"Peer, now youíre lying!"
"Oh, yes I am!"
The opening of Ibsenís "Peer Gynt", only slightly transformed by BAK-Truppen. The original denying protagonist - îOh, no Iím notî - is in his sustained lie constituting the basis of drama: illusion, and Peer, the adventurer, takes the audience by the hand on his spicy trip round the world. In Bak-truppenís version, called îSuper Peerî, the hero is exposing the possibility that heís just a boy with a vivid imagination, a somebody looking for a one-liner.
Considered from a reactionary point of view this is where drama vanishes. Bak-truppenís Peer simply says; No illusion, nothing is happening except on the level of the personal, and by the by whoís bothered with authenticity.For a second, however, the dramatic proposal dies, theatrical utopia slips out the back door and the spectator has to accept that there will be no story, no well ridden dramaturgy or believable acting, nothing of the desired escape from daily trouble or a world soaked with cynicism - Ciao ciao utopia. Then Bak-truppen reconsiders. Itís resurrection time! Oh, no thereís a monster! (A slimy red character, with huge fangs rushes by.) Itís gonna kill me! A monster! (A group of soldiers are heading the same direction.) Nooooo, itís the Seagull! No, nooo itís Uncle Vanya! (The slimy creature with parts of a soldier in his yaws speeding the other direction) Holy Moses, the monster is Christoph Marthaler, no itís, itís...Instead of travelling with Ibsen a. k. a. Peer as a dramaturgically correct guide, the audience is invited to travel with Bak-truppen. Travel to all of them more or less unbelievable places and situations where the troupe has landed, and we are assured there will be no more pre-historic demons hiding in the wings.
Perhaps it was Hans-Thies Lehmann who ones said, as a zero degree level of defining theatre, that îitís a room without windows.î Lehmann somehow, dismissing whatever motivations to define theatre as communication - active, passive or what ever, which finally always have to result in productions flattering the audience as much as possible. Enter-tainment, where I personally prefer David Letterman in front of City Theatres. Then of course one can be more or less sophisticated when flirting, and at the end of the day there are some basics that can turn any mountain over: sentimentality (Alain Platel), spectacle of beauty (Jan Fabre), action (Wim Vandekeybus) or a high laugh level (Christoph Marthaler). Hans-Thies Lehmannís definition, both ironic and metaphoric, maintains that the only prerogative for theatre is illusion. One has to close the door, step into the dark and experience a
new morning, otherwise what is there to believe. Acting is after all about learning what somebody else has written by heart, then trying to convince the audience itís once own, or as Nietzsche formulated it in îThe Birth of
Tragedyî, îthe primary dramatic phenomenon: projecting oneself outside oneself and then acting as through one had really entered another body, another character.î Itís sad but, to a large audience, theatre is still precisely about this, believing. A notion more absurd then regarding emotions in a Whitney Houston song as authentic.It is of course possible to argue that street-theatre, or any open-air spectacle, has left an open window. But this is again an illusion, the opening in the web has only been covered with another kinds of drive, conventionally with highly stylised acting, non-theatrical skills obstructing the gaze or a close encounters with the audience that increase the levels of spectacle, and finally itís a matter of magic: One just have to make sure the spectator is looking for something else.
Bak-truppen shows no fear, thereís no chicken shit around here, since to do what they are doing, , in ìSuper Peerî explicitly and in other performances in a more subtle way, is putting one self (as performer) in the position
from where the audience expect utopia to flow. In one sentence they turn illusion topsy-turvy, itís dead and buried - finito, over and out. Bak-truppen opens the windows (metaphorically and literally, as they in îSuper Peerî at one moment unhinge all doors, windows and other openings to the performance space, announces a break and goes on performing), kicks out character and introduces real-time. What happens when Bak-truppen goes on stage, is first of all that thereís nothing hidden by theatricality, and second that itís as good as coke, itís the real thing.In îVery Goodî from 1997-98 there is a passage where a performer confuses the text and says, with the most natural of voices, îitís always alright with a blunder!î Itís just that he declares it exactly the same way in every performance. In the same performance a machine fabricating alcohol is placed at the centre of the stage, like a totempole, and the audience are invited to taste the liquor made during the show. Itís really OK, served with coffee and a copper-coin that keeps phantoms away, at least for a while.Bak-truppen, in opposition to most theatre produced in the Western hemisphere, is perfect WYSIWYG, they take the consequences of flirting, and use any kind of method but would never make a second choice, which is the difference between natural and naturalistic. Or as Bak-truppen puts it in their The-Shadows-inspired-Chinese-restaurant-sing-a-song-writer-style-CD îCome On every Bodyî: ìyou should have a soft drink before we take real thing, which is always whiskey.î
