Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing, 2011. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
‘Language, translation and misinterpretation’, the catch-all research theme chosen as a rallying point for Performa 11, would alone have justified the inclusion of Robert Ashley’s experimental 1967 opera That Morning Thing (curated by Mark Beasley) in this iteration of the performance art biennial. The work explicitly concerns itself with the question of language and rival, non-verbal modes of communication. Its three acts followed by an epilogue vividly – all too vividly at times – illustrate the initial mock-lecture, delivered by narrator John Hagan in the guise of The Speaker (presumably speaking for the composer), on how language, spoken and written, risks to be superseded in daily exchanges by different forms of communication, altogether more brutal.
Even before the dystopian vision conjured by The Speaker and the traumatic account that followed, the staging of the opening scene and the uncanny atmosphere put me in mind of J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), not least in its sci-fi overtones. Sitting far apart with their backs to the audience, a woman and a man of a certain age faced a neat row of men – presiding in their midst like a magistrate at a trial was The Speaker – flanked on each side by expressionless young women sporting cream-coloured gowns, matching heels and black goggles with protruding orange lenses – a surreal touch that gave the women who wore them an inhuman insect-like appearance. Specially designed and made by James Lo, the glasses would light up comically and flash every time the women came together to form duos and turned their blank stares the spectators’ way.
The female dancers who, thus strangely attired, stood for the titular ‘Frogs’ in Act I, advanced towards each other with measured steps, palms raised and facing outwards, occasionally rotating and shifting direction in a succession of pedestrian movements reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s choreography, as the male chorus repeatedly counted to four over recorded frog sounds. In David Moodey’s stylish lighting design – made to complement the acoustic environment – leafy patterns that evoked Italian brocade for me were projected as shadows onto walls and the floor in The Kitchen’s otherwise spartan theatre.
Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing, 2011. Featuring Fast Forward. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
The first of Ashley’s operatic works to dispense with a linear narrative, That Morning Thing consists of a series of discrete parts loosely strung together – despite the deceptively reassuring three-act structure followed by a coda, that suggests some sort of progression leading towards a final resolution. What we get instead, pointing to a modernist aesthetic sensibility, is a collection of fragments that seemingly do not add up. Yet formal and thematic echoes help make sense of the work even if we are left to speculate as to its meaning. A passing remark made by The Speaker in Act I – ‘Why is it that it is so difficult to remember sometimes, but so easy to forget? Yet when you really want to forget, it is so excruciatingly impossible.’ – foreshadowed and possibly commented on the graphic taped account, punctuated with ‘I remember’ or words to that effect, of a sexual assault (or merely an encounter?) in ‘Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon’ (Act II). The dancer Kimberley Bartosik listlessly struck a series of poses with her gaunt body and turned over a deck of giant cards, one by one, as the recording played itself out.
What is ‘that morning thing’? And who is the visitor in ‘She was a visitor’, repeated, pondered, interpreted for us again and again by the speaker-narrator in the Epilogue, until the phrase was broken down into its component parts by the female chorus who took place amid the audience and gently encouraged us to echo for one full breath the sound of individual phonemes chosen at random from this four word score? Does she bear any relation to the ‘Purposeful Lady’, she in the gruelling recording, or is she one of the women in the ‘Four Ways’ (Act III) assailing actor/director Fast Forward with questions someone visiting New York for the first time might conceivably ask – ‘Where is Columbus Circle? … Where can I find a good Chinese restaurant? … Where is Little Italy? Why is it called “little”?’ – as if to illustrate the starting thesis that language has ‘little or no meaning, being only part of a larger and more complex gesture’? Besides hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses, what lingers on is the distinctive cadence of Ashley’s words, tottering on the divide between speech and song, poetry and prose.