This term we’ve been juggling several things: the grotesque, delivering speeches, writing songs, classes in Butoh, making puppets and costumes and, finally, chorus. A lot of what we do at LISPA is somewhat baffling. We’re always moving on to something new, sometimes just as the old thing starts to make sense, sometimes long before we start to understand it. We hope that ideas we’re currently floundering in will make sense in coming years. Chorus has been one of those confusing things, and now term’s at an end I’m still clueless.
I enjoyed the chorus work at first. The initial classes focused on games and exercises to get us working together. Having us move as a flock of people, getting us to balance a space, trying to speak as one voice, or react as one body to an individual’s voice. This was all a lot of fun — there’s something quite freeing about working as part of a group. It’s not easier, but in a way there’s less pressure on an individual. I’m guessing some people find it hard to be subsumed into a group, but I found it a nice change.
The first of our two chorus-based Creations (in which we’re in groups working for a few hours over a week or two on a piece to present to the rest of the class) had a single speaker with a chorus of people reacting to what they say. The chorus might emphasise what’s being said, colouring it with movement and sound, or might mock it, a grotesque group challenging the hero. Our group was a chorus of depraved clerics mocking Joan of Arc giving a passionate speech before she’s burned at the stake. The result was OK, and the rest of the group managed to improve on it over subsequent weeks (I couldn’t continue with it and other things I was working on).
The next Creation was the tricky one — a chorus of a dozen or so people speaking as one. It’s one of the few times we work with some existing text at college and we chose a piece from The Eumenides translated by Ted Hughes:
ORESTES: I am like a man in a chariot
Of the horses,
Plunging towards I do not know what.
I am hanging on to the reins without the strength
To do more than merely hang on,
My brain in a whirl,
My heart couching in terror.
Witness my innocence:
My mother’s death was decided
By the gods.
I was simply their weeping instrument.
I leave this place a fugitive and an exile.
Look there — look: women, in grey cloaks,
With the faces of Gorgons. Don’t you see them?
Their bodies and their heads wreathed with vipers.
They are coming.
These women are real — spirits have power
Over the spirit of a man.
That is not imagination.
These demons are the decomposition
Of my mother’s blood.
They are the wolves of her body, of her breasts, of her womb.
Apollo! The Earth is teeming
With these creatures —
Apollo — you did not warn me!
They are climbing out of the earth,
Out of their burrows in old blood.
Eyes like weeping ulcers,
Mouths like fetid wounds.
Their whips whistle and crack.
You cannot see them but I see them.
You cannot feel their whips but I feel them.
They’re great words to roll around the tongue, but unfortunately we had to do more than that. To be honest I’m still not quite sure what we needed to do.
We thought about different settings for the piece, and someone had the inspired idea of a high school shooting, with the words being spoken by the shooter. I think the first time we presented we tried collectively being the parents of murdered children, reacting to the killers’ words as they came out of our mouths.
This was a bit confusing and the second time we simply represented the killer himself. But we were struggling, both times, to make it come alive. Part of the problem, I think, was that we focused a lot on creating movements with our bodies in response to the words (much as we were doing a year ago). Although this felt great at first, it meant that (a) our movements were all based on single words, (b) they were often pretty abstract movements, and (c) they were mostly us doing movements on the spot.
We realised how wrong this all was in our penultimate presentation, the day before our end-of-term performance. So we spent a couple of hours the morning of the show re-working it all, often from scratch. It was better, but it still felt horribly wrong in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. Everything we’ve done at LISPA has been difficult in some way, but this time it seemed like I didn’t even have any idea what we were aiming for, never mind working out how to get there.
I was a bit underwhelmed by the other groups’ presentations too; it felt like no one was really bringing the words to life and making me care about them. Maybe they’d had similar problems. Maybe none of us really got it. Or maybe I just don’t like choruses. Although one group, using a text in Greek (a foreign language to most of the cast), managed to wake me up, finding the rhythm in the phrases, and it was the only chorus piece that I wanted to continue.
So I’m glad we’re done with choruses, although part of me is still intrigued and wants to know more about how to make it work. Maybe I need to see some good examples.