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Theatre as the magic of chaos: can death be cheated?

06 10 2021


Ballad of the Crone. Credits: Leonor Estrada Francke

Author: Kristina Karvelytė

Estrada France is a Glasgow-based interdisciplinary theatre creator. Her performance Ballad of the Crone was premiered on January 30, 2020, during the international puppetry, visual theatre, and animation festival “Manipulate #14” organized by Puppet Animation Scotland. In the festival’s programme the half-hour mono performance was described as “A physical theatre performative lecture about connections, inheritance, and loss. A cooking show is an attempt to understand what holds us apart and what brings us together. An intimate psycho-magical documentary.” Although a large number of people contributed to the birth of the performance, watching it leaves no doubt who the demiurge of this tiny world is.  The Peruvian artist is the performance’s backbone, i.e., its director, author of the idea, and the sole actor who basically plays herself. Several minutes into watching the performance I realize that besides all that Leonor Estrada Francke is also a cantadora – the guardian of ancient legends. The one who dances and sings her own story. The one to whom her narrative material – space, objects, gestures, facial expressions, voice intonations and modulations, and sounds – are no less important than words.

It was this – material – language that Antonin Artaud relied on his attempts to reform the overly psychologized Western theatre back at the beginning of the 20th century.  Artaud considered the material language of theatre to be a necessary condition for returning to theatre its original, ritualistic essence, i.e., to affect the viewers’ consciousness and to force them to go through a transformation.  While attempting to create such a language, Artaud did not limit himself to the theatre: he drew, composed poetry, made audio recordings, and wrote protective or destructive letters, which he himself called charms.  Leonor Estrada France is also moving away from the traditional theatre by mixing archaic rituals with the principles of cinema and animation, the magical perception of the world with the mundanity of everyday life while pouring a pinch of chaos magic into the physical-visual theatre.

The narrative of Ballad of the Crone is very simple. A daughter learns that her mother was attacked by a black dog, in other words – death. She rolls up her sleeves and takes on a task worthy of a mythical hero – to try to change her mother's destiny by swapping places with her.  As befits a fairy tale, the hero is given a key for completing the task – in the performance, it is a story of a mother who, during a famine, fed her three sons with her flesh. The sacrifice of her own body for her children becomes a metaphor for describing the essence of motherly love and motherhood. The expression of absolute love is to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another. This is exactly what the Daughter wants to do by offering herself to the black dog: “Take my body instead of my mother's, my flesh is juicier.” She tries to persuade the dog with the help of an ancient women’s ritual – after all, every woman becomes initiated into the tradition of cooking a special family dish. Can you imagine that baking a potato kugel could help deceive death? And how would you know if you haven’t tried? This attitude is typical to the magic of chaos which claims that it is the most important to do and choose the things that work instead of those that don’t.

And that is what the Daughter is trying to do. To her, a cast-iron cauldron becomes a gate leading beyond the everyday reality. She puts into the pot and takes out from it various symbolic objects until she disappears in it herself. The world of Ballad of the Crone is full of magic which the performance’s author creates by employing both such archaic mind-altering techniques as song and dance and modern technologies. Cinema and animation techniques bring inanimate objects to life: the cauldron turns into the Mother’s womb, a crazy chair attacks the Daughter, whose hand gesture sends an egg basket and other utensils waddling to their places. The performance does not lack irony, but at the same time, it is deadly serious. Its aesthetic principles and techniques not only create a playful mood but also function as compound parts of an archaic ritual that help to achieve and express the state of altered consciousness. The lead deep into the subconsciousness where the colors darken and thicken, while the usual perception of the world literally turns upside down.

It is within the framework of the chaos magic that a cooking show successfully acts as an archaic ritual. In the performance’s poster Leonor Estrada France whose face is smeared with salt, herbs, and flour, a wreath of salad on her head, looks like a promoter of culinary shamanism. Cooking food doubtlessly has a symbolic meaning, especially when talking about traditional recipes handed from one generation of women to another, thus passing down skills and knowledge. Such a recipe would necessarily contain a secret ingredient that gives that very special flavor to the dish and makes the woman who is cooking the dish a unique identity defined through the dependence on her family. In short, cooking acts as an initiation. It is a ritual through which a girl is introduced to the feminine part of the family tradition and becomes a part of it. That is why, while cooking, the Daughter remembers not only her mother “whose bones are brittle” or her grandmother “whose flesh had already fallen from the bones”, but all the women together with whom she once cooked and whose voices she can still hear. Women whose lives contained blood and children, bread and bones. Because our memory can only reach as far as we can hear our roots. Penetrating deep into the subconscious scrubs, the performance-ritual restores the connection with its origins, the symbols and archetypes of the collective memory emerge. One of the most memorable and scary moments of the performance is the Daughter’s attempt to deceive Death by creating a mask resembling her Mother’s face. She is modeling, shaping, and reshaping a gray mass of clay taken from the cauldron and thus creates a multitude of archaic animal and insects figures, that can be seen as archetypical parts of the Mother, the whole of many different life forms.

