Betwixt-and-between – what happens when boundaries blur
Last week, Dying Together, a performance created by the Dutch theatre maker Lotte van den Berg and her collective Third Space, received its Belgian première at the Brussels festival Performatik.
Van den Berg is no stranger to Performatik. In the 2017 edition of the festival, together with Daan ’T Sas, she presented Building Conversation, a series of performances in which participants practice a conversation technique, each time from a different viewpoint. The theatre maker’s work seeks to reveal the relationships between people, to show them from an anomalous perspective or even to actively change them. The performances of Van den Berg and Third Space are “rehearsal spaces” or “spaces for encounters” where social connections are brought to the surface and challenged.
In her most recent work, Dying Together, it is not the conversation that determines relationships between people, but death, as the title suggests. You, and a hundred participants, (re)experience three disasters that cost many lives: the 2015 crash Germanwings flight 2925 in 2015, in which co-pilot Andreas Lubitz flew the plane into the French Alps, killing all 149 passengers, the terrorist attack on the Paris nightclub Bataclan and, last of all, the first major boat disaster off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa in October 2013. These are moments of collective death, which we first experience as ‘sensational’ media events. However, when “brought to life” live, the events evoke something else.
As is always the case in van den Berg’s work, the intention is for us to try to relate to each other and to a given situation, in this case the disasters, together. How we do that is largely determined by the dramaturgy, which is based on a “positioning technique”, also known as “systemic family therapy”, an approach used in psychotherapy. In a session, the therapist asks a family member or member of an organisation to position people in the group (usually strangers) throughout the space to “represent” members of his family or organisation. The representatives may then move through the space, according to how they perceive the story that the (family) member shares about his environment. This gives the therapist insights into how the patient sees the social fabric he is part of, and brings to light the static-dynamic relationships between people.
Van den Berg prefers the term ‘constellations’ to ‘positions’ because of the association with stars. She mentions this at the beginning of the piece, once the audience members have taken their place on the empty stage of the Kaaitheater. Each person is given a prologue to read, a text in which we talk about the togetherness that may arise from collective death, however traumatic it may be. The fates of those who died in a disaster are forever entwined, even though they were strangers before the event. This unexpected connection may sometimes also assume a literal form, as in the case of the Germanwings incident when the passengers’ DNA intermingled to create a new genetic code.
After reading the text, a group of performers sitting among the audience carefully explains and illustrates the structure of Dying Together. Each of the three disasters will be explored in turn, and members of the audience are invited to “represent” one of the people directly or indirectly involved in the crash. You are allowed to refuse. You are also allowed to move: “If you feel the need to move, move,” we are told. In the constellation, those who were directly involved are often separated from those who were indirectly impacted. But because those affected directly and indirectly, victims and relatives, weren’t actually in the same space, but now do share the same stage, it is impossible to re-enact a literal ‘representation’ of the moments that preceded and followed the incident. But this is not the intention: participants are invited to explore spatially, and in silence, the relationships between those involved shortly before, shortly after, and a long time after the event.
This is how, three times and step by step, a constellation is made. Ultimately, every constellation, the last phase of which starts 100 years after the catastrophe, results in a comprehensive oneness in which ideally every audience member has become a direct or indirect participant, and is immersed in the whole. We are all in the constellation and are the constellation, the shape of which we ultimately determine ourselves. These mass configurations are often not the easiest way to instill empathy, because in such a large group it’s hard to remember who is who, making it difficult to form ties with others. Yet at the same time, this is its unique strength: because, a hundred years after a disaster, it is impossible to tell who is who given that relationships have shifted in the space – the literal meaning of collective death becomes again symbolic. Like the DNA of the victims of the Germanwings crash, we can no longer be differentiated from one another and have become one formless form.
The constellations shortly before and shortly after the incidents have a more direct effect, such as the configuration made up of the “dancing” concert goers in Bataclan minutes before they were mown down by three gunmen. This allows you an intense experience of what van den Berg means by togetherness, which arises from the shared weight of the meta-consciousness about imminent death. This also happens, for example, when one of the perpetrators, who is also part of this initial constellation, empathises with the situation and, overwhelmed by guilt and sorrow, feels forced to withdraw himself from the constellation. Dying Together draws its strength not from a clear, direct confrontation with human suffering, but rather from its indirect approach. The time of death itself is never “represented”. We’re not actually dying together, only relatively. We constantly compromise and manoeuvre between the tangible constellation of the community that forms on stage and the mental representation of the disaster, between direct and indirect involvement and between simultaneously depicted spaces. In that sense, the power of Dying Together is found in its DNA: in the togetherness that arises in the betwixt-and-between, in the blurring of the boundaries between spaces, times and people.
The original text in Dutch can be found here.