I recently caught up with Marthinus Basson, the director of the upcoming show Dancing in Other Words, to discuss his role in the production. With a glass of red wine in hand and an ironic twinkle in his eye he told me what to expect.
What is the nature of the show Dancing in Other Words? How did it happen? How did it land on your table?
It’s not my show! I was dragged in by the short and curlies by Mister Breyten Breytenbach, with whom I have a history; I did three of his plays – one in Afrikaans, one in Afrikaans and Xhosa, and one in English. So we’ve always kept in touch, and Breyten has always somehow hoped that we could work together again ... And he’s always trying, in spite of himself and at the cost of me. So, in any case, basically he asked me if I could help to assist the ten poets with little performances that they do on the final night of the event. The event will be split in two. I want to tell you that it is excessively difficult to work with poets because, frankly, they only care about the page and the poetry. As far as they’re concerned it’s done, so they don’t care. They want a table and a chair and a microphone, and they’re happy.
And poets are notoriously isolated creatures...
And that’s fantastic! That’s how it should be! Personally, I don’t like poetry that’s dramatised – it’s only on very rare occasions that it transcends that and you can do something dramatic with poetry. I hate poetry programs in general. I find that poets often read their poetry exceedingly well if they don’t try to be an actor and if they don’t have training – then it works. Because they can unfold it. They somehow have the neutrality of a piece of paper with words on it. I like that. So we’re not making a “show”, we’re just framing it to some extent.
So it’s less a show and more a reading? Or what would you call it?
Ja, it’s basically a reading. I think someone like Antjie [Krog] will perform because she’s got a performance history. She worked with Tom Lanoye. I meet the poets on Monday. They were supposed to talk to me, but they don’t talk to me at all – they just send me little comments and lots of poetry. I’ve got stacks and stacks of poetry!
It’s actually a very interesting thing. I think it’s brilliant that Spier’s doing this – putting, I think, an enormous amount of money into an event where they’re basically taking ten poets and giving them time together. That is actually the purpose of it. So they’re hanging several events on it to share the week with the public, but basically it’s for ten poets to spend time together. It’s a proper poetry caravan! They arrive on Sunday, on Monday they leave and they go up the West coast, and they end up on a farm, so I suspect they’ll be doing a lot of chatting and talking and God knows whatever. They’ve got a musician with them, so some things might happen there that I won’t know of until Thursday, and Friday they perform.
How exactly is the program structured? What’s happening on each night?
They’ve got five poets on a night. They’ve each got ten minutes to share their poetry, and it depends on what they want to do with it. I know both the Eastern poets need translators and Joachim Sartorius is reading his in German, so we’ll project the translations. Breyten’s sort of using a theme of wind and stone, which I think is a rather nice one – a stone being fixed and “in a place” and therefore of a place, and of the soil, and wind being able to move across those boundaries. So those are the sorts of images we’ll explore. I’m also working with a very brilliant choreographer called Ina Wichterich who’s working with some very interesting dancers – not necessarily trained dancers. She’s working with deaf people as well. And Colijn Stijdom is doing installations with shadow puppetry, little paper sculptures that can be animated with light, and some beautiful visual stimulus that will be installed in various places on the farm. Then there’s also Geon Nel, who’s a magician from trollkarl Stockholm, and he’s devising tricks with words and paper. And then the whole thing will culminate in a big band march, in which all the stones used in the performance will be moved to a site (and the poets are all bringing a stone from wherever they come from) and that will end up in a little cairn, and will hopefully be a monument that will grow with time. And we’re hoisting up a poet’s cloak. I’m making ten panels that will be stitched together and on which they will write poetry. And that will fly as a flag and will decay in time. It’s made to decay.
And that’s to reflect the “wind” theme?
It’s the wind on the one hand, but Breyten is a firm believer in the-artist-as-a-trickster – that’s also why we brought in a magician – it’s all part of the motley cloak of the performer. And it’s stitching together ten different poet’s visions in a single jerkin that will be worn by one of the dancers as we’re moving toward the site, and then we’ll string it up and hoist it above the cairn, so it will be a very beautiful “flag”. Hopefully it will be a sort of mad “midnight cavort”.
So your role in the production is not strictly speaking that of a “director” in the context of theatre.
Not at all. It’s pretty much the kind of work I used to do when I was excessively poor and there was no theatre, after I’d been retrenched. I did industrial theatre that paid huge amounts of money for theatre in which I did very little. In this case my job is to basically “orchestrate” other people’s talents. And it was a really nice thing to do! I had free hand in choosing the people I want to work with, so I could get people that I admire greatly. I think Colijn Strijdom is a stupendous artist, Geon is a fabulous actor who happens to be able to do magic. I met him in his second year when he levitated outside of the Mystic Boer on the pavement and everyone screamed and thought he was possessed by the devil.
Why do you think Spier chose to put up this performance of poetry, specifically?
I think it’s a case of Breyten having connections! This kind of thing happens all the time in Europe. Here we don’t have the tradition of allowing people to do what they want to, whatever the cost. So I think it’s a very brave thing that they’re doing. I mean, they basically told us they don’t care if anybody came, it’s something they’re doing for the poets, the public is by-the-way. They’re not doing it to make money or sell tickets. Which is really wonderful – it’s just an opportunity for poets to talk to one another. I think poets have, in some sense, a streak of the “holy man” in them – in the sense that you can’t really make money out of poetry, so it’s one of those art forms that you really want to do, that you have a need to do. That’s what sets it apart, that exploration of individual vision.