On the other hand, the culinary show's purpose is to demonstrate it to others; it undermines the intimacy of a ritual and heads down in a different direction – that which is secret is revealed, that which is “mine” or “ours” is shown to others. This element is particularly prominent in the performance during which neither the artist nor her character forgets the audience behind the screen. On the contrary, they very clearly reflect the presence of the audience and address it constantly. Ballad of the Crone begins with a scene where Leonor-Daughter comes closer to the camera and tries to engage the audience by suggesting to perform a short magical ritual. “Are you there? Yes, you are. Let’s try to close our eyes and travel to a single point of time and space”. Due to the characteristics of the English language, it is hard to decide whether “you” is plural and Leonor is addressing the invisible audience, or singular and her character – Daughter – is talking to her withering Mother. Most probably it’s both. Neither Mother nor the audience is on the stage or beyond it. Both are perceived through a medium of different media or objects. Through a camera’s lens, the audience observes the Mother’s photographs, hears her voice singing a lullaby, together with the Daughter feel her dress. She is symbolized by multiple objects – cauldron-womb, pie-breasts, a hand stroking the Daughter's face, etc. Thus, it can be said that the theme of the performance is not only the effort of reconnecting to the mother but also the creation of a connection with the viewer.

In my opinion, it is here that the eclectic form of the charms created by Leonor Estrada France can trip the viewers up and prevent them from fully tuning in to the narrative. Ballad of the Crone is a fragmentary performance that combines many opposites, which makes it difficult to experience it as a continuous process. It is especially evident at the end of the performance. During a long scene which is the culmination of the performance, i.e., the Daughter’s encounter with the Crone-Death, the viewer is immersed into the deepest level of the altered consciousness, the collective archetypal subconscious. Immediately after this scene, there is a comeback to a relatively conditional reality of the performance – the Daughter in the brightly lit kitchen pulls out her cell phone and announces to the audience that she is going to call her Mother to check whether her charms worked. The last frame of the performance – a childhood photograph – acts as an exit outside the boundaries of the performance. In this way, with the help of cinematic means, the three-tier structure of the performance is revealed: from the mythical-symbolic reality we rise to the conditional reality of the theatre and, finally, to reality. During the performance, these three levels of reality expressed using various means of artistic expression kaleidoscopically replace each other, thus creating its jerky rhythm.

Such a strategy works great within the framework of chaos magic. Based on this philosophy, a personal system of magic can be created by intuitively combining a wide variety of traditions and elements: occultism and Celtic magic, shamanism and cooking, or paper, pen, and a smoldering cigarette, as Artaud did. On one hand, this gives complete freedom for experimenting on changing one’s consciousness and the outside world. On the other hand, the idea of a purely personal ritual eliminates the possibility of sharing one’s unique experiences with others. The point is not that there is no single universal recipe for baking kugel. We all know that there are lots of them. The important thing is that playing by the rules of chaos magic leaves no opportunity for exchanging your own unique recipe with other people. Such were the charms created by Artaud – one-off rituals designed to evoke transformations and disappear immediately afterward, affecting both the charmer and their receiver, but chaotic and incomprehensible to an outside observer.

Does that mean that Leonor Estrada France’s attempt to appear in the same point of space and time with the viewer is failing? Despite all the things described and not described, the greatest impact on the performance is made by none other than the documentary. It is those few moments snatched from everyday life that act as brief flashes of truth and gain a tremendous emotional charge. Therefore, what is more, important in this performance is not “what” Leonor Estrada France has created, but rather “why”. Through the intricately sewn fabric of the performance (means of artistic expression, symbols, techniques, aesthetic principles, all the “who” and “how”), its fragile bones are shining through, i.e., the “why”. And this truth is the most impactful. Why is the artist telling us of intimacy and loss? Why is it necessary to perform the ritual even though it is obvious from the start that it is doomed to fail? The reason for this is so simple it stings. Just like the Mother’s encounter with the black dog. Or a photograph of a young girl, clinging on to her mother's chest by her teeth.