review extracts 1993-2004

Optik performance work 1993 – 2004

Extracts from published commentary and analysis

 

Tracey Warr

‘A Moving Meditation on a Dead Line’

Performance Research Journal

 

Jackie Smart

‘Meditations on space: talking to Optik’

Body, Space + Technology Journal

 

John Freeman

‘New Authenticity and Optik’

Total Theatre Journal

 

Sherrill Dodds

‘Optik Twice Over’

Dance Theatre Journal

 

John Keefe

‘Spatial Tracks in Optik’

Total Theatre Journal

 

Ann Nugent

OPTIK at Sadler’s Wells

The Stage

 

Patricia Benecke

Theater Heute

 

Jack Brook

Performance Practice Journal

 

 

 

from: Tracey Warr ‘A Moving Meditation on a Dead Line’

 

Moving. Going. In October 2001 I went with UK performance group, Optik, to Sao Paulo, Brazil (Edwards, 2003). Optik explore moving. And

walking

running

colliding

rocking

falling

rolling

laying

standing

sitting

seeing

looking

listening

feeling

focusing

waiting

deciding

being

stopping.

 

Walking. Taking a line for a walk. The three Optik performers walk and run in straight lines with Brazilian students in dance studios in Sao Paulo and Campinhas. Their lines are moving sculpture in space. They make fleeting connections and collaborations. They fill a space, a void, gaps, with their moving. They fall into entrainment – walking or running together. They mirror each other. They lay down on the spot where someone else has just stood up. They walk to an internal rhythm – a body clock. They invade or do not invade invisible territories – body space, in your face. They do not go backwards. They do not waver from their straight line. No circling, serpentining or wriggling. I sit on the floor watching, their static recorder. Grounded.

If Optik encounter an obstacle on the line they are moving along – a wall or another body – they may walk or run on the spot, they may embrace the obstacle, they may fall down, they may turn and take their line another way and if it is a body, they may push the obstacle off their trajectory and continue or they may continue with the obstacle – the body – attached. They may stop.

 

Enacting. Carving one reality from the myriad potentials. The mental energy it takes to do anything, go anywhere. Optik’s presence in Brazil, for instance, results from the conjunction of the mental energies of the company’s director, Barry Edwards, who is actively seeking such connection, Renato Cohen, the Brazilian teacher who invites us and myself. Wilfully I create the critical mass of belief that carries us there.

 

Continuing. Anarchic lines of revellers follow carnival floats in Sao Paulo, progressing, processing, shuffling, whirling, dancing. Ravers trance dance and resonate to music that mimics and amplifies the rhythms, thumps and shudderings of the body. Losing consciousness in movement. One of the Optik performers actually suffers from narcolepsy. Stopped abruptly in mid-sentence, mid-consciousness. Falling to the floor and slumping in a chair, dreaming and moving down streets in sleep like a dog dreaming and twitching its limbs through a dream park. Slipping in and out of consciousness. The stream of consciousness interrupted by sleep or a collapse into unconsciousness. Driving around Sao Paulo at 4am sliding in and out of jetlagged stupor, images of broad avenues, high architecture, topless prostitutes flickering through indistinguishable reality or dream.

 

Deciding. Deciding where to draw the line. If the Optik performers stop moving they must decide when to move again. What is the genesis of movement? The precise moment that is the origin of action, the impulse to movement. It is a key point of transition between two polar states of performing, between the desire to move and the desire to rest, between energy conservation and the expenditure of energy (Edwards, 2003). The performers try to strip away the usual factors involved in deciding about moving – habit, patterns, aesthetic, rhythm. They try to respond ‘unconsciously’ – with reflex, urges, temptations, responses, mirroring, entrainment, trajectory, proximity. Everyday interactions, movements and decisions are amplified. I started working with intuitive performer actions …. I moved into … elemental areas, just working with people, in space, in time…. But being simple is not at all easy…. Engagement in action is a matter of decision, to move or not to move, continuum of potential moments. In this dynamic arena, which is an inner space, the performer can attempt to wait. At this liminal waiting moment, which is a simultaneous experience of movement potential and rest the body appears, not as an image but as an immediate and felt presence (Edwards, 2003).

