Sunday, February 17, 2013

Travelogue: a multimedial travel diary from NETZWERK AKS John Cage, Indonesia, and deliberate coincidence

Director and choreographer Andrea K. Schlehwein has been working amid the Carinthian mountains above Millst├Ątter Lake since 2008.  Though the surrounding natural beauty provides plenty of inspiration, many find the small, isolated and rather conservative town of Millstatt an odd place for a forward-thinking contemporary arts collective.  Yet Schlehwein has managed to produce a slew of physically dramatic dance-theater works and initiate a number of discussion forums since founding the artistic platform NETZWERK AKS there, focusing on topics as hip and up-to-date as any other company in the greater contemporary arts world.  While the attendance at the local Theater Halle 11 in Klagenfurt is not exactly overwhelming, Schlehwein has achieved international recognition for her work resulting in invitations to participate in festivals, present her pieces, and collaborate with artists in countries beyond Austria and Germany to Spain, Turkey, Argentina, Cuba, Indonesia and South Korea.  
Schlehwein, who expresses her creativity through visual art, film and sound design in addition to dance and theater, found inspiration for her recently completed Travelogue – a multimedial travel diary in the working methods of composer and visual artist John Cage.  She joined in the worldwide celebration of his 100th birthday in 2012 with a series of events in his spirit, inviting several individual artists of various media from points around the globe to work together, exploring and asking questions.  They produced several performances that showcase the artists in juxtaposition to one another as they follow their own unique paths within a common score, creating a structure without hierarchy.  Schlehwein engaged in inter-cultural dialogue during a tour of Indonesia, whose traditional music and dance happen to be a hot topic in contemporary dance today.  
Schlehwein’s initial concept for Travelogue included a large cast of dancers and live musicians from both Europe and Indonesia in a fixed multi-medial performance centered around music of John Cage and traditional Gamelan, to be given in multiple locations in Austria and Indonesia.  Sadly, as is too often the case, sufficient funds were not granted to realize this production.  So Schlehwein used her creativity to re-tailor the project, trimming several aspects including the number of dancers and even shortening the length of musical snippets in the soundtrack to eliminate GEMA fees.  Yet the final „economy“ version of the project is nothing to scoff at:  4 NETZWERK AKS members joined 52 Indonesian artists in 6 Indonesian cities over the course of one month, giving an original performance in each locale as well as at home in Klagenfurt.  
In each Indonesian performance location, Schlehwein and her NETZWERK AKS team members were greeted by a new team of performers, technicians, and organizers with whom they dove into a 3 to 5 day rehearsal process and gave a subsequent performance.  Though each group followed the same working process, the results varied greatly from a „holy meditation“ in Klagenfurt to a show in Bali where one may have guessed that Schlehwein’s sole instruction for the evening had been, „make as much chaos and noise as you can for 60 minutes!“
It is interesting to note that while many choreographers in her situation would take ideas from both the European and the Indonesian artists and demonstrate harmony through a new, blended „vocabulary“ for the piece, Schlehwein chose to keep each performer in the language of his native artistic tongue – be it spoken text, musical style, or dance technique.  Although sometimes the dancers shared common movements, or two vocalists recited the same text, Schlehwein, did not compromise either language or push the performers to teach one another verbatim.  Rather, she encouraged the artists to take elements from each other and work these foreign elements into their own structures, to further explore their own paths into the heart of  her over-arching concpet (Inszenierung):  a scene of equal respect for the Traditional and Contemporary, for Indonesian and European, for music and dance and film and text, for men and women, shown through the juxtaposition of distinct elements within an environment where all coexist without hierarchy.
After the fashion of John Cage, Schlehwein guided the rehearsal process with a series of questions.  Some were quite pragmatic:  „Where do you want to be in  the room?  What props would you like to work with?“  Some organized the artistic happenings:  „Does an action happen in one  place, or carry the doer on a journey – from one instrument to another, from one note to the text in a melody … ?“  Others including, „What does it mean travel?  What is the goal?  What does one gather along the way and how does one remember the journey?“ drove the thematic material.  
As the creative team answered these questions, Schlehwein developed a 60-minute score:  a set of instructions with cues at specific timings to be followed by all of the performers throughout the final presentation.  Like a musical score in which each instrument follows its own melodic line that compounds with others in harmony, each dancer / artist / musician / actor in Travelogue follows her own individual path through the performance, leaving the viewer free to draw connections between the people and happenings on stage.  
Performers in both Austria and Indonesia found it challenging to remain independent of one another:  a dancer, for example, would begin to move in a quality that matches music that does not actually „belong“ to her, drifting her way from the neighboring pianist.  Dancers started to imitate each other.  The Indonesians, coming from such a group-oriented culture, found it „lonely“ to perform independently.  But Schlehwein encouraged each to pursue his own unique journey.
In the end, moments of unison and connections emerge out of the multiple separate activities.  The effect is like observing two strangers at a train station who happen to fall into step with each other, or board the train at the same moment:  the sychronicity is coincidental, and the connection inferred from an outside eye.  But in Travelogue, every seeming coincidence is the result of carefully composed counterpoint.  
The Indonesian artists found Schlehwein’s idea of precise randomness quite unusual, and they often misunderstood her in the beginning.  After an initial run-through of Travelogue during a rehearsal, Schlehwein and the cast would discuss the outcome, decide upon certain changes, and run the piece again.  Where Schlehwein expected to see minor adjustments, the entire work might be completely different.  She must then explain that the performers were to follow their scores and not improvise, that the apparent freedom was in fact pre-determined.  
Indonesian audiences recieved the performances enthusiastically.  Because Schlehwein sees Indonesian life as full of activity, she expected viewers to find her style of presentation a bit old-fashioned.  Much to her surprise, they found the simultaneous execution of varied occurences in Travelogue exciting and new, that it offered liberating perspective.  Several audience members commented that the equal emphasis given to each artist and his medium – dance, film, music, acting – could represent a model for society.  These remarks did not initially please Schlehwein, as they seemed a „psuedo-intellectual“ approach and she never intended Travelogue as social commentary.  But the idea resonated with viewers, so Schlehwein searched for more questions:  if the environment created in Travelogue, where all have freedom to express and mutual respect of each other, is the first step in a social experiment, what is the next?  What changes need to happen within our societies to achieve this equality?  But those questions must wait for another project.
For now, Andrea K. Schlehwein has returned to her studio in the Carinthian mountains, already plotting something enirely new and different.  Isolated?  Yes.  But very much engrossed in the same topics of interest and exploration as her colleagues in the arts realm of today.