Bak-truppen has been working together since the mid 80ís and was founded in Bergen, a rainy university city on the utmost western part of Norway, by a group of theatre students at the university. At that time Knut Ove Arntzen had started teaching at the institute and through his international knowledge and network an extremely vital situation grew into not only Bak-truppen, but other theatre and dance collaborations and a new performance space Bergen International Theatre. The Theatregarage, as its been called, has since the late 80ís been, with comparison, the most important space for the development of new theatrical and choreographic expressions, both as platform for regional constellations but also through an impressive number of international guest performances. Nourished through this creative soil, dominated at the time by highly aesthetic theatre combined with German influences, The Wooster Group and post-modern concepts, essentially introduced to Nordic theatre by Knut Ove Arntzen , it is interesting to follow the development of Bak-truppen. Even though early productions are not fully autonomous - ìGermania Tot in Berlinî(1989) e. g. has a set that is very close to Wooster Groupís productions such as L.S.D ñ the group introduce an extremely personal aesthetics where precision is everything and perfection is nothing. A theatrical presentation where the process is visible in the performance and where the performance through a very clear frame has been decentralised and thus exposes theatre as a mechanics of human interaction.Bak-truppen is consistently working with a non-hierarchic structure, perhaps a necessity for the work they have presented. The heterogeneity of their ideas and the resistance within the group is congenial and, as one can imagine, a pain in the ass when things are going out of hand. But of course this is also what Bak-truppen is desiring; a situation, or process, where the predictability of the a presentation or performance is so loose, and ambiguous, that each of the performers has to show them selves, their own vulnerability, and sometimes get lost. They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it, but their cynicism is only on the side of knowledge, and would never contaminate their doing, the action, which of
course would make Bak-truppen totally uninteresting since their vulnerability would be long gone. Sometimes the group is fully childish, stupid on the level of insanity, but the criteria of how one preferably could experience their assertion is not as if they are good on stage or not. The only necessity is to what level the expression is carrying the meaning of their utterances. It is not interesting anymore how we say something; it is saying it that counts. Bak-truppen is probably the only Scandinavian stage art since the late 70ís that has had any political accuracy, what so
ever. And Iím not talking about semi-institutionalised theatre pieces about migration, social injustice, bulimia or incest (which can be as interesting as they wish), but they are certainly not political since they are always only vulgar, or simplified, translations of a politically correct discourses created by media.Bak-truppen would never make a theatre production of something that is better off as a book; a demonstration, a CD, a dinner party or you name it.
Thereís only the wish to say that inhibits the team. And as we all know, the problem with theatre, are that too many people making theatre is in love with it. And love is reactionary, since we after all still wish to be passionate (a temporary sensation, non-repeatable and volatile as dreams). Even worse that a majority of theatre lovers, is not in love with theatre as such, but in doing, or in playing it, as one likes to have a hot bath, or prefer JB in front of Jameson.
The mimetic play formulated in Bak-truppenís performances is a double-reflection where different situations inform each other, and where the spectator has to interpret the friction between the reflections on a basis of themselves. What matters here is not on a primary level to transmit a narration, or a position suggested by the action but to introduce to the spectator the necessity to take a stand. In short the theatrical experience has transformed from being a reading of a narration presented as a hermetic suspension to an interpretation of the gaze of the spectator him or her self. A consequence of a vanished political subtext of theatre on a broad level into other forms of activism, which by theatre researcher Knut Ove Arntzen has been formulated as due to the fact that art has lost its significance as an operative critical position related to a political function. îIt hasî argues Arntzen, îbeen eaten by its operative flexibility.îBak-truppen thus turns towards the activity of the looking it self creating a kind of density of the gaze, making the ideology of the gaze visible in correlation to Lacanís classical sentence îI see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.î Lacan here depict that the one seeing always is accompanies by a certain perspective, authoritative or not, phallic or not, and are also blind-sides by that particular perspective. It is this blind spot that Bak-truppen is always aiming at. The strategy of a double-reflection is an object/event that shows the show, and provokes the viewer to return, to think again, to take a second look. A return which create an oscillating insecurity between the viewing subjectís reading and the cracking object, between a private and radically public, fully inscribed
landscape. A constellation of objects or events, which in accordance to Peggy Phelan, reveal the traces of its false promises, their secret service to the dreamscape of logocentrism, and on a secondary level is a question of the notion of the subjectís desire to be seen by the other.
