally, Conference of the Birds, an 800 year-old Sufi Pilgrim's Progress, described a magical and arduous journey in search of sense and self. Having recognised the implications of an Ik world, a group of birds set out to look for something more. A glimmer of optimism - the world as it could be, a possible future. Read in this way, the trilogy recounted an epic fable revealing humanity's greatest enemy to be humanity itself, yet rejected the despair of nihilism and even outlined a way forward. We shared a mythical narrative trajectory from the desolation of rampant materialism and egotism towards reintegration and healing: a utopianist journey towards life.

For its second visit to Adelaide, early in 1988, the CICT staged The Mahabharata, another trilogy synthesising aesthetic, ethic and thematic concerns. That year, the production was also performed in Western Australia, as part of the Festival of Perth. As he had in Avignon, Brook rejected conventional festival venues for The Mahabharata in favour of disused quarries: in Perth, the Boya Quarry, a spectacular granite amphitheatre in a network of abandoned quarries in the hills about thirty minutes east of the city, and in Adelaide, Anstey's Hill quarry, a luminous chalk bowl cut into the flank of a hill - also the site of the company's Festival performances in 1980. Brook freely admits that it was this devastated - and devastating - location that first gave him a taste for such spaces. Yet there are certain qualities common to almost all spaces Brook selects for productions, both inside and in the open air, and to a significant degree these qualities have their origins in the Bouffes du Nord, the CICT's Parisian base.

First of all, each quarry possesses a dynamic spatial configuration encouraging a direct, immediate and fluid relationship with an audience. In Brook's terms, they are therefore "living spaces". Although the configuration focuses upon a central playing area, each remains non-specific and open, rather than referentially closed: "free spaces", to borrow Brook's favoured term in recent years. At the same time, these are shared spaces - literally and metaphorically - all-embracing environments or frames that deny the artificial separations and hierarchies of conventional bourgeois theatre buildings. The amphitheatrical seating means that many members of the audience remain visible to each other, a part of the "spectacle" experience. Even during the performance, spectators are not in fixed positions, for Brook's scenography is filmic, shifting perspectives. These places endeavour to operate as interactive microcosms, perhaps even as temporary eco-systems. Places of contact and meeting. Places of both individual and communal experience. Brook's ideal remains one of "reuniting the community, in all its diversity, with the same shared experience", by finding theatre forms which enable a community to taste communitas.

Second, without for a moment denying the self-evident beauty of these spaces, their allure is almost Zen-like in its ascetic minimalism, starkness and economy of means. The apparent lack of decorative pretension - the quality of roughness - perhaps reinforces that celebration of both physicality and imagination, and the nexus between the two that Brook's theatre generates for audiences and performers. Bodies and senses are somehow massively implicated and engaged, and our awareness of them is amplified synaesthetically. The earth smells, the breeze tastes, light continually repaints the textured fissures of the striated rock face, which in turn both colours voices and acts as a sounding board for music and other acoustic elements. More immediately, the seating is invariably functional and far from luxuriant. Brook himself has declared that "in a theatrical experience, the least important element is comfort .... comfort deforms the vitality of the experience". Undistracted by the trappings of so many theatre buildings, one feels alert, available and present, and our imaginations are freed to assume an active role. It is then up to Brook's elliptical, interactive realism of suggestion onstage to engage our complicity and participation in our imaginations, inviting us to experience spectatorship as a celebratory and empowering action.

So each space seems to operate as an amplifier, enhancing and focusing receptivity. Furthermore, the spatial configuration itself is a kind of energy magnet, a sympathetic receptacle for simultaneously locating oneself in an immediate environment and a wider cosmic frame. A number of spectators at The Mahabharata in Perth remarked on the "peopled" or "haunted" feel of the Boya Quarry. It is surely no coincidence that it has been the meeting place for a local coven. Its genii locus are palpable. Here, the epic space becomes an omphalos, an earthing point for transformational activities and experiences, for the magical invocation of spirits - or performing, and energising performance. (In the Boya quarry, a remarkably flourishing tree is growing out of the scree at the base of the granite wall: a natural focal point and another literal element that assumes metaphorical dimensions in the spatial and theatrical context).

