Performative Milestones of Happiness

“The Endless Island of Absence – Mystery of Happiness”

(spoiler warning)

In her most recent work, „The Endless Island of Absence – Mystery of Happiness,“ Linda Samaraweerová has shown at TQW that it is possible to negotiate happiness, narcissism, applause, and dance within a short time for the benefit of the audience. A gentle voice dances over a dark stage, wondering about happiness. Plato’s Parable of the Cave becomes a participative soul dance theatre in a hammock seat, the audience is hanging in the pitch-dark air over the stage, amazed, but not feeling left alone. For a good third of the piece there is total darkness, a daring statement.

The quest for happiness engages all living beings in equal measure – sometimes they find it, sometimes they don’t. “The Endless Island of Absence – Mystery of Happiness” deals with success and failure in that quest, the programme calls it “a paradoxical situation. Everywhere in our fun-and-event society, promises of happiness lurk, luring us with social and economic gain. Being happy becomes a dictatorially ordained duty, and happiness thus an inflationary, vulgar commodity directed against humans and their freedom. For misery means social death.” Strong words are used here to criticise an eternal dilemma, yet the present is held responsible – why? Linda Samaraweerová’s philosophy of happiness is derived from the thoughts of the theoretician Sara Ahmed, who in her investigation of the promise of happiness, formulated a feminist critique of culture. For Ahmed, happiness is a utopia. She says: “the realisation that happiness is lost does not bring it back! However, this realisation brings certainty and confidence.” Ahmed analysis continues: “to revivify the criticism of happiness means being willing to abide in the vicinity of misery.” Ahmed and Samaraweerová do not delude themselves, they reject any promise of happiness, but are still optimistic – which is how they save happiness.

So, it is not by chance that Samaraweerová’s latest work breaks up all dance dramaturgies conceivable up to now, completely turns around all our viewing habits, and plays with the narcissistic aspects of contemporary performance art so skilfully that it may serve as an object lesson.

The evening begins as always. The well-disposed audience is standing before the doors of Halle G, in the deep basement of the former Winter Riding School, today’s Museumsquartier. The doors open punctually, and immediately behind the two entrances, where normally tiers slant down towards the stage, a new room has been created. The audience takes their seats here, there are benches on the sides and cushions on the floor. About fifty people make themselves comfortable.

Before Ondine Cloez begins with the show, she asks the audience to switch off their mobile phones (which should be a matter of course by now), and then explains that there will be yet another station, asking the audience also to take off their footwear. While people are following this request, they crane their necks towards the lower stage, whose floor is completely empty, but there are green hammock seats hanging from the ceiling. Slowly the big expectant eyes then return to Ondine Cloez, music sets in, she begins.

Gently she places her feet backwards in deliberate, light steps, circling in front of the audience. Her costume is like comfortable everyday clothing, she is barefoot. Her body tension is very strong, and she uses it to draw the audience’s attention, direct all concentration to herself while she is walking. Only with her forearms and hands she makes slow, caressing movements running from her wrist joints to the fingers, so that she dances solely with her hands. The music, specially composed for this evening by Robert Jisa, supports her performance. The amazed audience is spellbound, just a few men of the class clown type have difficulties following her in the first five minutes, they roll their eyes, waggle their upper bodies. That subsides. Ondine Cloez captivates them, too, unerringly continues her circling, stepping, and hand gestures. She closes her eyes, walking with somnambulistic certainty, as if she wanted to hypnotise the attendees, but didn’t. For more than twenty minutes she keeps up this strenuous effort, thus spreading a manner of calmness and security which leave no room for doubt or boredom; the audience have arrived at themselves. It would be asking too much to be able to read people’s minds, but their faces bespeak well-being and happiness.

When she finishes, the audience willingly follow her to the stage of Halle G, everyone sits in the comfortable hammock seats. In the auditorium proper there are no tiers, but a trio: alto saxophone, violin and cello. Plus a light installation, a sculpture by the visual artist Susanne Schuda. It is a topsy-turvy world, at first glance the rearrangement of the theatre space appears absurd, well-nigh ridiculous.

Perhaps there already were other attempts in the history of dance and theatre to create such a stage situation, no “peep box”, no “fourth wall”, no traditional or contemporary form is catered to here. Why, even the prototype of cognisance, Plato’s Parable of the Cave, is reinterpreted. Without further ado Samaraweerová revolutionises all known and conceivable positions, in which an audience may find themselves – according to the zeitgeist, it is suspended in the air. Every individual sits in a spherical pendulum. The hammock seats are no swings, no fun factor, they function like the famous Foucault pendulum. They form a “test arrangement” – seats for the audience with sky bonds, no grounding.