Bak-truppen initially developed a particular visual dramaturgy, which to a degree left classical representation and was anti-mimetic. They worked with re-cycling fragments of classical texts and methods consciously forgetting their original status. In other words, Bak-truppen was using sampling with an attitude where different parts highlight each other in an internal critique, and where all elements of the theatrical expression carry the same importance. Bak-truppen are in this period experimenting with an expression using an equivalent dramaturgy, where visual, textual, technological and musical elements are placed on an equal basis in the scenic action. Traditional hierarchies of the theatre, i. e. the ordering of elements is replaced by open interplay, defined by sharp conceptual articulations, use of elements from performance and dance, non-acting as a basic principle and a sort of cabaret dramaturgy, extremely frontal, often with a sort one-liner-at- the-end-motviation, not bothering about classical dramaturgical lines and tension for one second.
It is particularly in their Ibsen adaptations, îBrand after Ibsenî (87), îWhen the Dead Awakenî (90) and the series of performances based on îPeer Gyntî (92-94), that the group is engaging in what one could call a new-epic ironic dramaturgy that depart from classic narrative or epic structures used predominantly within the western modern theatre tradition. As earlier noted, Bak-truppen is in their productions inhabiting a deconstructive building-site which is fully remorseless, where the remains of the original text might be two words, or a cover page. Of course it is a vater mord but the ironic finesse and consciousness is so virtuous that Harold Bloom would drop dead.
In their re-arranged dramaturgy, narrative structures are commented and paraphrased through clichÈs from classical and romantic representation. Allegory and metaphor is used and reused but now in a non-essentialist ironic way, where character or portrait is abandoned and the presentation could be understood as a kind meta-skeptism, half ironic half romantic, commenting on theatre and the text at hand.The transformed dramaturgy with its additional theatrical clichÈs transgress the consummate and formally perfect post-modern expression, oppose so called image theatre, and respond to improvisation and personal, private material with its ostensibly floating quality. Personal anecdotes generally relating to a larger theme, or macro-dramaturgy, and personal experiences and expressions emanating from within the performer consequently become part of the composition. The performers are enacting themselves in a kind of new-mimetic unconfined play with post-modernity. A re-cycling effect emanates where a play with circulated elements from the modern and post-modern is given a new and imperfect expression. These strategies have further been rearranged to and used in, what could be called a private textual landscape. A world of references closely related to the mythological characteristics of the context in which the group is active. Bak-truppen then must be understood as fully glocal, before the word was even invented, since within this post-mainstream theatrical expression the local/marginal reveal the global/mainstream within a kind post-ideological trivialism.The formal language developing from these strategies requires multi-layered personal input from the performer, who has to provide parts of a personal realm to stabilise an insecure and floating perfomative field. The process is letting the group free in an unfamiliar landscape. In this sense the development which has taken place within the aesthetics of theatre is closely connected to accomplishments in visual and musical expressions, high- or lowbrow, pop or not.
In îVery Goodî Bak-truppen suggests to the minorities of the Nordic countries that they should collaborate with large entities, huge economies and influential structures, at least understood as quantities. In a letter to the Prime Minister of the Sami-people, living in the very north of Scandinavia, Bak-truppen cracks open the conventions of power-structures by directly questioning the strategy of minorities being loyal to each other. A loyalty that of course if positive, but Bak-truppen propose that minorities, such as the Sami-people, should collaborate with e. g. China. Through such a liaison the Sami-people would first of all gain approximately one billion supporters.In relation to the prevailing situation in China the proposal might not be fully acceptable, but on the other hand it is not the political milieu that Bak-truppen is interested in but the human beings. It is not a statement of a crisis, but presents itself rather as a means of overcoming, in one or other way with a generous gesture, transgressing premises for a prevailing discourse.The position from which the proposition is made, enhances this generous tonus in two directions. On the one hand as Bak-truppen is operating from a context, and a language, which in comparison to Chinese are infinitesimally small, i. e. although the Sami-people has been abused by the Norwegian officials during centuries Bak-truppen is representing four thousands of the Chinese population, thus being in a resembling position. And on the other Bak-truppen expose an extreme level of vulnerability, of an honesty that relies on the possible, leaving the result contradictions wide open, maintaining that the possible does not become necessary just because it can be realised, but rather because it remains possible.What at first glance can seem arbitrary, intuitive or shallow in a childish way in Bak-truppenís expression, maybe enlightened by Niels Lehmannís analysis of The Wooster Groups performance îBrace Up!î where he emphasises the potential of deconstruction conceived as an aesthetic and critical strategy. With a corresponding method The Wooster Group and Bak-truppen are using a twofold level of demonstration, where they flood the spectator with expressions so multi-focused that it becomes impossible to complete any relevant interpretation. In other words: the strategy is to insert signifiers to an extent where it becomes impossible to find an appropriate signified. This surplus of signifiers will give the performance an unreadable quality, where the communicative duality, its directions and conventions are being questioned. Or as Heiner M¸ller once said it: îToday one has to serve as many points of reading as possible, at the same time, to force the audience to make a choose.îAt the same time however the readability is still there in the sense that ìclassical intentionality is resurrected /.../ as a will to create formî within the spectators gaze, and what seems to be chaotic and arbitrary is actually precisely articulated. Relating here for a moment to classical strategies of representation one will end up with a conclusion that Bak-truppen is creating a îsign-cluster beyond the flow of signs, where the pre-lingual authenticity is demonstrated as illusory - successful only as simulation.