 

Waiting. Waiting for a sense of when to move and what to do. The performer is both stopping and moving, both the still centre of experience and the origin of action. When exploring the next moment, the performer is also in the present moment (of action). The performer must not leave the present action to anticipate some future one …. the performer must transform one action (the present one) into another one (the next one) (Edwards, 2003). There is an anxiety of the actions of others in relation to yourself, an anxiety of stasis, a pressure from spectators to act, to resolve the tension of waiting with action. The performers patiently hold emptiness and inaction, waiting. The difficulty of continuing to wait when there is no perceived physical reason not to move, only cultural consent. The difficulty is not so much fear of legal consequence or cultural disapproval. The difficulty is that moving and bodily actions are on the cusp between entirely unconscious somatic actions – the heart beating, the lungs breathing, the stomach digesting – and potential actions that arrive in the conscious mind requiring attention – thought and decision. When we live in a city our navigation of other people, obstacles, routes and traffic becomes a bodily habituation. After practice this moving sinks out of consciously directed action and into the body, into reflex. The body runs on its own well-worn grooves and ruts. An Optik performer is running on the spot, nose up against the wall.

 

The Optik performances make emotions, moods, body chemistry, visible. In the dance studio the relationship between space and performer is stark – there are four walls, the floor, the ceiling, the lighting, sounds, other moving bodies. In Kompanhia Theatre Optik transgress spatial conventions – they go through doorways, they disappear from view but their footsteps can still be heard, performing invisibly. A performer sits next to a woman in the audience and stares neutrally. She stares back, laughs, breaks away from the stare, reconnects, laughs. The performer waits patiently. Am I an actor? A dancer? An object? Or just a projected image? Or shadow? Standing in front of an audience of strangers, of inquisitive/smiling or confused/angry faces? Seeking contact, connection (and disconnection) with other people. It seems like possibilities are endless. When asked what I do in Optik I do not know! I am there, looking for something, some moment, for the audience and myself (Simon Humm, Optik performer cited in Edwards, 2003). The performers’ images travel down a phone line and are performing simultaneously on a screen in London and reappearing re-represented, well travelled, fuzzy at the edges on a screen in Sao Paulo that they sometimes halt in front of and watch. A commodius vicus of recirculation. Listening. They are performing to live music being relayed down the phone line from London, the image of the musician flickering on a screen. The sound is intermittent and uneven as it travels down the dodgy internet connection. The performers, electronic sound and image, are flowing round the space, round the audience, round each other, round the world.

 

Walking. Optik perform in Praca de Se, Sao Paulo – a vast crowded busy open rectangle in front of the steps of the high Cathedral. The three performers walk and run and stand along their lines carving a performance in the gulf and confusion of this street space. People go about their business, walking momentarily with ladders, buckets, pushchairs or briefcases alongside or through the performance – real life intersecting with art. Or the people form into curves of audience, moving and meandering along the invisible frame that is created around the performance. Hot, heavy air moves around us all, almost visible. Being about energy I have chosen to work in parts of the world where energy (from people) is abundant and freely shared or given; former Soviet countries, as well as North Africa and Brazil. We give back, but also crucially tap in to that energy (which sometimes seems lacking in the UK performance scene) (Edwards, 2003). After the workshops of Optik lines we are given gifts by our Brazilian hosts. In Sao Paulo we are given and join a circling dance. In Campinhas we join a Capoeira masterclass and at the end of the class we stand in a tight ring shoulder to shoulder with the Master soothing us, closing our eyes, leaning my whole body weight in trust against my left neighbour as my right neighbour leans theirs on me. Ringsome.

 

Stopping. The full stop. Optik must eventually stop performing although there is no particular reason to do so. Going on a journey we try to ‘finish everything’ before we go. Writing to a dead-line. I must eventually stop chipping at potential realities, stop thinking, reading, writing and complete, finish, close. End. Start. Life,

 

 

 

from: Jackie Smart ‘Meditations on space: talking to Optik’

 

Early this year, I spent some time with Optik while they were creating their production Space for the Camden Centre, a large Art Deco civic hall. Performed on 18th and 19th February, Space involved 6 performers (the largest number in an Optik production to date) working with a sound and a video artist. Given that Optik’s work is improvisatory and relies very heavily on the performers’ interactions, the space I was particularly interested in exploring was that between the performers themselves. I hoped to discover more about the company’s creative process through observation of their informal interactions and discussions during rehearsals. Optik allowed me to record their rehearsal and post-performance discussions during January and February.

