To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, local artists Genevieve Muench and Renée Copeland of Hiponymous share their perspective on El Año en que nací / The year I was born by Lola Arias. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
As we look back on our four weeks of intensive theater-going, we find appropriate the retrospective tone of the Out There Series’ concluding performance. El Año en que nací / The year I was born, a play directed by Argentine director Lola Arias, was created for and with Chilean performers who were born during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The piece starts with a birth-year roll-call, delivered with a virile, militant tone from a megaphone. The performers stay seated in school desks until their name is called. They then run in circles, as if on a track, with their birth-year patched on their back. They line up, one by one and deliver succinctly what was happening politically in Chile the year of their birth. Instantly we are hit with some themes of time-travel, order, information, keeping track, and contest.
There are many technical elements used as vehicles of the stories, such as projectors, microphones, photos, lights, and sound-bites. The stage is hemmed in on each side with shelves stacked with props, yet the environment is most dictated by a line of lockers on the back wall–which appear to be holding cells for all of their stories–and a projector screen pulled down and set up center stage. The stage is backlit by neon tube lighting, so a lot of action/mobilizing of props is obscured. Sometimes implements and instruments in the environment are shifted to portray a scene more vividly; desks and guitars become doubly useful as gun imagery, or a ladder becomes a podium, yet the people always stay the same. Lola Arias employs a number of theatrical practices and techniques that help to reproduce, as an address to the audience, some aspects of the original dialogue, action and metaphor that developed during the creation process. Arias collaborates with both trained and untrained performers. The company holds the principle that anyone can act, a theory that is ostensibly in the vein of Theater of the Oppressed, a practice rooted in the belief that people have the capability to act in the “theater” of their own experience. The performers take turns leading us through their historiography, as they unabashedly locate themselves as carriers of their own stories.
Occasionally, however, performers are asked by the current main storyteller to act out a family scene, or that of a shooting. The other performers oblige by assuming choreography, a tableau vivante depiction of the scene that is simultaneously being described in great detail by the narrator. Strangely, the pairing of bodies and words has little effect on the experience for us as viewers, in terms of the potential for emotional impact, for it is done as clinically as any 2D visual aid, to the point that the use of their bodies (or is it the words?) feels completely perfunctory. Perhaps the dissonance lies in that even as the performers are playing out another role for a moment, they remain undeniably themselves, inescapably authentic.
For most of the play, the energy, synchronicities and confrontations of the performers are strictly on a frontal display, projected out towards the audience rather than between themselves. The work, which fixates on historical/personal narratives, articulates itself heavily through verbal delivery, often leaving the bodies of the performers behind. As dancers and choreographers, we (Hiponymous) ached with the desire to see the stories told through the body more. An all-out dance number is installed somewhere in the first third of the show and we are left dumbfounded as to why. It is worrisome to think that maybe the dance (and perhaps the few live songs strewn throughout) was only used for transitional texture, a wash of movement for the sake of a textual break. If there was another meaning, beyond the group replicating a somewhat self-aware, cheesy dance number from Chilean television past, it was lost on us. The performers danced with a variety of expressions on their faces, ranging from pure enjoyment to coyness to self-involved to deadpan. The lack of uniformity would not be so troublesome to us, if we felt those deliveries were intentional or directed that way. Instead, the dance seems inconsequential. Dance is a field dedicated to, and reliant on, metaphor. If we recognize our bodies as sites of history, identity and commentary, and ourselves as viable, poetic story-tellers, then we can sustain the integrity of our personal truths long after our voices give out. For such important subject matter as this piece, we wondered why not imbue the performers’ movement with more agency, whether they decide to use those gestures for satire or sincerity? Why not develop that power?
An interesting tension around authenticity comes to the foreground when the performers are asked to stand in a line that demonstrates a scale of their parents’ political ideologies from leftist to right. They are asked again to make this line from poor to rich, and again, light skin to dark. These moments are exciting as they display raw discussion and uncomfortable categorization. They make problematic conventional archetypes, smashing the binaries of bad guy/good guy, survivor/murderer, resistance/police, as often both extremes reside within one person’s family. Another line is formed in the dark. Each person lights a match and begins to tell where s/he was during the blackouts. One says she was in Mexico City and her match is instantly blown out by the person next to her. We begin to see how, in a quest for the more “authentic” story, those with exile histories are silenced more abruptly. Thus, the front-line survivor story receives platform priority. The sensationalism of the survivor story never fully takes over, however, and while their approach is never self-exploitative, the tailoring of drama reminds us of our particular cultural lens. How big does the story have to be to receive American viewership? Has our need for spectacle become our only entryway into compassion and action?….(“My god, that’s horrible….is anybody doing anything about this?!”)
El Año en que nací winds us through a tormented private and public history. Ultimately we are left in the present with an understanding of the current social climate of Chile and this generation’s hopes and ambitions for their country.
El Año en que nací / The year I was born by Lola Arias runs through February 1 in the McGuire Theater.