Friday, 5 December 2014

Arachne: swinging between actions and emotions

Building up to our "Morphing in progress" showing on 28th November, I felt uncertain of my choice of episode and unsettled by the difficulties it presented. I had picked the tale of Arachne - I really like this story, it feels so simple and yet in its simplicity it manages to evoke so many issues that remain relevant today (e.g., authority, creativity, skill, recognition, and how society operates with/around/against those notions) :
Arachne, a talented weaver, finds herself refusing to pledge allegiance to Minerva, goddess  of crafts, who seems to think that as a goddess, she ought to be thanked by Arachne for having such skilled hands. A weaving competition ensues, where Minerva and Arachne each produce a tapestry. Minerva chooses to depict the gods in all their splendour, and Arachne depicts the gods in all their turpitudes evoking scenes of transformations where gods turn themselves into animals to seduce mortals. Minerva, shocked, berates Arachne, who, in despair, hangs herself. Taking "pity" on Arachne, Minerva sprinkles her with powder provided by Hecate and turns her into a spider so that Arachne can keep weaving for the rest of her life - her and her descendants after her.
I picked this story for a number of reasons amongst which are the following :
  • previously I had only been characterising males (Lycaon, Daedalus, and Icarus) and I wanted to try myself out at a more familiar gender (!)
  • the story involved more characters than the previous ones, and two different "levels" of storytelling: the story between Minerva and Arachne, but also the stories evoked by each of their tapestries (which I heavily edited, as Ovid evokes 24 rapes in his description of Arachne's tapestry)
  • these stories were more easily defined by the actions that unfold than the previous stories I had worked on. 
This last point proved to be a sticky point. For Lycaon and Daedalus & Icarus I had first relied on their internal states and on their feelings to tell their stories, and then I devised corresponding actions (and for Icarus for instance it took some time before I was able to make him do things that felt right, that felt like him). Here, for Arachne and Minerva, the actions were so very clear that they imposed themselves to me. It seemed obvious that, for weaving, I had to use ballet for both of my main protagonists - in contrast with my Lycaon who had a butoh quality, and to my Daedalus & Icarus who had each their own physical space and texture. The pointed feet, the crisp shapes, and the stylised flowing movements of the ballet vocabulary had to be my choice for this story of weaving.
So the layering that first concerned me in rehearsals was that of adopting a specific texture or body quality for each character, and that whilst they were both undertaking the same activity, weaving, denoted by balletic vocabulary. And that somehow got me stuck in the realm of actions.
The lovely 15th century woodcut illustration below describes quite accurately the elements of action I had latched upon to spin Arachne's tale.
A crucial dimension that was missing was the emotional dimension (which is ironic, provided that I turned to Jung for my two previous pieces!). Why was Minerva so angry? And why was Arachne so desperate as to hang herself?

In a sense, Gustave Doré's evocation of Arachne in his illustration of Dante's Purgatorio represents what I was missing. Doré's depiction of Arachne oozes sadness and despair, without any hint as to what might have happened to her to get her there. What happened to her however is all in the woodcut illustration which in turn doesn't seem to convey much emotion.
Arachne in Dante's Purgatorio - by Gustave Doré
"Pur 12 aracne". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Luckily, thanks to various discussions with Marie-Louise, Malcolm, and Susie, I was able to identify this important lacuna before the showing. 
I had to rectify my course and strike the right balance between the descriptive of the woodcut that almost spells out the whole narrative and the emotional of the Doré illustration.
Intriguingly, that sends us back to our character-emotion-action warm-ups... It's almost as if I had concentrated so much on the characters and their actions that I had all but forgotten about the emotions. In the end, based on the reactions from the audience, it seems that I did bring an emotional dimension to my performance and that it got through. 
I did feel Minerva's anger, her authority threatened by a nobody.  I also felt Arachne's despair, her sentiment of injustice, of being denied her own voice.

And I couldn't have done it without Malcolm's fabulous sounds. As the sequence of interventions of the characters was more complex, I instinctively concentrated more on the actions in order to not loose track of who comes next and doing what - but Malcolm's music was always there to, in turns, provide hints, support, provoke all the three (character, emotion, action) dimensions that we wanted to convey.  
In any case - that was yet another fascinating discovery and I'll have to keep working at it. 
I can't wait till we get back into the studio!