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Reviewed by Alistair Henning
Eadweard Muybridge stands at the ground zero of visual modernism: his photographs study the human body as never before. Created in the 1880s, his Motion Studies gave birth to the moving image.
So, why do so few people still know who he is?
Coming to Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre to remedy this defect of collective memory is The Electric Company Theatre’s production of Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge. It’s written by Kevin Kerr, directed by Kim Collier, and choreographed by Crystal Pite, who combine talents with costume artist Mara Gottler and composer Patrick Pennefather to create a multimedia meditation on Muybridge’s life and work.
But this isn’t just a story about photographs: re-enacting Muybridge’s life necessarily involves depicting the torrid life and death of his wife Flora and Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover, among other anecdotes of Muybridge’s generally wild behaviour.
Artistic director Jonathon Young explains that Muybridge had a compellingly turbulent history before his work on Studies in Motion began. “His life before that reads like a high melodrama of the day: there’s murder, betrayal,” Young says. “He was in a stagecoach crash, and after that all his hair went white. He changed his names several times.”
And that’s not all. Young admits, “there’s a lot of nudity in Hauntings. Right from the very beginning, that’s present.” However, Young feels audiences will be surprised how quickly this nudity becomes “a non-issue. Because it’s like when you’re looking at Muybridge’s studies. There’s a cast of 12, and oftentimes the entire cast is naked onstage. There’s bodies of all sizes and shapes doing a variety of things.”
According to playwright Kerr, he knew nudity would integral to the play from its inception.
“It’s such a distinguishing feature of Muybridge’s work, one of the elements that make his photos so compelling,” Kerr says. “There is, within the piece, a celebration of the human body in motion.
“I love about theatre’s liveness, that we’re all these bodies together in a space, unlike film where the body never changes no matter how many times you review the piece. In theatre, it’s a different body every night.
“So the idea of a stage populated with all these naked bodies seemed quite beautiful. We were careful to treat it in a manner which evokes the feelings we got from Muybridge’s work: it was about science and art, not sensationalism.”
Kerr discovered Muybridge very early on in Electric Company’s history, “in the middle of doing research for [our] first production many years ago. I happened on a video of what I thought was silent film footage from the silent film era,” Kerr says. “In fact, it was the work of a videographer who had taken Muybridge’s Motion Studies, all of these sequences of action that had been dissected, and reassembled them into little tiny looping films. I was astonished by what I saw when I realized what I was seeing: little movies, from before the age of cinema.
“There were all these sequences of animals, and then sequences of people: people, doing all these pedestrian things, that slowly evolved over time to be more and more compelling and curious actions, at times haunting or humorous or even a bit disturbing.”
“And they’re all naked too, which is also somewhat compelling and realizing this was all shot in the 1880s in Pennsylvania, And in the middle of all these images is the man himself, it’s Muybridge as the subject of his own images, with this great big white mane of hair, huge beard, stark naked swinging a pickaxe or climbing some steps or throwing a shotput or something. I was wondering ‘Who did this? Who is this guy? What is he about?”
As Kerr did more research, he discovered Muybridge “was not the Walt Whitmanesque character I first imagined him to be. He was someone much more complicated, with darker elements.”
In Muybridge’s work, Kerr says, “there’s a celebration of this human animal in motion, as it’s moving through time and space.”
Picking up Kerr’s theme, Young elaborates: “Once you start breaking down the infinite variety of movement that defines us as humans, where does that study end? The work presents itself in a very scientific manner, yet some of the studies give away some other motives. The work can be viewed as cold and analytical, or also erotic or voyeuristic: it has all these layers, and Muybridge the man disappears behind all this.”
Kerr continues, “The images do start provoking questions about the intention of this person, and about the period. And also unlike the previous photography of the day, in fact all photography up to that point, he was creating these extended sequences, the beginning of narrative.”
Young agrees, “There’s this schism in the man who was trying to stop time, to understand the essence of humanity while removing himself from the work: the animal side of Muybridge containing that potential for losing control, versus the cold calculating scientist.”
Electric Company has worked on several projects set in the past. “For me,” Kerr explains, “doing a piece that’s set in another time is always about right now, it’s a lens to see today through.”
A big part of Muybridge’s draw for Kerr was “his pivotal role in transitioning from a Victorian sensibility to a more image-based, fragmented, decontextualized culture of today where images are paramount. I definitely wanted to let Muybridge be that, while at the same time letting the piece have the feel of period.”