 

Listening to Optik talk about what they had just experienced in a rehearsal, a run, a performance, I often got the sense that their conception of it was evolving as they spoke. As you will see in the video clips, a lot of what is said is not, in a linguistic sense, coherent or articulate, but it is, in an expressive sense, eloquent. People’s utterances are peppered with hesitations, ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, which represent a search for the right word or phrase. Often a particularly thorny debate will be abandoned and then revisited at a later point, as if time is needed for linguistic comprehension to percolate. The terms of Optik’s shared vocabulary, those by which they define their creative world, are developed slowly and with some difficulty. This difficulty is actually fundamental to understanding both process and performance.

 

What we see in an Optik performance is a series of negotiations undertaken between performers in the moment. When a performer makes an improvisational ‘offer’, they do not know whether it will be accepted, refused or somehow developed or transformed. They do not even know for sure that it will be understood. There are moments of harmony, moments of conflict and moments of confusion or misinterpretation. The discussions shown here reflect that pattern of negotiation and thus include miscommunication and argument as well as agreement. The interactivity of the discussion mirrors the interactivity of the performance, it is a process of trying to communicate and understand each other – as is the performance – and, as such, it is developmental, multiple and in flux.

 

The process of negotiation I observed was often conflicted and included uncertainty and insecurity. The tensions generated in performance are reflected in discussion, but the openness is too. My perception of the company’s creative process is that of a series of questions asked, in public, to which no definite answers are previously assumed. This is, for the audience, part of the work’s appeal. It places the performers in a dangerous place, one where they risk exposure. We, as audience members, watch them seek their resolution. We are voyeurs, looking inside a very intimate process in which individuals must respond directly to each other on a personal level, without benefit of character or any predetermined narrative to lean on or hide behind. Such work demands and creates mutual openness and trust between the performers and the fact that they were so willing to allow me to record their informal conversations is an indication of the underlying confidence they have in their work, which underpins, indeed enables, their forceful and rigorous interrogation of their own creative process.

 

A discussion revolves around the negotiation of an improvisatory principle. What is at issue is, on the face of it, something relatively simple – the number of ‘actions’ that should be allowed to occur in performance at any one time. Barry’s concern is with the structural dynamic of the piece and his own position is itself conflicted. On the one hand, with these five performers, the principle of not introducing a third action is ‘working’ because it is having the effect of moving the performance along at a good pace. On the other, he is concerned about the fact that the tendency of the absent performer to walk for long stretches of time might slow the pace of the transitions from action to action if this principle is sustained. The performers’ uncertainty about this principle is revealing. Were there more than two actions taking place or not? Does standing still count as an ‘action’? Does it count as an action in some contexts and not others? For some the flexibility of the principle is acceptable, for others, the lack of definition creates insecurity. The references to ‘picking up on someone’s act’ reveal another area of confusion. Does this create strength or is it just ‘imitating’, and is imitating too much like ‘acting’? There are disagreements on all these points and these are not finally resolved at this stage, but rather, left open for further exploration.

 

Alison and Jennifer struggle to reach a form of expression which can accommodate their very different perspectives on what has occurred in performance. It is not easy for them to balance the personal factors that affected their responses to one another’s actions with their reflective understanding of the dynamic of the run as a whole, which evolves as the discussion progresses. They initially perceive their miscommunication in performance as a problem, but as the debate continues, the company realises that it need not necessarily be interpreted in this way. Barry recognises that some degree of conflict between the performers is necessary, that their dilemmas and difficult choices are interesting to the audience. He introduces the idea of a metaphorical ‘either, or’, rather than a definite resolution (the performers can either ‘pass the baton’ or pursue the challenge, ‘you run, you bastard’). Hannah’s comment that it ‘would never cross [her] mind’ to consciously think in terms of rules during a performance is telling in this context. The discussion enables the performers to understand that the ‘rules’ are always in process and always contextual and that this is part of what gives the performance its risk factor. They are the performance – and they have to continually negotiate the ground between the self in the moment and the performance over time.