Third, connected to the above, these numinous spaces possess a quality of weathered, textured humanity, the locations themselves literalising the passage of time - the "fourth dimension". They are like silent witnesses, bearing visible traces of their pasts like stigmata. As former work places, they are worn and scarred, marked by life, or to borrow a phrase from a Shakespeare sonnet, places of "unswep't stone besmear'd with sluttish time". In the present, however, their former functions are redundant, anachronistic, now no more that a spectral presence. Any space's functional status as "place" shifts as it is redefined through time, until it becomes a kind of palimpsest. Here a dead space is reanimated, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a senescent industrialism, infused by play with the possibility of future histories, of a "Becoming". So we come to see space (and by extension other aspects of reality) not as static, but as process, in a state of flux: active, generative, interactive and, potentially, transformatory for us.

In this context, Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow's wonderful book On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time provides an illuminating account of the idea that whereas architectural "finishing ends construction, weathering constructs finishes". The two authors celebrate both the memory traces that remain of a building's "pasts" and the "possible futures" created by weathering after construction. They locate a building's "continuous metamorphosis ... as part of its beginning(s) and ever-changing "finish"". In other words, they suggest, "weathering brings the virtual future of a building into dialogue with its actual present, as both are entangled in the past". Their argument has great resonance in relation to the nature of Brook's chosen performance spaces.

Similar dynamics have pervaded all of Brook's productions since the inception of the CICT in the early seventies, particularly with reference to their dramaturgy and mise en scène. Structurally, they celebrate the free play of concentration and dispersion, settlement and diaspora. In The Mahabharata, for example, temporal and spatial dimensions were fluid, virtual and mobile, as open and free as they were in Elizabethan theatre. Time and space were endlessly redefined, effortlessly compressed or distended in an instant. Time was represented as pulsional and discontinuous. Twenty years passed because we were told they had. The moment of Bhishma's death was extended, linear time itself was decelerated and dislocated, through a hallucinatory use of something akin to the cinematic technique of slow-motion. As a director, Brook's consistent ability to animate the dynamics of space, and in particular the interstices separating figures in in non-Euclidean space, owes much to the "power of expansion" that Henri Matisse proposed as a prerequisite if paintings and drawings were to communicate. With room to breath, actions extend beyond themselves spatially, like ripples in a pond.

Brook's ideal of theatrical representation as a whole remains one of heterogeneity, plurality and flux - "suggestion", rather than what is fixed or closed. In The Mahabharata, objects and actors were invariably mobilised referentially. Bamboo screens could be animated and instantly redefined in play to become shields, shelters or death-beds. Actors as storytellers were free to step in and out of roles, inhabiting a free space of continuous slippage between illusion and disillusion; in this way, Bruce Myers played Ganesha playing Krishna in a story composed by Vyasa.

I believe that such exploration of representational forms entails a radical critique of inherited, theatrical codes and discourses ("dead spaces"). The fluidity and indeterminacy of Brook's aesthetics of suggestion in some sense disrupt and sabotage the received conventions of naturalism and its imposed ways of seeing. Such a working critique opens up and releases interrogative and utopian impulses ("free spaces") in relation to individual and social life, both within and beyond the theatre. As spectators, we are invited to negotiate and inhabit those liminal spaces - between, say, illusion and disillusion - dynamic spaces of make-believe. Spaces of potential, within which what Eugenio Barba has called "the dance of thought in action" can take place.

Fourth, these settings tend to be outside or on the fringe of the conventional cultural geography of a city, and most can only be reached with effort. In Perth, most spectators travelled by bus through the suburbs and into the hills, then scrambled up a heavily wooded path to the awesome quarry itself. This "extra-ordinary" journey away from the centre to the margins, an act of literal and metaphorical dis-placement as well as dis-orientation, became amplificatory in itself. Unquestionably, it served as a phenomenological shift of gear or rhythm change - creating expectation, animating the imagination, and cementing a sense of communitas without erasing subjectivity. It was an initiatory breach away from the familiar, an "ec-centric" itinerary that took us beyond the parameters of the everyday. We made a journey to start another 'journey'.

