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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 410-414
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Ode To Progress
Doña Musica's Butterflies
Castle of Holstebro II
Ode To Progress, Judith, Doña Musica's Butterflies, Castle of Holstebro II, Itsi Bitsi. By Odin Teatret. La MaMa E.T.C. New York, New York. 13-31 October 1999.
Eugenio Barba's Odin Teatret 1999 New York tour, part of the so-called Danish Wave 99, included ten offerings: six performances and four work demonstrations. The performances included Mythos (see Theatre Journal 51.1: 67-68), Ode to Progress, Judith, Castle of Holstebro II, Doña Musica's Butterflies, and Itsi Bitsi. Although none of these latter five constitute a major opus like Mythos or Kaosmos, they exemplify the different directions the Odin's work has taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s--years pursuant to the Odin's period of "Barter" in the 1970s. The Barters were paratheatrical events in which the improvisations and processionals, drawn from Odin actors' physical and vocal training, were publicly presented in places with no tradition of professional theatre. Barba's earlier work formed a large part of his public image as a revolutionary ethnographer in the theatre, but his recent work mitigates against this public image, revealing Barba the director, more a man of the theatre than social theorist.
Judith, The Castle of Holstebro II, and Doña Musica's Butterflies are solo performances. Itsi Bitsi is a three-actor collaboration centered on its principal performer and author, Iben Nagel Rasmussen, with Kai Bredholt and Jan Ferslev. Ode to Progress uses the whole touring company of nine actors. Of all the shorter works, this production is the most recent, premiering August 1997. These smaller works were constructed by the actors and then presented to Barba virtually performance-ready. Although in larger works like Mythos Barba's creative handiwork is clear, here he is more a collaborative director than the motivating sensibility. The Odin's shorter pieces are more akin to performance art or postmodern dance than drama. They are often self-referential, reflecting the performers' own work as actors. The work is always extremely physical without conforming to any distinct genre of dance or theatre. That said, Barba's productions cannot be restricted solely to the categories of performance art and postmodern dance because they are highly theatrical in the way actions and words are juxtaposed as incisive poetic interrogations of both the human and metaphysical condition.
Ode to Progress was initially conceived as a street performance for the Festuge, an annual event in the Odin's Danish home city, Holstebro. The piece consists of dances composed from codified improvisation, arranged into a pastiche, and presented as performance. Ode to Progress was an excellent display of the Odin's aesthetic. An all-actor orchestra in an upstage semicircle sang and played an odd array of musical instruments (cornet, accordion, guitar, violin, piano, wooden spoons). The singing ranged from Mongolian throat singing to 1950s doo-wop. Throughout the work, actors moved downstage from this minstrel show arrangement to perform their dances. Though not recognizable as specific dance genres, they were a kind of formalistic improvisation constructed of highly energetic, sometimes acrobatic physical actions.
The continuous series of songs and dances seemed unrelated, except that each centered on human endeavor and led from whimsy to horror. A mother breastfed sand to a skeleton baby. Hooded like death and cracking a whip at defenseless workers, a troll-like figure sang "Jump Down Turn Around Pick a Bale of Cotton" in a raspy Greenlander accent. This skewing of contexts was characteristic of all the dances, which were grotesque critiques of the modern puritanical notion that work is its own reward. Ode to Progress is a sardonic parody of this progressive viewpoint bordering on a Lafargian [End Page 410] [Begin Page 412] attack on the notion of work. The humorous Études question mainstream ideology through the juxtaposition of work and romantic attitudes toward it, both against the various ways humans are...