Taking Sides

Our arbitrary associations to history and its relative authority in the pursuit of predictability can sometimes leave behind a bitter aftertaste of disgust, even discontent and anxiety similar to bouts of insecurity that visit any creative process. The consequences of which are rarely documented, nor reconsidered until much later when hindsight is already mute and inconsequential–the moment when history is already written with or without objections. The consequences of which are often overlooked in favor of the magnanimous reputation of artistic genius. Or not, such as the case of the ‘alternatives’ who have haphazardly earned a place among the emergent by the sheer claim of marginality; conveniently manipulating its very charm and political correctness. One that, frankly speaking, borders on nothing else but excessive self-aggrandizement even on indulgent un/necessary confessionals that the public secretly clamors for and hesitantly rejects. Only now, unlike then, confessions can no longer rely on a foolproof idiot’s checklist of transgressions so neatly categorized according to an accurate nomenclature.

Not that things are more complex, nowadays, nor are they any simpler, but the numbing tolerance for plurality bestowed upon us has itself given us the precious impotent capacity to take sides. Free will is freely sold at a cheap price, if not practically free, like those consumer-friendly promo stints that make us believe in the auspicious timing of cash flow.

But there is of course nothing more gratifying and daunting than freedom. And pleasurable than indulging its possibility, (despite) knowing its impossibility. More so now, with the timely change of what many deem as a respectable government laden with the empty hope for a better if not at least, a nearly decent future. Still, what is it that really transpires when one is given the freedom to choose freely? How much of this freedom do we actually exercise or are allowed to exercise? To pose this question is almost cheeky, nostalgic, irreverent and surely irrelevant; leading to either irrational emotional arguments or a sober dead-end. So are we really free or free only insofar as the options made available to us?

The freedom to choose must have been the most beaten theme in human history and artistic actions co-opted either by propagandist claims or crass commercial liberalism. Yet it is easy to miss that any artistic process whether created in the isolation, as in the typical image of an artist-idiot savant locked in his studio or when appropriated by more relevant social agendas involve the same process of weighing—of making decisions and foreclosing other “creative options.” The theater is about making decisions; beforehand during the production of the work or in the production itself, re-enacted every minute exactly the way it was.

This was exactly the crucial point of Anything Less is Less Than A Reckless Act; to strip down the spectacle of a dance or theater performance into one of the most basic elements of creation – making and enacting choices. While it may immediately seem that continuing to ponder on theater and performance, and its machinery may be a tad to dull, stubbornly solipsistic or even a bit out-dated, watching and enjoying contemporary performances require a level of understanding how the operations and procedures are communicated to the audience and even the artists themselves, rather than further mystified.

But perhaps before proceeding, a haphazard but diplomatic estimation of performance and performance-making strategies current in Manila is in order, even if only provisionally, and even at the risk of oversimplifying overlaps in stylistic tendencies and historical agendas.  Generally speaking there are two orientations that exist in the Manila performing arts landscape. The first one, which is the dominant stream of performance practice, is quite easy to recognize, not only are they more common, easily accessible and visible, but they do not demand much from the audience. It is enough to sit and be entertained. It’s quite simple: the choreographer or dancer gets an idea or inspiration, tinkers around with it “creatively,” translate it into some aesthetic/artsy dance or movement sequence with a few acrobatics (of course) typically accompanied by music done by a local composer or as in more often the case, by an easily comprehensible piece of music either a drum-and-bass or electronica-inspired,21st century hit classical music or indie-alternative pop songs. The former is almost always the default preference, as is the easy one too, simply because no further textual and contextual work is necessary as the lyrics are conveniently weaved into the choreographic work. Fancy lighting design is also added in to complete the aesthetic experience.

The other orientation, which lies along the margin, seems to veer toward the more didactic and pedagogic, and often misconstrued as alienating, boring, “we can do that too” non-sense. Here the performance space is immediately seen as loaded with political, ideological and historical contexts that need to taken apart and examined. In such performances, the power relationship between the audience and artists are challenged, investigated if not amplified. Most of the time there is not much spectacular action happening (though not often the case). In some situations, there is only silence or minimal music, some talking, and direct confrontation and communication with the audience. These performances problematize how the distribution of significations and meaning is distributed between the viewers and doers. Here the magic of the theater is stripped bare to its possible minimum. Not much costumes, no acrobatics, simple clean lighting if ever at all. A single idea is persistently explored and often the procedures of artistic production are exposed to the audience and demystified.

Now, surely both kinds of performances offer specific experiences that should not be compared with each other. And even not all artists are self-conscious to make deliberate steps towards aesthetic orientations. But sometimes during the process one has to learn to pick a side, pick a direction and pursue it full stop because the integrity of any artistic and creative process lies in the capacity to make decisions and persistently commit to it until the end, even if the end may seem to be a failure, even if one already thinks they know what will happen.

Moreover, there is no way to say whether a right or wrong decision has been made because perhaps there are no right or wrong decisions which the audience in our last show Anything Less Is Less Than a Reckless Act*, soon had to realize. Even they had to concede to the possibility that there are no right and wrong decisions, only corresponding consequences and risks. And that decision-making is not a matter of choosing what is right or wrong but deciding which risks we want to take; which ones we could stand to live with at the present moment while foregoing the anticipation of the future. The moment of performance after all takes place not on the stage, neither inside the hall where the lecture unfolds but in the irreducible gaps of perception, in the actuality of the event, and in the possibility of experiencing different kind of connection and disconnection. The real performance is not the ‘product’ that we see in front of us but in, what I shall borrow from choreographer Xavier Le Roy’s work, ‘product of circumstances.’

Anything is less than a reckless act is a solo lecture-performance project produced by The Lovegangsters and presented in cooperation with the French Embassy in Manila at PETA Theater Center, 15 June 2010.