 

Two separate phases of discussion both took place after the first performance of Space at the Camden Centre, but there was a ten minute gap between Jerry’s original description of his ‘memorable moment’ and Barry’s return to the topic.

 

This returns us to the question of context. Jerry’s description of his ‘moment’ is hesitant, questioning and full of qualifications, as if he is uncertain about whether his analysis will be acceptable to the rest of the group. In reaching for a way of describing his experience, he is articulating his own understanding of it, but he is also very ready to accept that this is not necessarily a shared understanding. Rather than being unitary and discreet, the performance is multiple – made up of different, sometimes contrasting perspectives – and also built up in layers over time. There is an indication here too of how a certain level of tension between performers fuels the work. Jerry’s description of his long spin is characterised as a ‘fight’, from which his side (Hannah and Jennifer) ‘defected’, abandoning him. He is not shy of revealing his own somewhat aggressive response to this, (‘right, I can do this for as long as I like.’) As an audience member, watching this moment in performance, I found it exciting. It was evident that the other performers were tired and that Jerry was, to use Barry’s phrase from earlier, deliberately, ‘pushing’ them. In the discussion, Hannah laughs at Jerry’s turn of phrase, perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that this is something familiar. In earlier rehearsal conversations, she had shown something of the same feisty impulse, laughingly describing some of her own quarrelsome responses to her co-performers’ improvisational overtures.

 

The, I believe, illustrates the deep level of mutual understanding which underpins the kind of open debate. Before the performance at the Camden Centre began, while the audience were finding their seats at the tables set out around the periphery of the hall, as the performers were walking around the edges of the space or greeting friends, a young boy, who had come in with his parents, started to run around the performance area. He slid across the floor on his stomach, lay on his back, rolled, ran into the ‘offstage’ area behind the screens, called out as he ran with his arms out like an aeroplane. He swiftly discovered that his movements were being captured, transformed and projected, which encouraged him to experiment further. The young boy’s actions set the performance in a particular context. I, for one, could not help but watch the consequent performance with his ‘play’ in mind, the freedom and exuberance of it, his unrestrained delight in exploring every dimension of the space. His excitement in this pre-performance stage contrasted with his evident boredom during the performance itself, which seemed to stem largely from the fact that he wanted to get up and join in, or at least to interact with the performers, but was told by his embarrassed parents to stay still and be quiet.

 

At one point during the performance, Jerry stood directly in front of this little boy and held his gaze. Simon’s and Jerry’s rueful understanding that the child would ‘always win’ demonstrates a profound understanding of what Optik’s work is all about. In seeking to “strip away the usual factors involved in deciding about moving – habits, patterns, aesthetic, rhythm” and thereby to “respond unconsciously” (Warr, 2003: 133), they are attempting to recover the freedom of the child-self (‘we’d better enter his world’), but recognise that they can do so only in negotiation with the adult- self which they now are. When Jerry uses the word “upstaging”, everyone laughs, accepting that, while this is not a part of the normal Optik vocabulary, it is a part of the deeper theatre vocabulary Optik wish to interrogate and challenge. This is no easy aim: they are working against their own earlier training, as well as against some deeply embedded audience expectations. Optik’s work is challenging in a very real sense: in challenging their audience, the company also challenge themselves as individuals, they challenge each other and they continually challenge and develop their own structural ‘rules’. Their verbal discussions reveal this on-going process in ways which demonstrate its multiplex, intricate and profoundly interactive nature.

 

 

from: John Freeman ‘New Authenticity and Optik’

 

