‘Left with Netflix, I realise that art may indeed be as crucial as food and shelter’: Jana Perković on watching European performance through the pandemic
In a normal year – between my various jobs as a critic for The Age, The Lifted Brow, and specialised performance magazines (such as RealTime), as well as dramaturgy and festival work – I would see live performance at least once a week. More often it was twice, or three, four, five times. This amounted to 20 shows a month on average. And it was like this for years. Seeing dance and theatre was the main reason I travelled both internationally and around town, and the thing I usually did in the evenings, or for fun.
In 2020, the number of live performances I have seen stands at six.
In January, I see Mette Ingvartsen’s evaporated landscapes, and her collaboration with Australian drummer Will Guthrie, All Around, in Berlin’s Gropius-Bau. They are two earthy, dark, ecstatic pieces that wouldn’t be out of place at Mona FOMA, more texture and sensation than narrative. I enjoy them like one enjoys the depths of the winter solstice. Unbeknownst to me, they are the last performance works I will see in the old normal.
At the end of January, I go to Copenhagen for what is meant to be an adventure, checking out a new job. I put my position on hold at The Age. I am excited to learn more about contemporary dance in Denmark (Ingvartsen’s home country). I spend a month finding my way around town. I get a bike. A week later, Denmark goes into a total lockdown. It is Friday March 13, the first Friday 13 in a year that – not without merit – has two. The next weeks and months are a blur.
It’s worth speaking here about how perception changes in isolation, what the lockdown did to us. Three months in a foreign country, in an unknown flat, is three months without a hug. I see my new colleagues on Zoom only. When we are finally able to meet in person, I inadvertently tell my colleague Katrina that there is so much detail in her face in real life. I can’t stop marvelling at the richness of the experience, of looking at her move in three-dimensional space.
This is also when we notice how skinny we have all become, after many months in which moving from bed to desk, from desk to kitchen sink, was our only exercise. My other colleague, Virginia, tells me that she went for a two-hour walk and got sore muscles in her legs. We are all slightly uncoordinated, eyes darting everywhere, all surfaces and human touch instilling fear, makeup a forgotten habit. Later, I will learn to recognise that look in people arriving from other places, from harsher lockdowns: it’s a slightly bewildered look that reminds me, unnervingly, of the footage of people released from detention camps.
I was always sceptical of the notion that art is essential for survival, like food and shelter. Surely not? Surely we can survive for a lot longer without art? But there I am, in a flat in Copenhagen, without my books or DVDs, and for the first time in my life there is no art anywhere to be had. Museums: closed. Galleries: closed. Festivals: cancelled months in advance. Theatre: forget about it. This is different from the months I spent on the beach or in the Croatian countryside, where there was perhaps no theatre, but I could always buy a train ticket and in a day be at a summer festival, even if it was opera in the Alps or classical music in a vineyard. This is the annihilation of art. Broadway closed, West End closed, the entire German Staatstheater system closed. So many friends out of work.
Left with Netflix, I realise that art may indeed be as crucial as food and shelter. I am a tourist in Netflix-land: my work in theatre hasn’t left me much time to binge-watch serial television, and the American in-your-face-ness of the titles I am trying out is abrasive, somehow soul-crushing. I am not in the mood for comedy or action or escapism or anger. I am, like everyone else, at home, frozen. I am in dire need of someone to put this experience into words, into poetry or movement, and help me digest what is happening.
Instead, we all sit in front of the TV, watching Tiger King and re-runs of sit-coms, while around us people are losing essential freedoms, jobs, and lives. Reflecting our pale-faced… dread? grief?… is the merciless, relentless jolliness of American tv.
The first theatre I see post-lockdown is in June, and it is broken shards of what should have been a spectacle. My hometown was this year’s European Capital of Culture, and the opening show was to be Rehearsals of Life, a restaging of a tour de force play that summarises a hundred years of Rijeka’s history through the fates of two families. The show gets cancelled, then un-cancelled, then the seating is thinned down to a minimum. We miraculously get tickets – perhaps because audiences have given up by now. We sit on chairs right in front of the stage, added to slightly increase the capacity, and I can almost touch the actors as they appear. It is only as the audience applauds that we realise how few people there are: it rings so, so faintly in the grand 19th-century auditorium.
Rehearsals of Life had a celebrated production in 1990. This staging is a knowing take on the first, with original footage projected onto the stage, and much of the same cast, now breaking out of character to talk about what the role meant for their careers, their lives. Rijeka is a peculiar city, which through the 20th century changed countries six times, and much of the plot concerns marriages across language and national barriers, families separated by borders, homes appropriated.
