Blood and Guts at the 59th Avignon Festival

Feature in Issue 17-4 | Winter 2005

The main Avignon Festival – the ON – hosts the experimental, the provocative – and this year it really did provoke.

My hook for making it to this year's Festival was Jan Fabre's piece Histoire des Larmes. It was the main show this year, as Fabre was 'artiste associée' – the curator of the programme. Each year a different artist is invited – next year it's performer-choreographer Josef Nadj.

Histoire des Larmes was billed as the large-scale version of his earlier Crying Body, which I'd seen at De Singel in Antwerp last September. De Singel is a 200 seat civic theatre and I thought then that the leap from that space to Avignon's 1600 seat open-air courtyard in the Palais des Papes was going to be difficult.

General opinion, public and press, was that it didn't quite work. Fabre's strength is in physicality and imagery. For some reason in Histoire des Larmes he introduced a narrator figure, the 'chevalier', who had long speeches talking about the future of man, and rather more obscure narration about knights, battles and souls. There were some great grand-opera scale sequences of manic physical action, with four huge kettledrums, a harp and over twenty performers. Glass containers were everywhere, literally. In one sequence the naked performers hold this glassware under their arms, between their legs, on their heads, while others wipe the sweat from their skin before replacing the glass again. Each of these cloths was gradually pinned high up on the back wall of the courtyard creating a kind of pointillist tapestry. But towards the end of the piece the tapestry began to spell out the letters SOS, and right at the end, filled in the words to read: Save Our Souls. What I presume Fabre intended as some kind of desperately charged manifesto turned instead into something disappointingly literal. Je Suis Sang (I Am Blood), the piece he made for an earlier Avignon Festival, was also performed here, and this was altogether more assured, more chaotic, and, without all the words, so much more powerful. There is a great Dionysian moment with large containers of wine spilling everywhere while naked (again) performers run, slide, hurl themselves all over the Courtyard stage. For Fabre, liquids and the body are an obsession – blood, sweat, urine, tears. When he talks about the interior of the body he means the visceral, not mental, sinews.

Marina Abramovic presented Brutal Education, a selection of solo work by students from her international Performance Group, a lecture, and, at the Salle Benoit XII, her own show Biography Remix, directed by Michael Laub. This is a touring spectacle, which she updates for each showing. It begins with her standing suspended thirty feet or so above the stage floor, holding two live snakes. After a while some chunks of meat are thrown from the wings and two very large Dobermann, dogs pad on and start to eat. It is physically unnerving; an amazing piece of theatre. She re-enacts some of her well-known moments live, including the bow and arrow performance. To watch this, let alone perform it, is an exercise in mind-body control. A man (the son of former lover and collaborator Ulay, it turns out) is literally holding Abramovic's life in his hands. If this isn't enough, she brings on one of her student performers to take her place, and a girl has the tip of a metal arrow inches from her throat (she is smaller than Marina so it doesn't aim at her heart). To feel the tension you have to be there, which is the whole point, of course. Abramovic never speaks, but a text narrates the piece on a scrolling LED screen at each side of the stage (one in French and the other in English). At the end, she is sitting alone, and the words are running by some of her life events, and finally 'Avignon July 2005' appears – she looks at the audience, smiles and it ends. Sounds sentimental, but for some reason it was extremely moving. A virtuoso moment of theatre-presence and performance.

Giselle Vienne, at 29 one of the youngest artists in the main Festival, presented Une Belle Enfant Blonde / A Young Beautiful Blonde Girl. It was performed at another of Avignon's lush theatre spaces, the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs (a 14th Century chapel converted into a state-of-the-art performance space). In it, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, better known as a creator of erotic spectacle or 'théâtre intime’, plays a dominant Madame figure that hints at a range of sadomasochistic goings on behind gauze drapes. Meanwhile on stage are five life-size girl dolls. Dancer Anja Rottgerkamp performs naked and blindfolded. Again more tension, but this time somehow neither in the head or the body, but in the space itself. Understated and kept as taut as possible, it all got a bit too much for some of the (sell-out) audience.

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