Diana Gadish (Spain): Handle with care
6th July 2017, Ljubljana, Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival, 2017
The article is a part of my highlights of 2017 Ana Desetnica festival.
The cardboard creature asks spectators for something more specific – to help it with its transformation from the moving cardbox “larval form” towards the final papery “bird form”.
Audience gathers around a circular space covered by randomly placed cardboard boxes overlaid by the metallic rhythmic sound of the diddley bow playing live. Slowly, one of the boxes starts moving on its own, circling around the stage in tiny zig zag movements, until it opens and reveals a cardboard creature: feet covered in brown paper, tubular cardboard over its hands, a cardboard box over a head, dressed in brownish hues, matching the cardboard. Diana Gadish’s Handle with care is amongst those street performances that attempt to create a special, fictional, “magical” place on the street, which the audience can interact with and enter. Within the slow rhythmic and somewhat monotone sound of one amplified string on a wooden board, the creature explores its newly found motoric capacities and establishes the fictional cardboard world with the particular logic of its dance movement (Diana studied contemporary dance at Amsterdam’s SNDO). She would put her centre of gravity low, often moving on all fours, using the weight of her body, her limbs, her head, playing with momentum and release, to gain a very organic, bodily sense of movement, with which her cardboard creature moves around its thingly material cardboard realm.
By positioning herself on the tower, she puts herself in a fragile situation she intentionally emphasises with her movements – the aim is to force audience members to help her.
As the cardboard world and its inhabitant are framed by their objectiveness and physicality, the level of interaction between this world and the audience follows a different logic, alluded in the performance’s title and printed on the cardboard boxes: “handle with care.” The world of cardboard is a fragile one requesting careful handling. But the cardboard creature asks spectators for something more specific – to help it with its transformation from the moving cardbox “larval form” towards the final papery “bird form”. The creature initially needs the audience’s help to release the cardboard wrapped around its hands, then it removes one cardboard box from its head, uncovering a smaller box, removes this one, and another, and another – there’s many of them – till Diana’s hair and face appear. This transformation or “evolution” which drives the show’s dramaturgy then shifts from the body of the performer to the performance space, as Diana’s character asks the audience to help her renovate it. It starts by building a cardboard tower in the middle of the space, a process performer directs while kneeling on top of this seemingly unsound construction as its being built. By positioning herself on the tower, she puts herself in a fragile situation she intentionally emphasises with her movements – the aim is to force audience members to stand by tower and support it for the remainder of the performance. Diana carefully selects the audience whom she would ask for help, favouring adults – some boxes are deliberately too big for children to carry, some tasks ask for reaching quite high, one box is so heavy several adults need to cooperate to lift it. As the heavy box is brought to Diana, she pulls white paper garlands from it, first to transform herself from the “cardboard being” to a “paper bird”, defying gravity and screeching off the top of the cardboard tower. Then with the audience’s help four garlands are stretched out from the tower to four different sides decorating the space for the show’s climax: as the music changes to a pre-recorded social dance song, the musician Ameno walks around, encouraging couples to to dance in the festive arrangements. After the song, the show concludes with Diana’s creature organising the audience for her stage dive.
“Handle with care” takes everyday objects – cardboard boxes – and creates a magical world out of them, while still respecting their materiality, letting us marvel at the beauty of their thingness.
Handle with care takes everyday objects – cardboard boxes – and creates a magical world out of them, while still respecting their materiality, letting us marvel at the beauty of their thingness. The concrete music of Ameno’s diddley bow and Diana’s contemporary dance technique are both self-referential in that they draw the attention to its material attributes: the physical sound of one amplified metal string, the psychical dance style emphasizing the weight of the body, joints, inertia. By making their material components noticeable both dancing and music connect with the materiality of the cardboard and together push it into the realm of imagination. The performance thus exists on both levels: as fiction and as something still evidently physical. Tension between the material and fictitious is what Roman Jacobson called “poetic” as the intention of a message to point to the material it’s made from. (For instance: a rhyme highlights the audial nature of language. Dancing a certain way would emphasise the skeleton structure of the body.)
In a way “Handle with care” takes the role the audience always has – being a partner a performance needs to realise its potential – and makes it into a principle of behavioural interaction.
Handle with care embraces the notion of fragility on multiple levels: the cardboard material it’s made of is fragile; the poetic tension between its fiction and visible material constituting it also has a sense of fragility; the interaction between the audience and the protagonist is based on the idea of spectators helping the fragile creature. The progression of the show along its story line depends on audience members physically pushing the performance onward by helping the cardboard creature towards its “self-realisation” and reshaping the performance’s space. The story/dramaturgy is one of unfolding, of opening up boxes, of slow emergence of magical potential from its seemingly everyday origin. In a way Handle with care takes the role the audience always has – being a partner a performance needs to realise its potential – and makes it into a principle of behavioural interaction.
Yet, for me the penultimate scene of the show breaks with dramaturgy of fragility and audience-protagonist relationship the performance builds upon. The scene of the audience dancing in couples over the entire “stage” uses different, pre-recorded music, utilises a different interaction type (dancing instead of helping), and thus temporary suspends the magical world of the show, even the cardboard creature waits on top of the cardboard tower for the scene to pass. The shift feels forced as the scene ditches the slowly evolving unique co-dependency of asking for help and giving help, which drives the performance, for an instantly recognisable model of interaction we were given no prior exposition to. From a dramaturgical standpoint, I would suggest reconsidering the scene, perhaps making it more in line with the rest of the show, or placing it after the stage dive, which concludes the cardboard creature’s story.
Contrary to common street theatre practice of performers ensuring the audience feels safe and secure, in this show the care is mutual and shared.
As the performance’s title suggests Handle with care asks for certain attentiveness from its crowd – the audience isn’t led by a character along a plot, instead our gaze is invited to carefully wander in an atmosphere of metallic sounds and slowly evolving cardboard landscape around which a native lifeform crawls and climbs. Contrary to common street theatre practice of performers ensuring the audience feels safe and secure, in this show the care is mutual and shared. Audience has to: keep Diana safe while she’s elevated 4 meters above the ground on top of the shaky cardboard tower; coordinate between themselves to complete certain tasks; and they are co-responsible to push the show forward by their physical actions. Inspired by the attributes of cardboard material and the warnings on the side of cardboard parcels, the performance takes the concept of fragility and embodies in its dramaturgy – “with care” is how audience watches the show and also how it interacts with it. In a self-referential manner the performance’s embrace of fragility as its mode of interaction points towards the fragile nature of any street theatre event within the busy street environment and tells us how to engage it: “Handle (it) with care”.
Samo Oleami, September 2017, re-edited August 2018
Photos: Luka Dakskobler