To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Riding on a Cloud by Rabih Mroué. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
WILL: My brain is doing flips about this performance. Is this a play? Is all of it true? Is all of it fiction? When I saw the stage set up with the table and chair off to the side, stacks of cassette tapes and DVDs and electronic devices on it and the big white movie screen set up I thought it was going to feel really choppy. When Yasser came out and began to play the films and tapes, to sing, to watch himself on screen, it became immersive. I loved the way these presented excerpts became a singular experience. The convergence of all these possibly un-mixable techniques became one thing. Was this style an attempt to create a performance about what it felt like for Yasser when he woke up in the hospital after he was shot, after he was in a coma?
SYNIVA: Was his brother Rabih there in the hospital?
Yasser (from the program notes and projected introductory performance text): This is my real story yet these are not my thoughts. These thoughts are mine, yet this is not my real story.
WILL & SYNIVA: Is the director intentionally using this mix of devices used to remember things (stories, songs, photographs, recordings) to create an atmosphere of remembering? We keep thinking about the things we are told Yasser did to come to grips with what pretending means.
WILL: Oh, like when he was talking about going to see plays and saying if somebody died on stage he would shake and cry and be sure that they really died and then be really confused when that dead person came out for their bow at the end of the play. I wondered if that was a true story.
SYNIVA: Wasn’t this written and directed by his brother Rabih? Did any of these stories even happen? Yasser also talks about hanging out with Lenin and Tchaikovsky and that’s impossible. He also mentioned letting his brother the director pick out some videos from many he’d made during his recovery. He talked about using a camera to document things to help himself understand the difference between knowing what a thing is in real life (for example, he had no problem with knowing what a knife was when the knife was there with him but when he saw an image of a knife in a photograph he wouldn’t know what it was).
WILL: Am I going to cry?
SYNIVA: You’re discussing this performance like it’s a documentary. I don’t think it was, I definitely think Yasser and his brother are sharing art inspired by life with us but I doubt this is anything but poetic. I can’t tell if the details are real or imagined…like losing his virginity to a nurse in the hospital while he was recovering. The films throughout were beautiful, surreal…weird. I couldn’t tell if these were really from the supposed collection of videos Yasser made while relearning representation or if these were films his brother made for this performance. There was the film that showed images of a location we are told is the actual building where the sniper that shot Yasser was hiding. A film of Yasser putting his injured hand on a torturous looking wooden board from an impossible angle. Watery images of people walking down city streets, wavering, blurring, images of static, images of television test patterns. These were not pieces of story they were pieces of art.
Rabih Mroué: (from an interview on the Walker website): For me, how I understand art, art cannot heal any person or people or group. On the contrary, art is like a tool to make things more complex. It’s trying to understand, but at the same time by seeking understanding you bring up more things. It’s exactly like when you ask a question and then you try to answer this question.
WILL: I keep thinking about Yasser saying he couldn’t tell what was real or not after the brain injury.
SYNIVA: Could he tell what was real or not before the injury?
WILL: Was he saying his brain re-learned what is real? Or did he just learn to tell himself…”ok, let’s say that’s real”?
SYNIVA: Like an actor does. They are aware of doing it. They are aware they are part of the created story. They are aware they are fictional.
WILL: Does he look around at everyone and read their faces like a script and wonder…is everyone else freaking out? No? Ok, I guess what I’m seeing isn’t a thing to freak out about.
Rabih Mroué (from the interview, again): Actually it [art], has no aim. It’s just the pleasure of thinking, of being a human being. It’s thinking and being a human being. It’s the celebration of the human.
WILL: I was in a weird in between sort of magical place with Riding on a Cloud. It was a movie and it was a play, Yasser was playing himself but Rabih directed it, Yasser was acting like himself but he was also really himself. Fiction and reality. This is a fake real story…or a real fake story. This was present in the structure. There were so many…
SYNIVA:…fragments. How can we, the spectators, construct anything except poetry from bits and pieces?
WILL: It reminded me of the structure of memories. Slivers that you can piece together. Fragments that everybody watching might piece together differently.
Milan Kundera (via poem hunter on the internet): ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches.
SYNIVA: Wisps, shreds. I loved this performance.
WILL: Sometimes things would overlap that didn’t have anything to do with each. Other. Things. Non-sequential.
SYNIVA: Yasser’s physicality was controlled, methodical. He’d take a tape out, put it in the player, speak, record his voice, play it back, put a DVD in, press play. Talk. Sing. Eject, get the next one ready, press play, eject, press play.
WILL: The way the brain jumps from thing to thing, like, oh! That song makes me think of this.
SYNIVA: That Kundera poem makes me think of that.
Hamlet and Yasser Mroué and Shakespeare: The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;/To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
SYNIVA: History is like this, too. We think we remember but we are really retelling stories we’ve heard, describing images we’ve seen but not experienced. We end up putting the pieces together. We rely on the memories of others. We rely on the face looking back at us in the mirror to know we are getting older. But we can’t see ourselves getting older.
WILL: This performance was like being inside the images inside of someone’s thoughts. Like being able to watch somebody think. I keep thinking about watching Yasser watch himself projected on screen…did he cease to be a performer at that point?
SYNIVA: Could he even recognize his own face?
Riding on a Cloud continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, January 22) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 23) at 8 pm. Rabih Mroué will also teach an Inside Out There Workshop on Saturday, January 23 at 11 am in the McGuire Theater.