Finally, and crucially, each space's particular identity is articulated. As with his performers, Brook brings a sensitive quality of listening to a space and allows its voice to speak. And there is invariably a connection invited between the volume, mass and rhythm of a space as an environment and the performance itself. For Brook, it seems that the space itself must provide an account or expression of the core thematic drives of performance material; in this sense, any performance must be "topical" (i.e. intimately related to topos, place). Space and decor are synonymous in Brook's undecorated places. In the case of The Mahabharata in Australia, we were furnished with the perfect frame for a narrative about a civilisation caught at some indeterminate transitional mid-point between the dissolution of crisis and reconstruction. In turn, this frame mirrored a mise en scène that subverted and rewrote itself endlessly. As with the Bouffes, the marks of demolition or incomplete renewal were inscribed in the very texture of the quarry spaces. Furthermore, the form of these spaces allowed for a continual slippage between epic spectacle and intimate encounter - like the intercutting of longshot and close-up in cinematic montage - around which the performance as a whole was rhythmed.

In addition, these were elemental spaces for an elemental fable. As spectators we were constantly encouraged to allow a rich and amplified metaphorical life to emerge from concrete materiality and our interior imaginative responses. So, during all-night marathon performances in both Perth and Adelaide, the gusty winds with which performers struggled heroically assumed a special status. The battle onstage took on cosmic proportions, for the heavens themselves seemed implicated - and yet one never lost sight of the fact that this was just wind. It became impossible to distinguish between the artifice of illusion and "reality". Similarly, the synchronisation of the performance's ending with the first rays of dawn on the quarry stone heightened the sense of renewal and rebirth. Such a cyclical trajectory located the narrative as myth; it universalised, unlike the linear time-and-space of bourgeois naturalism, for example, within which chronological time insistently remains the corollary of Euclidean space. One felt this to be a new day for a new world, in which, perhaps, to remember Artaud's vision of "the highest possible idea of the theatre" as being "one that reconciles us philosophically with Becoming".

Indeed, all four elements were omnipresent, active and protean, mobilised as a scenographic base for the performance as a whole. The beaten red earth of the egg-shaped playing space - Mother Earth, source and end of all, as well as the storyteller's milieu in an Indian village; the free-flowing water of a river beside the back wall - the holy Ganges, the river of heaven, as well as the goddess ancestor or the protagonists; the enclosed water of a pool at the spectators' feet - fixed, sterile, a reflective surface to mirror the action, a place for refreshment and ritual ablution, a place to die; naked candle flame as generative transformation, invocation, purification, and illumination, and sputtering ball of flame as weapon, force of ignorance, threat to humanity; and finally, the air that we share with the performers and the sky above us - the creative and empowering spirit of inspiration, the wind of passion, the breath of life. In traditional Hindu cosmology, there are five elements in all: earth, water, fire, air or wind, and space (akasha). Each of them is linked with our five senses: earth - nose - smells; water - tongue - flavours; fire - eyes - colours and forms; air/wind - skin - touch; and space - ears - sounds. This perhaps explains the sensory impact of such an open-air staging. And in Australia, the elements seem very immediate, uninsulated, of palpable impact on the ways one leads one's life and sees the world. Here too space might be conceived of as a fifth element.

Perhaps above all, it is the liminalities and paradoxes of these impure spaces that appeal to Brook: "What is most important is this element of impurity ... For life is composed of all sorts of different aspects, which are massively mobilised by dynamism, contradiction and conflict .... We need to reclaim this kind of impurity in the theatre, because it is the very mark of life. When seen as a fundamentally positive value, it becomes the inevitable reference point". As I have already suggested, an enormous array of what appear to be binary cleftings inscribed in the places themselves are left unresolved, and as spectators we are encouraged to explore and inhabit the gaps, to live the contradictions. As a director who resolutely refuses closure at every level and celebrates the opening of possible worlds in performance, Brook has always favoured the idea of "both/and" over "either/or". For him, the universe is actually a complex and contradictory "pluriverse". Consistently, he has endeavoured to find ways out of fixed authored spaces of all kinds, to break through restrictive boundaries, thereby opening up a transgressive and multivalent space. Like dharma in The Mahabharata, a plural space of ambiguities, within which power is dispersed from any single authorial text, any closed singular meaning. I should stress that this is an active productive space of pleasure which empowers spectators as generators of meaning(s). As Roland Barthes reminded us, reading - or spectating - is writing.