OPTIK use no high-tech equipment (no video screens here) yet this creates a focus of almost Grotowskian proportions, with the essential dynamics of time, space and human contact re-examined through a forward seeing eye. OPTIK’s essentially textless performance is concerned with creating a series of loaded moments, each of which is but one of a potentially limitless variety of possibilities, the spatial, physical and connotative ramifications of which are interpreted/mediated by the individual spectators. Unencumbered by the English language split between the visual ‘spectator’ and the overtly aural ‘audience’, the French commonly refer to the witnessing of theatre as assister , and this perhaps, more so than Barba’s semantically participatory spectator is entirely relevant to the process of attending an OPTIK performance, where the viewer provides the specific frame within which the event unfolds. OPTIK’s art is at once international, European and domestic in that whoever watches is empowered to decide on and define that which is seen. OPTIK is performance which asks questions rather than proposes answers; essentially, however, the dialogue created is an internal one: to see the event is to share it, yet the only answers to the questions provoked are provided by the self. OPTIK’s work is important because it recognises, and because it releases the dynamic between the watcher and the watched in a prescribed space at a given time, nurturing the essence of theatre at the same time as it creates a performance experience as fresh and distinct from any crippling notions of Aristotelian unities as one could wish for. The work itself is not easy to discuss. The danger of distortion looms large. What can be said is that OPTIK’s is most definitely not a theatre of representation, imitation or even preordained signification. What it is amounts to the vehicle for a new and necessary authenticity; a post-semiotic performance where the improvisation (for nothing thematic is ever prescribed) flows along a current which has everything to do with truth and nothing at all to do with psychology. Not so much the trawling of emotion memory as the presentation of a sometimes emotional now. Like the viewing of a Rorschach inkblot, the work of OPTIK is at once abstract and immensely significant: a percussionist plays as two men and a woman walk, run, touch, stop, turn and lie down at will – but the word ‘will’ here is perhaps confusing. This has less to do with will than with faith in the utilisation of a highly developed performative instinct, creating an improvisation with form rather than with content. The patterns created by OPTIK are the result of the somatic intelligence of the four performers freed by the confidence of director, Barry Edwards, who stresses a fierce resistance to the director-performer-performed continuum of the usual theatre process. There is in OPTIK’s work an absolute absence of artifice, to the extent where personal process and formal articulation create a seamless blend of performance which is not so much a synthesis of form and content, as a unique exploration of the very context of performance. The result is something which appears to be ritualistic, and it is. For despite the fact (if theatre has any facts at all this is surely one of them) that degenerated ritual amounts to little more than spectacle, the important thing here is that OPTIK’s concern is with the ritual of performance rather than performance as ritual. Grotowski himself has stated that the valuable performer is a person of action as opposed to one who is able to accurately impersonate another. The austerity of OPTIK’s work, the concern with the raw, physical presence of the body – performance to the extent where art as commodity gives way entirely to art as shared event – is related to the para-theatricality of Grotowski’s post- production research. OPTIK’s work is more vital than the bulk of contemporary theatre practice on tour not simply because Edwards’ explorations cannot be found in any other company’s work, but because it is the company most concerned with (re-)discovering the quintessentiality of performance. OPTIK’s work works by means of a complete refusal to leave the experimentation in the process and the process in rehearsal; as such the company are investing the much-maligned word ‘experimental’ with a genuine authenticity and rigour not seen for many years. It is impossible to leave an OPTIK presentation without considering the points where process becomes product and work in progress stands as performance; where the presentation of self is seen as sufficient; where content, theme and meaning are subordinate to the physics of the space; where divisions between the watchers and the watched are made fragile to the point of breaking down. These questions are at the very heart of contemporary practice. No company is cutting deeper, quicker or with less compromise than OPTIK.

 

 

 

from: Sherrill Dodds ‘Optik Twice Over’

 

On a chilly Sunday evening, two men and a woman walk back and forth across a dusty floor. The space is softly lit. A large iron frame hangs from the ceiling, three perspex rectangles stand upright, and musician, surrounded by drums and other percussion instruments, sits silently in the corner. The audience, dispersed in several lines facing and adjacent to one another, are barely seated, yet the performance has inconspicuously begun.

 

We are in Union Chapel’s converted performance space, watching Optik. The performers continue walking and turning in an even paced rhythm. One of them may reduce or extend the distance of the walk, but the regular, purposeful tempo remains the same, with each 180 degrees turn precisely executed. Just as I begin to replace and glance elsewhere for alternative stimulation, I realise that one of the performers has taken up a new pathway and therefore completely altered the spatial dynamic. As other performers slowly begin to make other choices, the subtle shifts and layering of movement rhythms take on a diverse and complex texture. From what appears on the surface to be radically limited material, the subtlest of changes becomes invested with great significance – and it’s here that Optik, conceptually and theatrically, touch on the most magical of moments.

