Watching, or rather experiencing, Boukje Schweigmans performance Tussen (In between) is like experiencing a hallucination. Barely visible in the tiniest amount of light an unidentifiable organic shape moves across the stage. It is made of legs, torso’s and arms, but in this unearthly twilight it is impossible to determine where one body of a performer begins and the other ends. Then, a human figure emerges out of this shape, only to disappear again a few moments later. In this strange space between light and dark, creatures crawl that are human and at the same time, they are not. And because of the constant darkness you are not sure if things are really there, or if it is your imagination that creates them. ‘I like the way’, Schweigman (1974) told me earlier. ‘in which an audience can experience a different reality in which they must let go of their certainties. From this letting go one can learn.’
Tussen is a typical Boukje Schweigman performance: she creates an experience by inserting bodies in a certain space and tries to convey the feeling of this space to the audience. In other performances she confronted her performers with a large wall that could fold into different angles and in doing so created different spaces and also different emotions (Hoek), or she would place them in the space between the moving wings of a lying windmill, so the performers where challenged to cope with an ever faster moving space to perform within (Wiek). As a former student of the Amsterdam School for Mime Theatre, and influenced by Enrique Vargas, director of the Colombian group Teatro de los Sentidos, the relation between performer and a certain space, and the experience this relations brings to her audience is Schweigmans most important artistic point of departure. ‘This physical existence of a body in space is very important to me’, Schweigman says. ‘The body is the basis for our existence. We experience the world with it. It houses a soul – or what you call it -, it does everything I want it to do. That is a kind of miracle, but at the same time touches the realm of life and death. But most people take this miracle for granted. Theatre for me is a place where I can ask questions about this body, about its physical existence.’
In her performances she takes time to ask those questions. They are often slowly paced so the audience can concentrate on small details that would otherwise be missed. Placing the audience into the same theatrical space as the performers, instead of at a distance in a darkened auditorium stimulates this concentration further. At the beginning of Tussen the audience is guided through darkened hallways and staircases, before entering a dimly lit space in which the performers keep appearing and disappearing between the audience members. Schweigman: ‘This rite-de-passage from daily life to the performance, which can be found in almost all of my performances, is very important to me. I want the audience to let go of their normal theatre-going certainties, because I want them to stop thinking rationally. By letting go, by opening their selves and their bodies up to new possibilities the performance offers, you are able to receive the performance in a different way. And because this uncertain situation has duration, it forces the audience to find a way to cope with it, to attach their own meaning to it. Some people stand in the dark and think “Help, I don’t want to be here”, and yet another thinks “How nice and cosy”. I don’t tell the audience what to feel. I manipulate space in a way to create an experience which can be different for everybody.’
To be able to manipulate space in the way she needs, she always works in close collaboration with Theun Mosk, her set designer. When she has the idea to do something with a windmill, Mosk designs one for her. Because Mosk is a more rational artist than Schweigman, the collaboration with him forces her to give her first intuitive ideas a more concrete, theatrical frame.
Schweigman’s performances are seemingly simple. They tell no stories. They are what they are: performers who try to cope with an object in space. ‘I don’t want to tell a story: an angle is an angle, a wing of mill is just the wing of a mill. If I place an object and a performer in an empty space, it creates an opportunity to really look at it. To see what it really looks like. But to really see, you need concentration and you need time. Two things which don’t come naturally these days.’ The search for really seeing, for concentration and for time is what binds her generation of Dutch directors. ‘We all feel that really seeing, to have attention for things, to really experience something is important. Therefore my generation is looking for silence, for a way to slow down time in their performances.’
Together with other directors of her generation Schweigman feels that in this world where everything is mediatised, there is also a strong need for a lot of people to meet each other face to face. And that theatre is a great place to create a meeting. ‘Ours is a world full of media hypes. Of televisionscreens everywhere. Theatre is diametrically opposed to this, which makes it an interesting form. It is a meeting between you and me, and I can look you in the eye.’ The fact that her generation asks the audience to experience themselves, the other and the world in a concentrated way, makes their theatre political, Schweigman thinks. ‘We don’t use theatre to tell the audience what is wrong with the world. They can find that out for themselves, when they are reading their newspaper. We come with a solution. We show that you can let go of your fears, that you can ask who you are, that you can open up for the other, that you can be curious.’ This is also a difference to an older generation of theatremakers, Schweigman thinks, which are much more convinced of their own normative worldview that they try to convey in their shows. ‘But the post-modern generation has learned that there is no truth. Every worldview is temporary and will be proved wrong someday. Our generation does believe we can give meaning, but we don’t believe in forcing the other to think in the same way.’ That is why it is so important to Schweigman that she creates a situation in which every audience member can discover its own personal experience of the collectively shared performance. ‘Don’t blame the others, but take responsibility for your own actions, confront yourself. Think by yourself: do I act in a way I would like the world to be? But I can’t deny that that also is a form of ideology, some form of post-post modernism’, she admits laughing.
But still, she thinks, theatre is important, especially in this time, when conservatism is on the rise and the racist politician Geert Wilders is very popular in the election polls for his crusade against Islam. ‘Because the human body is the starting point and every body has a body, my performances are about universal questions. Who am I? What is it that makes me and the other human? Eventually we are all the same. I invite people in my performances to cross borders, to let go, to face their fears. I want them to let go of those fears and create a positive experience. It is not a surprise that people like Wilders are opposed to art, because he doesn’t want people to face and overcome their fears. He needs this culture of fear for the other. It frightens me that a lot of people have too little self reflection to confront their fear and their prejudices. And that we don’t look more often inside ourselves to ask: who am I?’
More information on Schweigman here.