In this way, at least on a superficial formal level, Brook appears to be a post-modernist (although in reality he is of course one of the great humanists of late modernism). For part of his project is to explore and prise open some of the cracks in the empty space of modernism which in turn become new spaces of possible futures - indeterminate, porous, dialogical, endlessly in flux. In his work, he takes us from a notion of empty space as void or tabula rasa - a blank page passively awaiting the inscriptions of some colonising or legitimising "author", part of the Enlightenment myth of order prevailing over chaos - to a deconstructivist notion of free space as the site of the play of potentiality and dynamic plurality, tirelessly self-subverting and reconfiguring. Even the titles of Brook's two major books describe this trajectory, i.e. from the "empty space" to the "shifting point". Brook's "free space", therefore, becomes the site of a radical re-cognition and re-orientation.

So, in this instance, the quarries are both natural, found spaces ("raw", in Levi-Strauss's terms), and at the same time artificial reconstructions ("cooked"). Even the rock face in Adelaide was retouched with ochres to alter the space's tonality and texture. They are both rural and urban, often the city's lights remaining visible in the distance. They are both abandoned, redundant, out of use, and yet reclaimed, functional. Work places and play-grounds or playing-fields. Old and new. Demolished and renovated. Enclosed and open. Bounded and unbounded. Private and public. Intimate and epic. ‘Rough’ and ‘holy’. And centrally, in a mythical teatrum mundi within which microcosm and macrocosm are indissolubly intertwined, these spaces are both literal and metaphorical, encouraging spectators to be the site of a dynamic interplay of interiority and exteriority, subjectivity and objectivity. Such irresolution can generate a heterogeneous density of experience that startles, awakens and liberates. A free space can free ...

In an Australian context, the metaphorical resonance of quarry settings is further heightened by a connection with Aboriginal cultures that Brook has chosen to make explicit. The existence of these cultures is the focal point of his interest in Australia, making it a "land of origins", a "source". During the CICT's visit in 1980, he travelled to a number of Aboriginal communities in the "red centre" near Alice Springs. Subsequently, he invited tribal members from remote desert settlements in the Idulkana and Papunya regions to performances of the trilogy in Adelaide. In this context, the quarry setting offered a concrete image of different cultures' relationships to the same environment.

Brook conceived of these communities as representing a space of potentiality to the company and to white liberal audiences in general; at the time, he described them as "a very important example of what could be". Their presence demanded a recognition of qualities under direct threat from the encroachments of so-called civilisation. A recognition of forty thousand years of cultural tradition, partially intact despite the genocidal regimes of invaders and continuing institutional disempowerment, which still constructs Aboriginal culture and history as blank space; of an organic bond between the cyclical and plural time-spaces of myth and the everyday, between life and art; of a more sensitive and symbiotic relationship with the environment. For Brook, these guests offered a mirror to The Ik, now a new text with an amplified energy when played before such an audience in this gouge slashed out of the earth. One was invited to link the Aborigines' imposed deracination from tribal lands and sacred sites with the Ik claim to a life in union with their environment and its holy places: "We would not exist without the mountain, and the mountain would not exist without us ...."

For traditional Aboriginal cultures, environment constitutes a series of texts or a book. Their myths of creation, sacred teachings and cultural histories are inscribed in the land itself. Its features record, Braille-like, the exploits of pre-historical ancestors, which can be endlessly read and re-animated in the present. Landmarks are "nothing less than the bodies of the totemic beings, or items connected with them, transformed into individual waterholes, trees, sandhills, ridges, and other physiographic features, as well as into rock alignments and sacred rock-piles". By journeying through these free spaces, law and lore can be re-made and re-membered through narrative song cycles - psychogeographical itineraries that map cultural spaces and identities, pasts and possible futures: landscape as "inscape".

In this light, The Ik became an overtly cautionary tale, a vision of the dangers of obliging any people of ‘quality’ to shed that quality. Inevitably, The Mahabharata simmered with more parallels and intertexts. Performances occurred within (literally) the space of the dominant culture's exploitation and desecration of indigenous peoples' holy books. Yet, as I have tried to suggest above, the transition from work location to "play-ground" opens up new, transgressive spaces.

