"Factor T' at Fringe Festival

5 minute read
1061 Formica
Choreographically stunning,
intellectually weak


When a dancer asserts an idea in the program notes, and that idea is executed beautifully in performance, but the idea is not quite true, or even false –– has that artist succeeded or failed?

The idea proposed by Dada Theater of Poland in Factor T is this: “The eternal tragedy (factor T) of mankind lies in the conflict between a compulsion to satisfy certain urges and an aversion toward the actions such satisfaction may require.” This proposition is expanded on Dada’s web site with a quote from Factor T, an essay by the Polish novelist and philosopher Stefan Themerman: “In other words, committing deeds, which the [silly human] biped sincerely hates to commit, is its life's need. … This is a conflict, which – the thoughtlessness of the fortune – we cannot avoid. Hence, it is a Tragic [T] conflict.”

The excellence of the Dada troupe’s performance was, in one sense, equally unavoidable. Within seconds of the opening, Katarzyna Chmielewska shows herself as such an astonishing dancer that it would have been impossible not to be spellbound, whatever her message. She seems incapable of a movement that’s not infused with splendor.

But the show must rise or fall on the artistic expression of Factor T. As the program asks rhetorically: “Is it possible to see this struggle in performance?”

The ultimate eternal tragedy?

Now, if we define the “eternal tragedy” as the contradiction between desire and aversion, the depiction of sexual conflict is inevitable. At the outset of this performance we see the conflict between the drive to couple and the drive to break free of a relationship.

Later in the show, when Factor T takes on more metaphysical tone, the conflict develops into one between sexual urges and religious and ethical norms. Laszek Bzdyl, a burly five-dimensional presence who dances so wonderfully precisely by his inability to dance a conventionally graceful lick, recites the Ten Commandments with increasing desperation while a betrayed wife, Puritan in her high-collared full-length black coat (but wearing the garb of a dominatrix underneath), beats to death her adulterous husband. Here for me is the first misstep in the conception of Factor T.

“The eternal tragedy of mankind,” at least in sexual terms, doesn’t lie in the repression of sexual urges. The sexual tragedy of humankind, I would argue, is that sexual desire— whether expressed or repressed— ultimately fails to satisfy the longing of the human heart.

Munch’s sexual dilemma

Freud knew this. Schopenhauer hammered his readers over the head with this in his great work, The World as Will and Representation (see especially his chapter, “The Metaphysics of Sexual Love”). Look at the sexually repressed paintings of Edvard Munch, such as The Voice, and the inherent betrayal of sexuality gratified in works like Munch’s Ashes, Vampire, The Morning After, Separation, and Under the Yoke –– humanity remains chained either way.

This chain constricts all human doing. The eternal tragedy isn’t aversion to what we must do but, as Kierkegaard observed in Either/Or: “Do it, or don’t do it, you regret both.” Insofar as the word “nihilism” is often associated with Dada, this is the real nihilism, the real difficulty of human life that all 20th-Century Existentialist thought, literature and art tried to escape.

The exploration of the religious dimension of the tragedy, while very entertaining as most everything in the Dada troupe’s performance, also falls short of adequate expression. The eternally tragic factor of spiritual life is not contained in Bzdyl’s question to the audience: “How do you combine your dislike of religious fundamentalism with your adoration for transcendence only religion can produce?”

Surely one can pursue spiritual transcendence, or enlightenment, or salvation, without being fundamentalist. The tragedy in the quest for transcendence lies in our aversion to that very quest— in the contradiction that the self, dissatisfied with itself, longs for transcendence and yet flees from the quest because it’s so damned arduous, and the payoff isn’t guaranteed. A lifetime of meditation or spiritual practice won’t necessarily cure your anxieties.

That old Holy Grail quest

The mantra at the beginning of Bedzyl’s comic sermon: “Holy Grail? Or the Quest for the Holy Grail?”–– which he declaimed while behind him a “grail” that looks more like a piece of worthless trash drops from the ceiling–– hits closer to the mark. So long as one is on a “quest,” one never finds. Yet as one has not found, one must quest. “There is a goal, but no way,” Kafka wrote. “What we call way is hesitation.” And: “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing up it, it would have been permitted.”

Elsewhere in this performance, the conflict between desire and aversion is clearly rendered. It was hard to hear, but I gather that Rafal Dziemidok, with his delightful life-beaten face, asked the audience whether someone has a cigarette while warning us not to smoke. Stretched over a red beach ball that symbolizes Mother Earth, he stops breathing so he will no longer emit carbon dioxide.

Bethany Formica, excellent throughout, arouses desires none of her favored males in the audience would dare act upon in public as she stares them down in increasingly seductive attire. The audience is handed knives with which to kill the company members for boring them. The Puritan who destroys her adulterous husband engages in a sadistic lesbian affair. Formica’s seductive glances are not only sexual; they portray the artist’s tragic need to endlessly seduce an audience.

All these contradictions are danced and acted marvelously. Yet I cannot but think they are secondary, not fundamental, aspects of the eternal tragedy of humankind.

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