“Playing Ensemble Again and Again”

Nicole Strecker

The performance must have been magnificent. Thundering applause that won’t stop. It’s time for the performers to take their bows. They raise their arms, then bow their heads – confident in their triumph and humble in their devotion, at the same time arrogant and politely conforming (to expectations). Demonstrating the artist’s eternal ambivalence towards his audience, the ritual of the curtain call is just that: choreography.

In Ivana Müller’s piece the curtain call is the entire performance. After the show is before the show. The thank you to the artists, their good-bye, lasts a whole hour.

“Playing Ensemble Again and Again” shows six performers in the act of taking their bows, caught in that mystical in-between-state of “Are they still playing or already living?”

While their faces and gestures articulate expressions of extreme happiness in slow motion, they reveal – via microport – what really goes on in the industry: “For this show I had to dye my hair.” Or: “Our audience seems to have aged with us.”

The bodies are one thing. They grasp a colleagues’ hand with routine gaiety, sashay ecstatically to the front of the stage, smile blissfully at the audience. Their brains however tell another story. Like in Ivana Müller’s other successful production “While We Were Holding It Together”, the discrepancy between what you see and what you hear provides a reliable supply of jokes throughout the show.

We learn that the real principal performer has for the first time been replaced by a younger colleague. Meanwhile the older one storms the stage as he has been used to, drinking in the star’s applause.

The things we always wanted to know about theatre – “Playing Ensemble Again and Again” is an excellent opportunity to spy on the world backstage. The performers look like they’ve just been on a shopping trip to H&M – there was no costume designer. Three audience members left after the screaming scene, we find out, and the fog machine suddenly went berserk during the performance.

This is what you call meta-theatre commenting on the meta-theatre tradition, spotlighting the navel-gazing “self-referentiality” of recent years, zooming in on the human being at the heart of the ‘apparatus’. That means: no position without emotion. Ivana Müller re-animates the great questions asked of the theatre – its truth, its dramaturgy, its conventions.

Sentence by sentence the six terrific performers recapitulate their art. From the demands at the casting (“fiercer, faster, more autobiographic”), to the good luck rituals of spitting over each others shoulders before the show, to the loneliness after the show. Their analysis of rituals is as poetic as it is precise, so sentimental in its conclusion that it must be ironic: “When the lights come down you won’t see us anymore. We’ll be gone.”

In a place where no one evening is like the next one, every moment is also a good-bye.

Ballettanz, May 2009