Again the audience marvel and are expectant, what might be waiting for them in those hammocks? Swinging like on the playground in Prater, isn’t there too little room for that? How should someone be able to dance here? And didn’t Ondine Cloez say in her introductory statement that it would become dark, but no one would have to be afraid?! Will the audience be hypnotised after all? Will there be a loud, obtrusive video installation, as always when art is at a loss? Will Ondine Cloez and Linda Samaraweerová now dance on the ceiling? Will they jump between the hammocks like ninjas? Wasn’t the evening supposed to deal with happiness and its economy! Some faces are pessimistically rigid, before they dare to occupy the hammocks after all, as if to say: “this is going to be the dance flop of the century!” What happens now, though, is ostensibly highly banal, yet so effective and potent that it touches everyone deeply.

While some are still jiggling to and fro and making themselves comfortable, Linda Samaraweerová steps out of one of the hammocks and begins a monologue, casually converting the dance theatre to a play. She walks across the stage, through the audience, and talks, no, whispers, quietly. Here, too, she asks for maximum concentration without asking too much. The audience is “enrolled” and listening in their hammocks, the light slowly grows weaker. Again a sound comes in, interweaving with the text. The monologue is an inner one, the speaker apparently addresses a lost, unequal love, tries to evoke and hold on to it. But that is just the subtext – in reality she addresses the audience, indirectly talking to everyone. She plays with everyone’s subconscious, their longing for happiness, presenting mirage-like images, putting thoughts, feelings, association chains in motion. The light fades completely, the room is dark. The audience is now captured as in Plato’s cave, but its gaze is not directed forwards but inwards – through the monologue. Sometimes Samaraweerová is debilitatingly slow, she gives the audience lots of room, penetrates directly to their souls, asks questions and throws them pictures. The souls follow her, and she proceeds with such virtuosity that she even advances to the subconscious–unconscious, and reifies it. It is a healing process, a ritual; happiness, sorrow about its transience, all that somehow becomes tangible and understandable. The loss becomes acceptable, bearable, and the complete darkness works like a shelter, lending security and strength.

Towards the end of the text she becomes more cheerful and lighter, the magic of her words and the souls airily floating over the stage, like a breeze of confidence that suddenly prevails. What happens then is the climax of the piece. For a moment that feels like an eternity nothing at all happens. It is quiet and dark. These intimate moments take ten minutes. On the face of it they are denial, yet in reality this is where the audience’s healing power unfolds. Normally the audience flee when confronted too strongly with themselves; not so in this show, here they relish the magic of darkness, and find themselves. The light slowly returns, and the trio begins to play. The people are in their hammocks, some change their perspective by shifting their weight, others remain in soft floating, swinging very lightly.

The sculpture’s light installation determines the room, the music captures the feelings and plays them out, takes them up and eventually sets them free. At some time, this lucid dream is over, too, the room becomes bright. The audience get up from their hammocks, peeling out of their shells and the brief dream of happiness. Then they are standing there and do not really know what to do. Some clap, some stretch and look around happily. It is as if applause would only disturb and ruin the magic, the experience, so the performers take a brief bow, followed by strong silence again. Thoughts and feelings demand to be kept, just like a dream of happiness.

The overwhelming thing about this work is the punch line. It prevents the audience’s discharge by applause, creating equality, eye level. Here, no artist’s great self has to be charged by the audience’s big-little collective clapping adulation. The experiment of reconciliation with the unacceptable misery has succeeded, during the last, strong hour the audience have found themselves, critique marvels and says benevolent thanks, asks for more of the same and accepts the paradox of hapiness in misery.

The stage at TQW has a size of 18 x 16 metres, the ceiling is almost 7 metres high, statics make it possible to have the hammock seats hang from the light scaffolding – the rods on the ceiling to which usually the lighting is attached. Technically the arrangement poses no difficulties, the rafters are strong enough to carry 50 people. This stage set – which actually is the auditorium – can be realised in any room, be it in a smaller theatre with little technical equipment, or in one still equipped with a classical fly tower. It might even happen in a museum hall, provided it is possible to create darkness. Modern stage mechanics with stands, rod systems, and traverses is certainly strong enough. One wishes for the production to get the chance to unfold in all kinds of different rooms – it is unique and worth seeing.