Later that year, in an impassioned article for The Sunday Times in London, Brook posed a series of questions that - like the land rights issues from which they emerged - still hang in the air, thirteen years on:

‘Will the Aborigines also be destroyed? Or will they win their legal battles? Will they be preserved and assimilated? Will they survive in isolation as anthropological curiosities? Will they find a way of integrating their traditions into a new way of life? A young Australian who has lived with the tribes in the North tells me of the beauty and complexity of their customs, of the force of their spirituality. “The Aborigines never meet white people of inner quality”, he says. “They want to know if such people exist”. Back to the other Australia, the Australia of beautiful cities, of generous friendly people, very appreciative of our performances. One of them says, “You're lucky! I've lived here all my life and never seen an Aborigine”.

In the intervening years, thankfully Aboriginal peoples have assumed a heightened "visibility" for all Australians, although little has been resolved. In 1993, the Australian High Court passed the historic Mabo legislation, which formally recognised "native title" and, to the horror of farmers and mining companies, particularly in Western Australia, overturned once and for all the notion of terra nullius upon which all former title legislation was founded. So the "empty space" was inhabited after all ... It remains to be seen exactly what this legislation means in practice. Since the election of a Liberal government in 1996, a government seemingly intent on undermining reconciliation processes as symptomatic of Labour's 'political correctness', Mabo is under threat.

In the middle of the CICT Mahabharata, Dharma posed a number of initiatory riddles to his son, the Pandava prince Yudhishthira, during his exile in the forest. Part of their exchange went as follows:

Dharma: "Give me an example of space".
Yudhishthira: "My two hands as one".

And this brings us to the real challenges of the spaces explored by The Mahabharata in an Australian context. In theatre, what is invisible can be made visible, the seeds of fragmentation critiqued and at the same time difference celebrated. In the utopian free spaces of play at least, coercive and delimiting ways of seeing can be subverted. Re-making our histories means re-visioning and re-making ourselves. Only then can theatre once more become necessary, as social and spiritual meeting place. For all Australians, "our two hands as one". A free space frees.

Unpublished essay, originally written in Perth, Western Australia, 1993.

Photograph: Julio Donoso - The Mahabharata at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris, 1987.

See also David Williams (ed.), Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, London and New York: Routledge, 1991; and David Williams (ed.), Peter Brook: A Theatrical Casebook (2nd edition - revised and updated), London: Methuen, 1992; and my essay ‘Assembling our differences: bridging identities-in-motion in intercultural performance’, in Simon Murray & John Keefe (eds), The Physical Theatres Reader, London & New York: Routledge, pp. 239-48.


Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double (trans. Victor Corti), New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Brook, Peter. "Les lieux du spectacle", L'architecture d'aujourd'hui, October-November 1970.

----- "Espaces pour le theatre", Le Scarabée International, Summer 1982.

----- "Lettre a une étudiante anglaise", in Timon d'Athènes (translated and adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière), Paris, CICT, 1978.

----- "The Living Theatre of the Outback", The Sunday Times, 17 August 1980.

Carrière, Jean-Claude. The Mahabharata, London: Methuen, 1986.

Gould, Richard A. Yiwara, Foragers of the Australian Desert, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Mostafavi, Mohsen and David Leatherbarrow. On Weathering: the Life of Buildings in Time, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

the idea of south

'You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it' (Annie Dillard 1988: 31).

During the Olympics, I've been reading about Antarctic explorers - I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it's the terrible weather here in Devon, combined with associations leaking from the inescapable nationalist rhetoric of 'heroic' endeavour from the BBC in Beijing. Certainly some possibility of a vicarious 'outside' and 'elsewhere' as an antidote to despondent peering out at the rain from the sofa during yet another medal ceremony with oh so jolly national anthem accompaniment.

In particular, I've been looking at David Thomson's fine book about Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen (2002), Scott's journals, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, Trevor Griffiths's screenplay for The Last Place on Earth, Sarah Wheeler's Terra Incognita, Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time, and collections of Frank Hurley's and Herbert Ponting's remarkable photographs of Shackleton's Endurance and Scott's Terra Nova expeditions respectively. Finally, and much less familiar to me, some material about the Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, whose 1912-13 trek with Mertz and Ninnis during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition is perhaps (alongside Shackleton's journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia 3 years later in 1916) the most bewildering story of them all.

