The Kantor Lecture: A Naive Overview

Feature in Issue 17-2 | Summer 2005

Meanwhile, there are mutterings from the back of the class – Kantor virgin Richard Cuming reflects on the lecture.

Memory plays strange tricks. Of course I’ve heard of Kantor, I’d even seen film clips of his work, but I can’t remember when or in what circumstances. His work has been a vague background hum to my own performance and research. I’m not an expert. So when David Gothard, who gave the first ever Total Theatre Lecture to a packed and expectant ICA audience, began by showing five minutes of Kantor at work, I definitely remembered that I had seen The Dead Class in Edinburgh, when, of course, I hadn’t. (Aside: Maybe Kantor would have appreciated that.)

Actually, I lie – Joseph Seelig, director of the Mime Festival, introduced David Gothard, director of Riverside Studios in its 1980s heyday, and responsible for bringing Tadeusz Kantor, amongst others, to the UK. He then introduced the lecture, then immediately afterwards Jonathan Holloway (ex-director of Watch This Space at the National Theatre, now director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival) reintroduced him and the lecture, stressing that David had been asked to be provocative and shocking; David Gothard then took the floor and straightaway said that his brief was not to give a lecture on Kantor but to be provocative and shocking, in his words ‘give a kick up the bum to visual performance’. (Aside: All very Kantorian – or should that be Kantoresque?)

So what was this ‘kick up the bum’? Well, it was difficult to tell. My reading was that the two main threads that Gothard explored were that current visual and physical performance has lost its creative and artistic purity. The pictorial and sentimental has taken over from the urgent, vital and spiritual. If memory serves (aside: Hmm, memory) he said at one point, ‘Soul is at the root of the history of visual theatre’. There was a harking back to a golden age of ‘visual’ theatre, of which Kantor was a main exponent. The other practitioners in this canon were Appia, Craig, Artaud, Grotowski, Copeau and Meyerhold. Notice anything about this list? (Aside: They’re all European chaps – no chap-esses. As you know, Craig was British but you get my gist...)

The second main thread was that Current performance, here Jerry Springer The Opera, was, in particular, consigned to outer darkness – is only discussed in relation to the media hype surrounding it. The media illustrate everything.

To further investigate these concerns, the excursus into Kantor did cover his work with Cricot 2 in particular, in which Gothard pointed out that most of the group’s performers were well-known visual artists and not theatre trained actors. He emphasised Kantor’s love of the popular in performance. He cited Dan Leno, circus and puppets as an influence on the work and explored this in the context of a binary between high and low forms rather than a synthesis. A further strand of Kantor’s work was the need for the purity of the performance space. The entire space for performance must be right. These analyses were all interesting and, if further pursued, would have provided an excellent overview of Kantor’s work, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about his place, if any, in visual theatre. It is a pity that the nostalgic ‘things were better then’ agenda was brought into the lecture at all.

OK, OK I hold up my hands and admit that I’m attempting to paraphrase a complex, at times poetic, provocative (here we are again) and deeply felt argument expressed in an elliptical fashion. It wasn’t clear whether this was deliberate, nor was the occasional elision of terms helpful. As one of the questioners pointed out, there is a difference between Theatre and Performance, which Gothard tended to use as identical. Moreover, running through the lecture was a sort of universalism, a lack of recognition of social and cultural differences

This was serious and earnest stuff, and I so much wanted a Gaulier or even a neo-Barthist to stand up and ask, ‘Excuse me, but where is the pleasure in all this?’ (Aside: I could have done this! But I didn’t. I don’t know why, bit overwhelmed by the event perhaps.)

What’s more, it’s important to recognise that the centre has exploded; that many practitioners are in a process of becoming. There is (perhaps) a chaotic searching, an occasional synthesis, a rethinking and re-energising.

We do, of course, have Kantor (amongst others – not all of them European chaps) and by extension David Gothard to thank for this.

All paintings by Kantor, property of the Tadeusz Kantor Estate/ Maria Stangret-Kantor and Dorota Krakowska. They can be viewed at an online exhibition curated by Marzenna Donajski

Referenced Artists
Referenced Festivals

This article in the magazine

Issue 17-2
p. 25