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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Grow Old With Me

I've been a fan of Odin Teatret for about 15 years. This year they're celebrating their 40th year together as a company. Their UK tour for 2005 comes to an end today with another performance at Manchester Metropolitan University's Alsager Arts Centre, after stops in Brighton, Exeter, Bristol, and Lancaster.

Yesterday we took a group of students from our Theatre & Performance Studies students at the University of Hull's Scarborough Campus to watch Odin in performance. The trip from Scarborough to Alsager is about 3 hours each way. We've done this before, with a different group of students, and the trip is quite alright when planned well. It's a long trip, of course, but not too long...especially if you're going to see Odin Teatret.

The performance we saw is called Inside the Whale's Skeleton. It is billed as variation on Franz Kafka's parable Before the Law. The title refers to a verse from the Gospel according to Matthew: "Our evil and adulterous generation demands a sign. But no sign will be given to us, except for the sign of Jonas."
Inside the Whale's Skeleton
One sentence from the description in the tour brochure truly captures the essence of Inside the Whale's Skeleton. "This is a performance about the essence of rituality in theatre, that which remains when theatre has lost everything except the skeleton of the action: the underlying stories which guide the actors, the relationship between actors and spectators, the search for contact and silence in which each individual can capture a personal meaning."

The personal meaning I captured from watching this performance was of a theatre troupe at its pinnacle, sharing their experiences and the aging process. When you've dedicated your entire adult life exploring theatre and performance away from the mainstream, as all the members of Odin Teatret have, that search becomes very evident in your work. If this performance is Odin's swan song (and I'm not saying that it is or that it should be) it's a very appropriate way to bring decades of work with Eugenio Barba, the company's founder and director, to full maturity.

The last time I saw Barba and Odin in person was about 5 years ago in New York. They were therr for their second visit to the city. During a talk Eugenio Barba gave to a small gathering at New York University's Department of Performance Studies, he explained that the main reason he had returned to New York with Odin was because he was urged to do so by Jerzy Grotowski. Visiting old friends in New York and sharing the change aging has brought on the company seemed to be among the purposes of that visit. Barba lamented about the quality of shows on Broadway he went to see, like Cats and Rent, as well as the use of electronic technology by the Wooster Group, the foremost NY-based performance group operating in the wake of Grotowski's residence in New York more than three decades ago.

The New York encounter was very present in my mind last night as I watched the performance. This was partly because I sat between two performers who spent all their formative years in New York. To my right I had Tim Miller, who is currently visiting us in Scarborough for a brief residence and some work with our third year students on autobiography in performance. On my left sat Nancy Reilly, formerly with the Wooster Group, who teaches at the Alsager Campus. A search for contact and silence was indeed what I experienced before, during, and immediately after the performance.

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