The bare bones of Mawson's journey, set in inconceivably harsh blizzard conditions 'among rolling waves of ice', are as follows: Ninnis's sudden disappearance down a crevasse with the dog-drawn sledge containing most of the team's provisions - the two others peering down the crack in the ice to see nothing but a dog on a ledge 150 feet below, still alive but its back broken; 315 miles to get back to base - enough food for only 10 days, but nothing for the dogs; an improvised tent using a tent cover, some skis and sledge struts; the gradual cull of dogs for food during the return journey, everything consumed, including the paws (stewed); Mertz's death en route, probably hastened by Vitamin A poisoning from eating dogs' livers; Mawson's fall into a crevasse, his sledge wedging in the ice above his head, then hauling himself out by the rope from which he dangled; his eventual arrival back at the base, Cape Denison, with his ship the Aurora having already departed and now just a dot on the horizon; when the men who had stayed behind to look for him eventually found him, unrecognisably bedraggled, they asked: 'My God, which one are you?'; and finally, another winter spent in the huts before the Aurora's eventual return. Mawson's story is genuinely astonishing, humbling, and at times oddly funny in pitch-dark ways that remind me of Joe Simpson's Touching the Void.

A few notes on what lingers for me from this bleak but fascinating reading:

* the mythic shape of some of these narratives, and their interrelations with the constitutive myths of 'nation', 'empire', 'patriotism', 'heroism', 'leadership', 'manliness', 'nobility' (already rehearsing some of the core drives that would lead to mass carnage and suffering in the first World War); the power of these stories in our imaginations, and at the same time the futility and absurdity of so much of what actually occurred, and the muddle of motives;

* the degree to which the 'great white south' seems to have appealed as a site of wholesome, untarnished 'purity', 'perfection' and possible 'salvation' for many of the British explorers (including Scott), those rather 'boy's own' conservative men unable to deal with the complexities and changes afoot in the 'civilised world', its 'order' threatened by disarray in the face of the contradictions of modernity. In relation to solitude, Annie Dillard quotes Plotinus, 'the flight of the alone to the Alone' (1988: 48). With these men there is the sense at times of mythical quests in the fulfilment of destinies, or allegorical journeys into the sublime in which 'pilgrims' are obliged to perform some kind of terrible, futile penance - but for what?;

'The Pole of Relative Inaccessibility is "that imaginary point on the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction". It is a navigator's paper point contrived to console Arctic explorers who, after Peary & Henson reached the North Pole in 1909, had nowhere special to go. There is a Pole of Relative Inaccessibility on the Antarctic continent, also; it is that point of land farthest from salt water in any direction. The Absolute is the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility located in metaphysics. After all, one of the few things we know about the Absolute is that it is relatively inaccessible. It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions. Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble. It is also - I take this as given - the pole of great price' (Dillard 1988: 19).

* I am struck by the genuinely extraordinary qualities of people like Douglas Mawson, or Tom Crean and William Lashly, and the flawed ambiguity of so many others entertaining and internalising the severely compromised myth of 'heroism' and the idea of south - Scott, Teddy Evans, Shackleton, etc.;

* the inadequacy of many of the British explorers' understanding of the possibilities and predicaments of animals in these horrifying conditions: the incompetence and sentimentality in their use of dogs and ponies, despite advice from the Norwegians (Nansen and others) - and the gradual becoming-animal of Scott's abject Polar party, man-hauling their way to their deaths - unaccommodated man, bare life, reduced to the most bestial of states physically, and yet oh so disarmingly calm and dignified - so 'English' - in their discovery of failure and in their dying (of landscape and weather);

* the actual material implications of the weather conditions for the human body and mind, beyond the stiffness of upper lips clouded by 'frost smoke': depression, cramps, freezing sweats, swollen limbs, bleeding gums from scurvy, shivering fits ('until I thought my back would break', Cherry-Garrard), diarrhea, mental confusion, exhaustion, snow blindness, the blackened festering tissue of frostbite on noses, fingers and toes, hypothermia, etc. The mystical quietism of the naturalist Edward Wilson - 'I can never forget that I did realise, in a flash, that nothing that happens to our bodies really matters' (Thomson 2002: 148). On the horrors of frostbite, Frances Ashcroft writes: "When freezing is rapid, needles of ice may crystallise inside cells, puncturing cell membranes. If ice crystals rub together, they may physically tear the cells apart, which is one reason it is not advisable to rub frostbitten areas' (2001: 72);

* the radical perceptual disorientation of white out, of the ganzfeld of absolute 'smooth space': 'Smooth space is occupied by intensities, wind and noise forces, and sonorous and tactile qualities, as in the desert, steppe, or ice. The creaking of ice and the song of the sands ... Where there is close vision, space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, non-optical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline or form nor centre; there is no intermediary distance, or all distance is intermediary. Like Eskimo space' (Deleuze & Guattari: 479, 494).