For Kerr, Hauntings is an “exploration of how we create meaning in our very fragmented world. How do we put together the component parts that we see around us, and assemble it into a story for ourselves?
“Of course that’s what theatre’s always trying to do, we’re always trying to assemble stories so that we can take a moment’s pause and examine ourselves in relationship to what we’re witnessing onstage, in the theatre,” he says.
Hauntings, to Kerr, is about “the human need to try and assemble our lives’ narrative so that we have the capacity to go on in the face of momentous changes, crises in our lives. that upset what we understand to be true, or believe to be real.
“When we’re shaken to our foundations and need to build up again, where do we start? How do we start putting those pieces together again? That’s what’s going on in the play for Muybridge, and for the other characters around him, attempting to make meaning out of a very confused moment in their lives.”
“It’s a play that’s about trying to capture the essence of our humanity,” Young concludes. “I think that’s what Muybridge’s studies were ultimately about. How do we see who we are? Is it possible to capture that? Yet of course the essence of who we are is always changing, and is always escaping us. And I think the mystery of that question will always be answered, and is always unanswerable.”
Originally seen in Vancouver during the 2006 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Hauntings is definitively the product of The Electric Company Theatre.
Jonathon explains, “the script is written by Kevin Kerr, and the play is directed by Kim Collier. The three of us founded Electric Company. Prior to Studies in Motion we’d co-written all our scripts.”
Yet according to Kevin, collaboration remained key in development of the piece: “It very much evolved from all elements working together in concert. When I became fascinated with Muybridge, I talked with my collaborators Kim Collier and Jonathon Young. At that point we ended up in conversation with Robert Gardner, the stage designer and professor at the Univeristy of British Columbia. He was in the midst of doing a research project examining the use of digital light projectors in theatre, as a replacement for traditional lights.
“When he told us what he was doing, which was taking a new approach to the use of light onstage so that it becomes not just light but also image and narrative, and a kind of spinning what we expect of light design in theatre on its head, we saw a connection to Muybridge and his digitizing of action through instantaneous photography and another means to see the world in a new way.
“Before there was any text, there were already impulses in design and direction. We started to establish a plan to do physical workshops with the technology, to start seeing what we could do to theatricalize these Muybridge elements. Which, once again, was an early impulse before there was any even story, we wondered if we could recreate theatrically these sequences onstage, where we break movement down into frames, or we use multiple bodies to create one gesture.
Not only stage design, but music and dance became inexorably intertwined with the work as a whole. Jonathon elaborated on the company’s relationship to the composer and the choreographer: “We’d worked with Crystal Pite, the choreographer, on many occasions also. It’s an extremely good fit for her work also: she too is interested in dissecting movement, breaking it down into its parts.
Jonathon also mentioned that “composer Patrick Pennefather came in early on as well, and we’d worked with him before also.” Kevin elaborated, “Patrick quite similarly dug Muybridge’s world. He works a lot in electronica, and his music is very modern. What we liked about him bringing that energy to the piece is that it spoke to the sense of modernity and revolution in that historical moment.
“He played with us in the workshops: he came in with his keyboard, and would watch movements and then get inspired by that, bring stuff in, and come in with a piece he’d created overnight. Then the choreographer would get inspired by that.
“We knew we wanted to have a certain number of moments in the piece that were very movement driven, that were really physical where we left the text behind. And so that determined where music would be a driving force. I think it’s a nice balance: it’s really present in a few movement driven sequences, as well as having underscoring in certain places, and then being absent when we need to be focusing elsewhere.
What Kevin’s really refined each time is the sub-plots which bring out the themes he’s addressing. Refining those for clarity. The fictional characters that Kevin had invented in the world of the photographic compound. Getting those in the right balance so they’re in the background to Muybridge’s story, but still supportive. That balance. Altough Muybridge is the central character there’s another, Blanche, who is invented, who is a young woman who comes to the compound kind of accidentally and is there cataloguing studies and her journey through this.
“It’s interesting that there is no reference at all to what happened during the studies, at the University of Pennsylvania; there’s just the photographs. Everything that happens in the compound while they’re taking photos is Kevin’s invention. And then of course the past, Muybridge’s back story, is all recorded: the affair his wife had, their child … there’s a jumping back and forth in the play from this invented world while they’re taking photos and the past, which haunts Muybridge as he’s trying to keep in control, dissect and study.
This review first appeared in Theatre Preview in November, 2010.