 

Prior to the performance, Optik’s director, Barry Edwards, assisted by movement director Paul Allain, had led a two-day workshop introducing selected performers, musicians, visual artist and writers to the work. The controlled use of breath and energy, so apparent in the performance, derives from Eastern mind-body movement techniques, which Edwards uses as an impetus for training sessions. In one exercise, the group was required to find a spot in space and look at it from different perspectives, taking into account peripheral vision and point of focus. Twenty minutes or so later, they were invited to ‘look at the act of looking’. Although this may seem a fairly routine drama exercise, the improvisation was played out with an intense and silent concentration, and embedded within its apparent simplicity lay a body of complex relationships. Social taboos were broken as people stared at each other, disregarded the formalities of personal space and came within millimetres of another body – or else voyeuristically surveyed someone from afar. It became an ideal forum to explore the power and politics of the gaze. Each member of the group was part of a complex interplay: between active and passive roles. Whereas the individual had some control over the former, s/he was virtually powerless to the latter, and on occasions would simultaneously be ‘the looker’ and ‘the looked at’. One performer later referred to a loss of control, or sense of absence, when someone moved out of her gaze, but a visual artist talked about the form and texture of the other bodies, underlining the objectifying potential of the gaze.

Central to this work is the question of what initiates movement, which Edwards describes as an impulse of awareness. Two women were given a task that involved walking towards or away from each other and jumping. The only permitted manipulation of these quotidian actions was through the regular characteristics of movement – the space-time-energy trinity. At first they limited their options to walking back and forth at a steady pace, and to jumping with minimum energy – creating a bland and monotonous texture. Then a man entered into the exchange, and disrupted the dynamic with vigorous and unpredictable jumps. One of the women challenged him through zealously ‘pogo-ing’ off the ground to match his height, daring to do so only inches in front of him. This was no longer simply an exercise, but an intriguing dialogue of equality, intimidation, competition and retreat.

 

 

 

 

from: John Keefe ‘Spatial Tracks in Optik’

 

Think of the piece as a spatial track. Watching Optik is to see the lines and rectangles of Mondrian, the blocks and space of Newman brought into three dimensions. A spatial text of rhythm, movement and pace where choice is played out within transparent rules. A free focused traversing of space between any two points fixed by each of the 3 performers. Choice and changes of direction are forced by the rule of avoiding collision with people or objects. No colluding with the spectators who are confronted yet invited into the narrative; spectator as the acknowledged and the ignored. Think of the piece as an aural track. A background of percussive sound fitting the movement by chance and synchronicity. The sound of feet as the performers run, trot, walk pounding the floor in their rhythms. The sound of their breathing as it rises and falls, straining with effort.

 

Think of the piece as a visual track. The spectators watch the performers – they watch each other at the same time. Our faces are the backdrop against which the patterns are played out. Sheets of freestanding perspex become a terminal point in the traverse. The framing as the performers pass to and fro in the street, past the windows, in and out of the space. The images and patterns being traced on the balcony, through the window, across the floor. We see the percussionist as the 4th performer as he creates a soundscape to match the movement around him. Think of the piece as an audit track. The formal line between spectator and performer becomes blurred as the piece is watched and absorbed. We find ourselves looking at each other. But the line remains nevertheless; those who sit as audience will always be auditing those who pace the floor. However fragile, however fluid the division or boundary between roles these remain distinct to the Nth degree. We participate by sitting in and creating the performance space as auditors – we read and interpret the images presented. We have no control over these images – we are not empowered as ‘spect-actors’ but they are our images woven in our minds out of shared energy.

 

Think then of the piece as a multi-track creation of ‘energy sites’; images and patterns formed by the watcher and watched out of the tracks as these combine, permute and entwine. Always shifting as our perspectives and perceptions shift. Here process and product are not hierarchies and chronologies but a loop of ongoing exchange. Moments of frisson as rigour and the erotic collide. Not a story but a narrative formed out of the collaborations: between tracks, being watched and watchers, between process and performance.

 

 

 

from: Ann Nugent ‘OPTIK at Sadler’s Wells’

 

If I were to try to define what Optik is about I might say ‘being’, and in doing so would land up in the mire of complexity that is properly representative of this extraordinary production by Barry Edwards. For though it has echoes of the sixties when early postmodernists were doing away with theatricality, what it tackles is first our perception of theatre and then of reality. It is alternately boring and brilliant. It is repetitive, then as the performers speed up with physical expression that is a manifestation of an inner state of being, it bounces with a resonance that affects both mind and body. Though we may yawn and look at our watches, we are also gripped by the marking out of spatial territory, by volume and density, by the play on shape, rhythm and progression, or regression.