* the shocking suddenness of loss of life: on Scott's Discovery expedition, for example, Seaman Vince, wearing inappropriate boots, sliding helplessly from the ice into the sea, never to be found (like Evans, like Oates); and then there's the dog Osman who was washed overboard during the Terra Nova's journey south from New Zealand, only to be thrown back onto the deck by another wave;

'My name is Silence. Silence is my bivouac, and my supper sipped from bowls. I robe myself mornings in loose strings of stones. My eyes are stones; a chip from the pack ice fills my mouth. My skull is a polar basin; my brain pan grows glaciers, and icebergs, and grease ice, and floes. The years are passing here' (Dillard 1988: 49).

* the arrogance and chauvinism of some of the British sponsors and of members of the Royal Geographical Society, and their outrageous dismissal of Amundsen as some kind of dodgey dilettante-cum-'cheat', rather than the consummately prepared & emotionally uncluttered pragmatist in his element that he seems to have been;

* the anachronistic language of repressed Edwardian men, so often unable to communicate their fragilities, fears and desires to themselves, let alone each other: Scott's use of the phrase 'up queer street'; Shackleton's insistence on curtains for the beds in the shared hut in order to allow men to 'sport their oak' in private;

'One wonders, after reading a great many such firsthand accounts, if polar explorers were not somehow chosen for the empty and solemn splendor of their prose style - or even if some eminent Victorians, examining their own prose styles, realised, perhaps dismayed, that from the look of it, they would have to go in for polar exploration' (Dillard 1988: 22-3).

* the elaborate (and profoundly understandable) activities generated to distract and amuse during the uncomfortable, long periods of waiting: illustrated lectures, 'scallywag competitions' (whatever they were), theatrical performances with cross-dressing, football on the ice, the printing of a paper (the South Polar Times) - the weird inventiveness and playful resilience of human beings in the most extreme of conditions; and the surrealism of the determination to retain some kind of (middle-class) 'normality' despite everything, e.g. the Christmas meal Scott and the others had lugged onto the ice plateau en route to the Pole - although they were fast running out of supplies, they enjoyed pemmican and horse meat stew, with onions, curry powder and biscuit; a sweet hoosh of arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit; plum pudding, and finally raisins, caramel and ginger. Happy Christmas ...

'Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand - that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us ... I have, I say, set out again. The days tumble with meanings. The corners heap up with poetry; whole unfilled systems litter the ice ...' (Dillard 1988: 30, 47).

Alexander, Caroline (1998). The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, London: Bloomsbury
Ashcroft, Frances (2001). Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival, London: Flamingo
Bickell, Lennard (2000). Mawson's Will, Hanover NH: Steerforth
Cherry-Garrard, Apsley (2003) [1922]. The Worst Journey in the World, London: Pimlico
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix (1984). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Press
Dillard, Annie (1988). 'An Expedition to the Pole', Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions & Encounters, New York: Harper Perennial, 17-52
Griffiths, Trevor (1986). Judgement over the Dead, London: Verso
Mawson, Douglas (2000). The Home of the Blizzard: A True Story of Antarctic Survival, Birlinn Ltd.
Ponting, Herbert (2004). With Scott to the Pole: The Terra Nova Expedition, 1910-1913 - The Photographs of Herbert Ponting, London: Bloomsbury
Spufford, Francis (1996). I May Be Some Time, London: Faber
Thomson, David (2002). Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen: Ambition & Tragedy in the Antarctic, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press
Wheeler, Sarah (1996). Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, London: Vintage

© David Williams

For an outstanding article on the RSA Arts & Ecology website by the writer Tony White - about Antarctica, Shackleton, climate change and opera - see here. My thanks to Barbara Campbell for the link.