I’ve been looking at, and thinking about, the human back this week. The back is a place and a concept, and though our gravity-defying uprightness, often asks too much of its inner architecture. Our backs are largely out of sight and mind. Other people’s backs, too, tend to be thought of as less expressive, less meaningful, than their faces. Throughout history – at least until recently – we’ve placed all our emphasis on face-to-face connection, and the back – the part of us that’s behind us, back and beyond – is a place where nothing much happens. In our daily lives, to ‘turn your back’ on someone is to reject or ignore them, to offer them nothing. It breaks the thread of relationship and is deliberately insulting. Body language websites insist that the back is the ‘least communicative part of the body’, and that a 180° rotation away from someone indicates ‘maximum rejection’.
Why, then, do two absorbing, expressive and humane works in PIAF 2017 begin with performers facing away from their audiences? Exit/Exist opens with dancer Gregory Maqoma turned from us. We can’t see his face; only his back, in a pale silver suit, with his arms raised, fingers searching the darkness. He begins to move, inquiringly, agitatedly, in a flutter of percussive sound that builds to fierce melodic guitar and vocal accompaniment, but he keeps his back turned for the first 10 minutes of the piece. I’ve never seen that before. Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels play trilogy, meanwhile, is set in the kitchen of the Gabriels’ family home in Rhinebeck, NY. The first play Hungry opens with family members at a table, preparing ingredients for a ratatouille. Because of the layout, at least one character at any time has his or her back to us throughout the four and a half hours of the trilogy.
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family
On the afternoon I saw the plays, some audience members, me among them, were initially disconcerted by this. Is this impolite? Are we being excluded? It wasn’t always easy to hear the dialogue when an actor was facing away from us. My first response was an anxiety I might spend the day straining to catch every line and so lose the thread of the subtle, unhurried and intimate conversations.
My second response was to lean in and let go. And this changes everything.
The Gabriels asks that we adjust our expectations about the relationship between audience and actors, and repays us with a deeper, more detailed and emotionally resonant experience of theatre. We become more than merely passive recipients of the work. We are invited to be its active witnesses – our involvement in the lives and minds of the Gabriels will grow and deepen over the course of the trilogy. I felt this as a new kind of knowledge. I felt myself over time become more capable, more trusting, less focused on not missing anything and more responsive to the rhythms of dialogue and emotion, the current of subtext, the flaring and dissipation of tension among people whose familiarity with one another might have felt exclusive under other circumstances. But I too smelt the dishes as they came out of the oven. I watched while a big pot was filled with water in the time it takes for these things to happen, while the sound of the running tap wove through the conversation, sometimes overwhelming it. No matter. I stayed with the Gabriels; I remained in their company and, even when someone’s back was to me, perhaps especially then, I felt I was a participant in a series of rituals at once simple and extraordinary. Because we were all there, in that living domestic space. The actors didn't point their performances out into the anonymous darkness of the auditorium but passed their stories and memories hand to hand around the table. Watching their backs reminded me that at some level we will always be unknowable to one another. And there’s an honesty and a humility in acknowledging this even in the most intimate of settings. When George or Joyce or Mary sat facing away from me, I placed my attention at his or her shoulder, and was brought a little closer to their love, confusion and grief in a world that seems to have turned its back on them. Because it’s my world too.
The capacity to shift our attention, literally to place it elsewhere, beyond our own heads, was explored by the artist and psychologist Marion Milner in her extraordinary book A Life of One’s Own first published in 1934. In it, Milner relates, ‘I tried to learn, not from reason but from my senses. But as soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw.’ In a project that lasted seven years, Milner discovered how to free herself from ‘the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness’ and recognise the ‘realness of other people’s needs.’
Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak
By practising wide awareness, communication for Milner ‘came to include the whole intricate texture of communal living.’ Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, the opening event of PIAF, was an embodied lesson in this art of ‘living with’, or conviviality. On Saturday night I moved amongst a sea of 40,000 backs along a 1.2km route through King’s Park, immersed in the immanent, abundant, dynamic world of Noongar kaartitjin (knowledge) of the place and its ecological identity. At the top of Fraser Avenue, we all faced the same way, heads turned to the high foliage of trees on which animated projections of the biodiversity of the six Noongar seasons were projected. Directed by Nigel Jamieson, Boorna Waanginy was a collaboration between artists and scientists about the collaboration between species, both human and non-human, in this place, and in all places, at all times. It’s an ecological artwork combining western natural science and indigenous understanding, the sensed and the dreamed, digital technology and the handmade (the endangered plant species gathered from the Beeliar Wetlands and suspended from trees in jars, and the 1,400 illuminated seed lanterns representing totemic species chosen by school children). Its journey in time informed our own physical journey through the illuminated places of the park. Boorna Waanginy was a rich sensory experience, but also a training ground; a folk university teaching and rewarding wide awareness.
Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak
Over time, and in the context of communal living, backs become books, full of emotional information. Maqoma’s back, as he began to move in Exit/Exist, spoke of anxiety and isolation, of a man disconnected from some aspect of himself and his culture. But it spoke too, as we leaned in, of a growing absorption in something within or beyond himself; an embodied ancestral memory, like that of which the trees speak in Boorna Waanginy. ‘Our ancestors’, said Noongar elder Barry McGuire at the Welcome to Country for Maqoma’s company, ‘have their hands on our backs.’ On stage, Maqoma’s shoulders and arms moved precisely and expressively, building a new vocabulary of movement. An articulation. To articulate is to move a joint, or to utter distinctly. Far from being the least communicative part of the body, the back speaks volumes about history and identity, about human strength and vulnerability. The turned back doesn’t only communicate rejection; its defencelessness can be a gesture of trust and an invitation to follow.
These works, and the communal experience of the Festival itself, of individuals in association, following one another down the trails of the imagination, are teaching us new skills in attention and observation. They repay the trust they ask for in subtle, extended, non-verbal forms of expression. They heighten our sensory awareness and our understanding that meaning is made as an active process of thinking into and with other things, other beings. In the second of The Gabriels plays, Thomas’ widow Mary recalls his love of paintings of people doing simple things. Above all, she says, he loved Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi’s depiction of ‘women with their backs to us.’ Mary isn’t sure exactly why he loved these images, but I think I’m beginning to understand.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Young Woman from Behind (1904)
Theatre and dance dramaturg, teacher, writer, and PIAF’s unofficial philosopher-in-residence, Ruth Little has spent much of her life curating, developing and writing about art and live performance across the world. Join Ruth in her role as Festival Navigator as she explores our program in all its multi-faceted glory.