 

Trying to analyse the movement’s detail becomes irrelevant, for the concern is with bigger ideas and bigger questioning. The eye and ear are constantly alerted to an across the arts experience. But we are required to empty our minds of the day outside and the niceties of theatricalisation, and the performers are drained of personality, and their movement separated from content. The musician with his wild percussive forays and adventures in rhythm and tone looks normal, but the three performers are determinedly cut off – but from what ? And what effect does this have on the audience ? It shows how passively we watch theatre, for at one point the walkers escaped from the central performing area (and the Lilian Baylis Theatre turned into a finely lit large studio, enhanced by metal sculptures, is so much nicer than as a theatre with raked seats) yet everyone remained mindlessly watching the space, too polite to protest. When later we spied the performers through an upper window walking in the street, in the manner of sleepwalkers, it seemed inordinately funny. But then our customary focusing had been given such a jolt.

 

 

from: Patricia Benecke ‘The Theatre of Time Space and Chance’

 

In the early 70’s Barry Edwards was already exploring the theatre of time, space and chance.   His influences : John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Grotowski, Artaud.   In the 90’s Edwards’ chosen ground is still the edge of performance. His experiments are as interesting today as they were then, only more so. At the moment no-one seems to question theatrical parameters and basic rules as boldly as he does with his current performance project: OPTIK.

 

The doors of the Lilian Baylis Studio open for business. The spectators walk along a gallery. On the same level, a row of large windows gives a view onto the street. Stairs lead down into a brightly lit space. A drum kit and groups of chairs leave wide corridors and a square space just off centre. The seating design is the first hint that no conventional theatre will take place tonight. The spectators choose a seat, look around, start quiet conversations whilst waiting. Three men and a woman enter the room almost unnoticed – more spectators? They do not sit down, but walk around leisurely. The drummer sits at his instrument. The transition to the sudden silence is almost imperceptible. Where did the impulse come from, the quiet agreement to start?

The light is unchanged, the audience does not disappear into darkness with the beginning of the show: spectator- and performance- space are not separated. This is the first violation of common theatre practice, and by no means the last.

 

The four performers Patrick Driver, Jeremy Killick, Alison Bailey, and their German guest Bruno Bachem, move with a different tension now. They have left speech behind. Instead, action comes from a deeper, sensory contact .

The technique is a movement-repertoire of “either-or” options (lie/stand/walk/run/turn 90,180,360 degrees ) and the mental rule “nothing has to, but everything CAN happen”. The driving force is impulse, internal, external, both, from drummer Simon Edgoose, from performers or from spectators. Outside of this technique nothing is choreographed, no development is planned, everything occurs in the moment.

 

Three performers slowly walk the length of the room, synchronizing their speed. They seem to cut a path of energy through space. After observing for many minutes, the fourth performer sprints across the slow lanes of the other three. Sparks fly, the four run towards and away from each other, suddenly spread out in the width of the room. Two turn at right angles, walk a corridor along the wall whilst performer no.3 runs up and down between two rows of seats. The fourth moves towards him in slow motion.

This is OPTIK. Human constellations are formed, they fall apart and form again from scratch. The performers play with all of this: with each moment, with the unpredictable, and so with the expectations of the audience. Traditions of dramatic action, narrative structure, indeed any of the recognisable Aristotelian principles – all are unceremoniously ditched by OPTIK. This work is the ultimate “open text”.   A spectator can simply enjoy the aesthetics and the fascination of the game : impulse, geometry , chance . They can even cross the boundary between observer and observed and become an actor themselves.

 

In Poland in 1993 a spectator got up, took a performer by the hand and walked with him. Before long, a third of the audience was on its feet, accepted and trusted by the company. This was OPTIK’s first interactive experience. Many have followed during successful performances in Germany (Giessen, Erlangen, Koln) and Egypt. At Sadler’s Wells the British audience is more reserved.

