Medea: Exploring the Total Field of Senses

“If John Cage was alive and heard this, he would go nuts,” – said an audience member of Medea, a Pasolini-inspired butoh-opera, staged near Olimpiysky sports complex in Kyiv on June 12, starring butoh dancers Valentin Tszin and Flavia Ghisalberti with music by Audrey Chen (vocals), Phil Minton (vocals), Henrik Munkeby Norstebo (trombone), Thomas Rohrer (rabeca), and Michael Vorfeld (percussion). Of course, such reaction could address a myriad of outdoor performances, and, coming from a pianist who had performed Cage a number of times, was just too obvious. That night, however, another idea of Cage could take on a new meaning, if we replace “sound” with “sense,” which isn’t too much of a stretch, given 21st century urge to multisensory experiences. It seems that this is exactly what the show’s organizer, a highly imaginative music agency Ukho, does best: making Kyiv’s audiences of all ages believe that music is not just sound.

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photo by Lili Viter

It is the time of the day when the sun breaks up into pieces and scatters over the sky like – cherry blossom? pieces of flesh and blood? I walk past Olimpiysky stadium up the hill, until the voices of football fans recede into silence and the stadium’s UFO-looking roof emerges in front of my eyes – the place’s mysterious view indeed reminds of Pasolini’s desert landscapes. Few hundreds of unordered chairs await the audience; Medea is about to start.

Supposedly without a plot, this genre-bending opera has no melodic lines, let alone arias, but can be perceived as a counterpoint of sensorial threads, on the verge between stasis and narrative. Barefoot dancers, barely dressed in skin-colored clothes, emerge from the audience, writhing with pain. Their suffering becomes our suffering – we could almost touch them and do feel the cold of their freezing feet hitting the asphalt. Humming screams of Minton and Chen can hardly be perceived as sound, but rather as shades of silence that at once project agony and fill up the void. Complete silence would be just too intense – too intense to leave the audience one-on-one with the thriller thread of the performance, by Tszin and Ghisalberti. After several wild acts, such as Tszin getting up the metal construction, the couple meets in a static movement. Their Zen-like concentration and emotionally-charged slow motion vaguely reminds of New York’s Japanese dance couple Eiko and Koma. The subtle eroticism and the dancers’ cruelty to their own bodies, however, is definitely Pasolini’s: replace the mystery of this mixture of beauty and pain with his mysticism, and you arrive at realism – “only those who are mystical are realistic.” Once Jason tears off Medea’s “perfectly real” silicone skin, she scratches her real leg over the sharp edge of a wooden platform.

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To add to the opera’s perfect combination of music and movement, yet another sensory line: some thirty butoh-village performers, steadily moving from backstage through the audience, their gaze steadily fixed on the horror which only their eyes can see. Barefoot, with cobblestones on their heads, they slowly walk over freezing ground, and the audience, again, can empathize with no effort. Yet another thread is our freedom to move across the space, choosing a different perspective each time, yet another – the sun going down slowly, in its own pace.

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photo by Volodymyr Osypenko

Once the listener immerses into visual agony and is completely captivated by the couple, something remarkable happens. The sun goes down, the music switches from lightly-colored silence to scream, the thirty dancers “suddenly” emerge behind our backs, and, having passed the audience, they acquire voice. Once everything reverses, the suffering experienced by Medea and Jason is no longer there – it reverses into silence and stillness of our tortured hearts, from realism to mystery.

Erlena Dlu

©2016 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Medea is a part of Architecture of Voice project, vol. 2: around stadia, curated by Sasha Andrusyk of Ukho Music Agency (Kyiv). Previous shows included: “Blumenstudien” by Lucia Ronchetti in sub tropic orangery of botanic garden, Phil Minton and Audry Chen in paleontological museum, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion in a church, Victoria Polyova’s Ave Maria Stella in a swimming pool, among many others.

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