Marble, rock, and roll
Dust, smoke, and splintered stones: At the decisive moment, the stage set collapses – on command. Room with a View by the Ballet National de Marseille is set in a marble quarry, or rather in the mock-up of one. It is a dance piece to techno music, mixed live on stage by Rone, an international star of the scene. He is a guru and shepherd, firing up ‘his’ 18 dancers. Sometimes stones rain down on them, sometimes dead fish. Apocalypse meets youthful vitality, rising to ecstasy.
A current of violence runs through the party, ending in a kind of street fight against imaginary and real oppressors before the whole crowd climbs the marble rock and disappears behind.
The stage set by scenographer Julien Peissel is so monumental that it seems almost anachronistic. Contemporary dance is more used to projections, mapping, and virtual reality. But though he has twenty years’ experience of creating sets for dance, Peissel started out in drama, working with numerous leading directors on the French scene. Here, he has drawn on the material stage sets that are part and parcel of drama. Limiting the stage space, they are less familiar in contemporary dance, which naturally tends to favour immateriality.
Companie (La)Horde – they refer to themselves as a collective – are Marine Brutti, Jonathan Debrouwer and Arthur Harel: three young artists who have consistently managed to do the unexpected since their founding, and none of whom has carved a classic career in choreography. In fact, their appointment to direct the Ballet National de Marseille, which had previously only ever been led by renowned and experienced figures, surprised the dance world.
In general, Room with a View – the first ever production by (La)Horde at the Ballet National de Marseille – is a piece to go down in history. After a long, Corona-enforced break, the show went back on tour in May 2021, starting at the newly built La Comédie in Clemont-Ferrand (BTR 6/2020). It is being shown in two versions, with and without Rone, the star of the techno and electro music scene. Whenever he is not on tour with his own show, he is mingling with the dancers in the dystopian no-mans-land of fake marble.
The stage-set mechanics were changed for touring. At the Théâtre du Châtelet, the rear section of the marble rock sank spectacularly into the back of the stage during the performance, hidden behind the front section of the quarry. To achieve this effect, the construction was assembled on four raising platforms. The moment of collapse – involving a lot of fog, noise and falling resin – created the impression of a crater opening on the ground and swallowing the rock. But this made too great demands on the theatres hosting Room with a View on tour.
For the current tour, the rock’s collapse needed to happen differently. It is now simulated by means of the upper, horizontal part, which forms a kind of roof, being made to fall from behind and below. To do this, two rope hoists were built into the rock’s framework. The roof of the cave is then made to tip and bits of rock and resin shower on to the stage, some from the collapsed cave roof, some from the flies. This version of collapse is also effective; in 2022 a new series is planned at the Théâtre du Châtelet.
Fog machines play a key role in creating the apocalyptic scenario of collapse and the impression of dust rising. Two fog machines are placed at floor level with wind machines behind to ensure the necessary amount of swirling. There are additional fog machines at the back, which are connected by flexible tubes to the upper part of the rock, where the fog is intended to swirl most intensely. After the rock’s collapse, the stage is of course unfit for dancing on. In a dramaturgical interlude, then, the stage is cleaned by workers in protective clothing. It’s easy to see a tongue-in-cheek reference to anti-Corona measures in this, but in fact it had all been planned eight months before the outbreak of the pandemic, Peissel says. Rather, it portrays a general image of apocalypse, of which the current pandemic is just one small but very tangible aspect.
A total of three tons of material are built into this set, which is a lot for a dance production. But Peissel and (La)Horde had different ideas to begin with. They wanted the rave in a marble quarry to seem much more real. They envisioned cladding the three stage walls from top to bottom in artificial marble and portraying the setting much more concretely: an eight-metre-high fake marble whitebox! “We wanted to build one section of the walls with a mechanism to make the rock disappear or collapse. But budget limitations made us concentrate on the key elements,” Peissel recalls. Nevertheless, he is happy with the result: “We found solutions that are artistically much more interesting. Material constraints foster creativity and make you come up with artistically more sophisticated solutions. If you have unlimited resources, you often take the easy way out.”
It’s all relative though, as even now the stage set’s assembly takes nearly two working days. It is completed in a vertical order, from top to bottom. First, the spotlights are installed as later the rock blocks all other operations on the floor. Then the dance floor is laid before the rock’s assembly begins. This starts with the upper section, which is then raised up on four cable hoists so that the next part can be assembled on the floor. Several stages like this are necessary for the stage set to be able to stand alone. In the end, the solid marble rock allows the young ravers to climb all over it – an opportunity that rarely arises on stage.
For dancing to take place on the lower level, it needed to be double-checked for safety. This is ensured by several supports holding the plywood boards that make up the walk-on parts of the rock. They are borne by square struts made of steel, which are the main reason for the set’s impressive weight. Other parts of the rock and the large amounts of chipped rock and grit flying around are made of polystyrene. The stage set also incorporates a mobile milling machine, hanging from a steel girder at the edge of the stage and controlled via DMX. “It carries on cutting imaginary marble blocks in the air.” And that is a metaphor: “The earth’s resources are just about used up but we continue mining them as if they were inexhaustible.”
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