On [+]: A letter to Tra

*Shhhh Tra might not know I am posting this here. Keep this a secret, would you?


Email Subject: A response to the work

Jul 11, 2021, 5:04 PM
__________________

Dear Tra,

I have found myself contemplating the performances we have done together for MPG, which we call the plays. Even though we have technically completed our parts for the work, I do not feel a sense of completion, which is understandable considering we haven’t even been in the same physical space throughout this process. Today I felt a strong urge to write, and hope that this articulation will bring me some more fulfillment. 

I have to begin by expressing gratitude. I have been so warmly embraced by our conversations, through which I came to understand your commitment to challenge normative relations in theatre-making and your insistence on a form of theatre continuously opening up possibilities. There, the script does not dictate, but rather offers a playground for us to explore, run around, dig, ignore, destroy, and work. Certainly, for this freedom to yield results, the playground has to be fertile enough, and the humans have to be interested in playing with it and more importantly, with each other. The act of playing, which means exactly “to create a play” in this case, is a curious process. It demands (not everyone can play at anytime with anything), but also forgives (everyone can play at anytime with anything). It produces so much and also, by design, allows for the ‘sinful’ possibility of producing nothing. These important contradictions have become apparent to me as we embarked on this journey together. What a great opportunity to learn. 

As we have completed a good amount of exploration, it is my turn now to connect with my own personal project: How does the body emerge in this work? 

As this work is produced through and within the screen, it troubles the body. Zoom is defined as the virtual space where our encounters take place: “Everything recorded on Zoom is part of the play”, reads the script. This is a response to our wearisome reality: I am in Vietnam, stuck in a strict lockdown while you are on the other side of the globe. We are lucky to be connected through technology, but it also poses existential challenges: the screen fails to hold the ‘slipperiness of the body’ (a borrowed term from my teacher/choreographer Ananya Chatterjea).

The flat screen elides the body, space, and gravity into light beams. Through the screen, the body itself is evacuated of its contents; connections are rendered as spectatorship. I do not know what it means to be a “Mover” in that mode of existence, for I do not know of embodiment when there is no corporeal stake. How do I respond to you, Tra, when you are but a present absence? 

I imagine you would say that the work is precisely responding to this improbability of connection. And, the hopeless romantic in me wonders if that violence is somewhat resolved through the yearning for intimacy in spite of corporeal absence. 

The distance between us is so immense that intimacy can only be signaled through abstract correspondence. The side-by-side frames of you facing the camera and me moving around in my home is nothing new to our generation, much familiarized with virtual connections and digital performances (by which I mean, performance = uploading, updating, and reacting). So what makes this performance a testament to intimacy?

To that I say: Intimacy became imminent through our efforts in tracing each other through language and actions, as we both tried to contain the other person in each of our own doings. Intimacy lies exactly in between your efforts to trace my movements and helplessly respond with scripted words written in a foreign language, and on the other side, my helplessness to cohere those words in my own isolated space. As we played different roles, we were always in the presence of the other, to the extent of taking such presence for granted at times. It was a lonely experience, to be hyper-aware of connection and the lack thereof; but it was also comforting to find the mundane company in your voice and to be witnessed with care. 

At the same time, I realize that I might not have reciprocated the care as much as I would like to. I struggled to connect with Peer Gynt, and consequently with your reading. My body cannot and should not embody the world of Peer Gynt and neither can yours. Then, to perform the canonic work of Peer Gynt inevitably means to respond to that conflict. We have talked about this disconnection and agreed that it is part of the gaps we are attempting to uncover. Yet, I also hope that you found comfort in watching me as much as I found comfort in your voice. Ultimately, all of the plays were duets. We were two bodies, both absent and present, always in flux with each other. The anxious distance between us was impossible to fill but was there to be witnessed, and in a naive sense of hope, to be made sense of.  

I have no conclusion, as any conclusion would feel like a cop-out response to the questions laid out here. Below is an image of my own ‘scripts’  – the only written documents that explain what happened (on my screen) during our performances on July 9, 2021. Perhaps they are, too, a response to Peer Gynt…

With so much love and light,

Toan. 

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