Bak-truppenís turning away from a visual dramaturgy and a post-mainstream eclecticism that at a point became as redundant as the system it criticised, is clear. Within a society of dominated by a 100% empty political rhetorics, and where Bak-truppen, by accident happens to be based in a country without any international loans, it became evident that an internal meta-critisism had become self-indulgent. The slide from visual dramaturgy towards a more ambient motivation, where the form was maintained but filled with a new, or other, position of content, focusing on the formulation of an independent space, a place to show things. Where the outside and inside consequence is mingling, into a displacement of objects/events from reality towards a specific framing, that semiotises the surrounding space, however not as a means of leaving a traditional comprehension of representation and readability. Bak-truppen utilise this specific framing not to semiotise the surrounding, but the expectations contained in the gaze of the spectator. The characteristics is that what is presented to the individual spectator is the possibility to intertwine with this particular context in a specific sign-quality which is not synchore with the everyday context of the spectator himself. The important difference here is how the spectator, on his own terms, has become an active agent in the creative process, and this is generally speaking the definition of ambient theatre.
Up until îSuper Perî Bak-truppenís productions on a formal level is relating to neo-avantgarde concepts. At least it seems, even though they tried to escape it or disguise it, like they are working with one foot on the path of the avant-garde. There are still cultural limits to be transgressed, almost as if they compete with a seemingly limitless horizon of multinational capitalism, and Bak-truppen still use a somewhat bad boy attitude. The falling back of Bak-truppenís association with the neo-avantgarde correlates with new conflicts in Europe, a decrease of political reality and of the decay of Marxist theory. In îTonightî from 1995-96 the theatrical momentum decrease and the performances become more, at least on a metaphorical level, of a lecture and an open discussion with the audience. The performances from here on as well opens for a more fluid composition, with an enhanced disappearance of dramatic narration which consequently increase the cabaret like dramaturgy. This is particularly clear in one of the preparatory performances îVeryî performed in front of a video-camera with the transmitted image as the only visible source for the audience. Here in other words the performance has escaped not only, such vital element, as theatrical presence but also developed into a complete two-dimensionality.The switch in Bak-truppenís work is however not a search for a new political theatre, but might be seen as a de-politicised activism, rather criticising western political, ethnical and social strategies as such, e. g. the theme through out the production series îGood Good Very Goodî which focus on situations of minorities. This political activism has however nothing or little to do with western politics, it has no program, it is specific, has no conventional didactic agenda but has attained a quite healthy distance to a few a those old, shared clichÈs of the 60ís that are quite true. Still not being a hippie sort of attitude since it is strictly fighting against any sectarianism, and is rather dealing with a solidarity of ideas.This de-politicised activism is as said not addressing the audience with a political statement but are itself and its possible audience with a notion of responsibility of the self. It, as Edvard Jager writes in his manifesto of ambient theatre, has come to a position where the action is not anymore important but the environment in which the conveyor are functioning socially is. It does not show a central perspective of our universe. Moral questions, psychological answers do not have any roles in its world of imperfection, or sketches, it is ambient, it is space filling time, a vision of possible worlds.
As we all know it is difficult to become an apostle in ones own context. For Bak-truppen, as well as some other groups in this tradition, the Nordic countries have shown an almost compact resistance towards a multitude of rearranged dramaturgical and methodological proposals. In Bak-truppenís case that equals a situation where they have toured for ten years through Europe but has performed in Sweden only once, in 1999. The consequence of such exclusion where new and other expressions have not been allowed to flourish is that the work of Bak-truppen has been even more important to the development of theatrical expression in the Scandinavian countries. Bak-truppen has put Scandinavia on the mainstream theatre map, and has thus forced their own local arena to react. The development is slow but there is in the 90ís constellations that has started to grow with the particular Bak-truppen sensation of pop, politics, confusion and wonder. To conclude Bak-truppen are responsible for a theatre revolution. A revolution from which many now are appropriating and others have made house clean versions of, and I think one has to regard Bak-truppen as one of the most important development in theatre through the 90ís, if not the most. Ein, zwei, drei, die Kunst ist frei, Bak-truppen forever.