It opens with the grande dame of the ensemble, Neva Rošić, who walks on stage with gentle dignity and tells us that in 1945, a few days after the war, her father was summoned to run this same theatre, and he brought her along as a nine-year-old. The city was divided, all the bridges had been bombed by the retreating Germans, and this was an opportunity to take his daughter to see the grandparents who lived on the other side. “We entered through the loading bay,” she says, “behind the stage, and so the first time I entered this theatre, I walked onto the stage from the back and I faced this exact auditorium. This chandelier” – she points up – “was lying on the seats, whole. Someone had carefully lowered it down, to save it from the bombing.”
In that moment, she unleashes the magic of theatre into that barely populated hall, in front of so few witnesses, sweeping us up in the power of live performance to bridge the past and the present moment: to relate what has ended to what continues. In that moment, she makes me aware that I had honestly feared that the pandemic would be the end of all theatre. And she demonstrates that it won’t be.
Over summer nobody talks about the lockdown. There is a sense of profound shared trauma that we all want to leave behind – except we cannot really, because all normal entertainment activities are cancelled. I make a solemn promise to myself that I will never watch Netflix again. I feel like I have just come out of a sugar coma, and now I need complex carbs. I am craving art that doesn’t shove its message in my face, but lets me unspool its thread with my own mental effort.
The next three works are all dance pieces that I see in Berlin in September and October. The first is a small graduation piece by Danceworks Berlin, a delightful student showcase through which I am mostly crying because dance is not dead. I am in a small black box full of moving bodies, we can smell other people, and this normality is comforting. The poster at Theaterforum Kreuzberg outside says “Endlich wieder Theater” (“Finally theatre again”). We all have to wear face masks and leave our details at the door, in case of a Covid-19 outbreak, and after the show the students say that they had to rework the choreography to eliminate all touch.
The second is a tiny promenade piece called Breathing with _1, performed in an exhibition called Vertigo as part of Tanznacht Berlin. The audience is limited, and I only know about it because Australian dancer Alice Heyward is in it, fresh out of the Melbourne lockdown. Conceived by Jana Unmußig and Miriam Jakob, it involves five dancers and one video installation, in which a person lying on a hospital bed has hands placed on them. Though the work was likely conceived before the pandemic, I spend most of the performance wondering how they have managed to produce a response so humane, tactile and moving. The dancers don’t touch one another, and we are careful not to touch anything. Heyward leaves after the show, saying she is not used to so many people outside anymore.
The third is Przemek Kamiński’s Sunrise Sunset at the tentatively reopened Hebbel am Ufer (HAU), a dance duet with Australian choreographer and dancer Martin Hansen. The two dance with roller skates and face masks, in a variety of pastel costumes (dresses, leotards, robes) on a stage awash with brightly coloured projections. There are elements of Judson Street Theater and ballet, and it is all, I later read, a sort of excavation of one strand of queer history, an impressionistic take on Fred Herko’s “queer utopian spirit”. During the performance I am like a child, mesmerised by colour, by movement, by skill, by the sheer materiality of the event.
After the sensory deprivation of 2020, I have no critical defences against Sunrise Sunset; I take it in all at once. It is delightful that someone spends so long training their body to move so beautifully, I think. I notice that Hansen’s mask slowly starts to slip down, I notice that the two dancers do occasionally touch, and these slips appear to me transgressive beyond anything referenced in Herko’s material. The absurdity of these arbitrary anti-corona measures, the theatre of hygiene, is delightful and also, well, scary. For a moment, something of the “old normal” sensibility, and this new situation, hang in a delicate balance. Perhaps we will soon laugh about this, I think.
Instead, a couple of weeks later, all theatre in Germany is cancelled again.
I am not sure what the future of live performance might be, but I do not think it will be watching Gob Squad on my laptop, as the HAU website invites me to do. As we hunker down for a long, slow winter in the second wave of various restrictions, all I can think of is the next time I will be allowed in the same room with moving, speaking bodies. I have not seen a single Shakespeare this year, I have not been to a single participatory performance. I am craving that moment in which we are all moved in unison, in which an emotional wave from the stage crashes into the auditorium and lifts us all up, that moment when we spontaneously rise into a standing ovation.
And this year, for all its cancellations, has been a year of so many posters saying “Endlich wieder Theater”, so many sold-out shows in front of minuscule audiences. It has been a year of so much hand sanitizer, so many face masks and touch-less choreographies and still, still, we showed up, with our sore muscles and insomnia and bewildered, un-made-up faces. And I think we will keep showing up whenever we are allowed to – because I think we really do need art, just as much as we need food and shelter.