 

A sudden drum-roll : the four stand in a line unmoved. Their stoicism provokes amused comments from the audience. One performer eventually starts moving. Up the stairs , through the gallery-door and outside. We see him walk up and down past grinning passers-by. Another border is crossed, the one between public and performance space.

All borders are permeable to OPTIK. Their work teases theatre convention: it is playful, provocative. It is a taste of freedom, not only for the performers, but also for the audience. If the spectators meet OPTIK even halfway, the most incredible things can and have happened. One thing always happens: a different kind of attentiveness takes over, a chink of light through the doors of perception, as hard to open as ever.

Edward’s early work explored ritual and collective experience in the spirit of the 70’s. In contrast to that, watching OPTIK every spectator sees a different performance. The OPTIK experience is individual, chopped up. Edwards’ current work is at the pulse of the time – one of the reasons why it is so very controversial.

 

 

 

 

from: Jack Brook ‘Process of Significance: Scale, System and Singularity’

 

A marvellously ambiguous but tight and very assured piece. It works because it doesn’t use any movement that lifts it into specialist discourses. Clearly the training and the technique is sharp: the way the performers feed lines to each other, stop dear, wheel round when paths cross, drop out of the mayhem and catch breath or sulk silently: the way they orchestrate the textures of silence, regular advance and manic hyperactivity is an absolute joy and by turns moving and very funny. But the movements themselves are pedestrian and performed absolutely deadpan.

 

Some moments were very tender as when Patrick Driver and Jeremy Killick are motionless in a suspended moment of confrontation extended over long minutes during which the lifting and dropping of on head pulls the other’s face down, his lips and cheeks strangely distorted like in those gravity simulation machines. And then the instant that could be one of ritualised violence, a threatening moment poised on the edge of assault, or of extreme tenderness, or a moment of highly charged physical intimacy is suddenly smudged and wiped out by the very rule system that set it up. The very lack of meaning, the openness of the text releases the potent references and resonances tucked into the corners of the stark grid of lines, turns, falls which Barry has orchestrated within the meditative game being played. By isolating the surface of the text from the mechanics of its provenance, the simple laws of chance throw out all the more material of surreal terror, aching boredom, formal elegance and lyrical beauty.

 

The use of percussion heightens the choreographic surface of the performance, responding to the rhythm of steps, cutting across the ringing menace of quiet moments, and it operates at a musical (ie formal) level within the various levels of the score which opens up.

The glass screen, the placing of the audience around the space so as to make avenues and pathways both close to and then far away from the gaze all became interesting features within the panopticon which finally extended to the corridor alongside the auditorium.

The performers were both in the space and then out of it. And then gradually, they came back less and less. Their footsteps can be heard clattering round in the distance and then finally they aren’t there at all. Is it over? In what sense is it over? What was it and its relation to before and after? All those questions!

 

 

 

Details of authors and publications

 

Tracey Warr

‘A Moving Meditation on a Dead Line’

Performance Research Journal Moving Bodies Issue Volume 8 No 1

Routledge December 2003

© Tracey Warr 2003

 

Jackie Smart

‘Meditations on space: talking to Optik’

Body, Space + Technology Journal Vol 4 No 1 July 2004

© Jackie Smart 2004

 

John Freeman

‘New Authenticity and Optik’

Total Theatre Journal Autumn 1994

©John Freeman 1994

 

Sherrill Dodds

‘Optik Twice Over’

Dance Theatre Journal London Volume 13 No.1 Summer 1996

© Sherill Dodds 1996

 

John Keefe

‘Spatial Tracks in Optik’

Total Theatre Journal Summer 1995

© John Keefe 1995

 

Ann Nugent

‘OPTIK at Sadler’s Wells’

The Stage February 1995

© Ann Nugent 1995

 

Patricia Benecke

The Theatre of Time Space and Chance’

Theater Heute 1994

© Patricia Benecke 1994

 

Jack Brook

‘Process of Significance: Scale, System and Singularity’

with Brook, J Performance Practice Journal vol III 1997

© Jack Brook 1997

 

Further published material:

‘Optik: contact, impulse and electro-acoustic sound’

in Susan Broadhurst Digital Practices Palgrave 2007

 

‘Body Waves Sound Waves: Optik Live Sound and Performance

Barry Edwards and BenJarlett in Performance and Technology Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity Palgrave Macmillan 2006