An Actor’s Inner Garden: Reflections on a Workshop in the Bridge of Winds Performance Technique

I learned of the five-day workshop with the “legend of Odin Teatret,” Iben Nagel Rasmussen, at the DOX Center of Contemporary Art in Prague, a week before it took place this January. The director of performance art at the DOX center, Viliam Dočolomanský, whipped up an advertising campaign which emphasized that this may be the last time Iben Nagel Rasmussen will hold public workshops. The reverence with which the event was presented was delightfully mysterious to me, since I had until then never heard of Odin Teatret, let alone its performing "legends." On a whim, I decided to participate, as the description read that Iben Nagel Rasmussen “came up with a unique way to train performers that demolishes the barriers between theatre, dance, and vocal performance” and this sounded serendipitous, as I was just about to hand in the first of what is sure to be many doctoral studies applications, for which I developed the outline of a project which seeks to create a classically-trained singer’s equivalent to the collaborative and performer-driven way physical theater and dance theater creations come into being. 

So, off I went to the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague, one of those hip spaces outside the city center that looks, on the inside, like the set for a film about the “near future,” all endless white walls, rooms that asymmetrically blend one into the other, many floors connected by ramps, the occasional weird sculpture. We trained in a place that had architectural tours pass through in the evening. I had taken the workshop as an opportunity to interview the music director of Odin Teatret, Elena Flores, on two separate evenings (you can listen to our conversation here), in the space where workshops took place, and I had a tendency to tell the tour guides who interrupted the interview that they were in the wrong place, because I truly thought they must have gotten lost; there is a wooden airship lodged in the roof of the gallery, in which events sometimes take place, didn't they mean to go there? Large empty rooms, though, are the height of architectural chic, these days, and so the tour guides managed to yammer on about something for some time gesturing up at the high, blank ceiling. 

There were 15 participants in the workshop, most of them theater students, many specializing in physical theater. Mornings we spent on the Wind Dance and various other movement exercises, followed by Grotowski resonance exercises, and the piecing together of a kind of movement performance. In the afternoons, we watched videos of Odin Teatret’s past work and were able to ask questions about the “technique” and the “training,” both terms that were used often during the workshop, with quiet reverence. 

Iben Nagel Rasmussen, now in her late 70s, is a child of the 60s, as is that whole branch of theater we call “performance art,” which she embodies, to some extent, and which has been embraced by contemporary art galleries like DOX more than it has by theater venues. Before she trained to become a performer at Odin Teatret, Rasmussen and her boyfriend wandered around as street performers. She is an unassuming woman and, from what I saw on the recordings we watched from the 70s and 80s, had always been so. She seems to actively avoid being “performative” in her everyday life, to the point where one’s eyes glide off of her. One might even forget she is in the room. When she performs, however, she is all Third Chakra – all power and momentum, all Id no Ego. Rasmussen refuses to intellectualize her performing, a refusal that seems to have caused conflict with the founder of Odin Teatret, Eugenio Barba. On a video from the 80s, she says her mentor, Barba, makes her angry, because she simply wants to give “bread to the people” while Barba wants to cut it into pieces and analyze its contents. And when she performs, Rasmussen really does seem to want to rip herself to pieces so the audience can keep a piece, and through this "giving" seems to achieve a kind of oblivion. 

The founder of Odin Teatret, Eugenio Barba, trained under Jerzy Grotowski who is widely considered the father of contemporary physical theater. It is a testament to my ignorance - an ignorance I blame on an educational system which treats classical singers as rhythm-and-pitch-challenged musicians rather than the full musical theater artists they are supposed to be - that I hadn’t really heard of Grotowski until I recently, of my own initiative, researched 20th and 21st century theater history, intuiting some kind of answer there to my curiosity about other ways to approach performing contemporary “classical” vocal repertoire, which has already managed to pick up its stale performance tropes. I was confronted, in a rather humorous way, with my ignorance. During one of the afternoon question-and-answer sessions, I asked what the roots, or "inspiration," is for Odin Teatret’s approach to performance. Rasmussen said, of course, that the origin was Eugenio Barba’s mentor, Grotowski. Before the workshop, I had bootlegged a PDF of Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theater but hadn’t yet opened it. When I finally did idlily open it after the workshop, I was embarrassed by the very first sentence: “I am a bit impatient,” Grotowski writes, “when asked, ‘What is the origin of your experimental theatre productions?' The assumption seems to be that "experimental" work is tangential (toying with some "new " technique each time) and tributary.’” It’s true that I expected the “about” of the theater's approach to be, as it is in classical music, some complex, historical-theoretical system. When I read on in Grotowski’s title essay, however, I realized that, in fact, Rasmussen totally embodies what might be called the “Grotowski method." As Grotowski describes his actors: “without the least trace of egotism or self-enjoyment…The actor makes a total gift of himself. This is a technique of the ‘trance’…” So, really, the roots of Odin Teatret are totally historical, and as such perhaps tributary, though they do seem to deviate in some ways (Rasmussen is the only one to still teach Grotowski's resonance exercises, for example, while the rest of the ensemble moved away from them.) 

I am more of the Barba type than the Rasmussen type. I like understanding and analyzing. I knew, however, without knowing anything about the training, that I needed to check that at the door in order to participate in the workshop. On the first day, Rasmussen told us that in her training of actors she found that simply doing certain movements changed the way performers moved on stage. From what I gathered, these movements were actually movement “families": the Wind Dance, the Samurai (based on techniques from Noh theater) and the Balance exercise, and perhaps others that went unmentioned. Each movement family trained a different kind of energy – for example, very controlled and determined movement in the Samurai or connection with the ground and keeping rhythm in the Wind Dance. This approach to training a performer seems to bypass a performer's intent and communicates directly with the real actor, that is, the body, which learns by doing. This is something every performer knows on some level: we are our own B.F. Skinner, train our inner animal through habit and reward. Sometimes you are a step ahead of your body and sometimes your body is a step ahead of you – this is the performer’s battle. But Rasmussen seems to live without this “you,” or this “I." Rasmussen’s Bridge of Winds technique, at least as we practiced it during the workshop, first breaks down your "I" completely by making you do the Wind Dance, moving through space in a three-beat, up-up-down weight-shift pattern, for a good 45 minutes without stopping, until you really can’t think anymore even if you wanted to. 

The things we did as part of the workshop were not alien to me, though. All of it gave me a déjà vu of various movement classes I took as part of my basic performance training. When I asked one of the physical theater students if this seemed at all different from what they do in their regular training at school, he passionately replied that it was utterly different, a totally unique approach – and so my sense that this training was just more of the same probably came from a lack of discernment or understanding. 

One thing was bothering me the whole time: In so-called Parades, these open-air happenings reminiscent (to me) of some kind of Venetian celebration, which Odin Teatret had done all over the world (we watched a recording of such a parade in Peru in the 70s), the actors play more or less fixed “characters,” which they develop and embody for long periods of time. How do they create these characters? The specific question I asked Rasmussen during the question-and-answer session was if the characters have fixed relationships between each other, which was my way of asking what their “deal” was, what their desire was, because, I assumed, one cannot simply have a character in a social vacuum, or throw a bunch of “characters” onto a stage without the relationships between them being defined. And yet this question was met with incomprehension: No, no there are no relationships between them. When I asked Elena Flores, the musical director of Odin Teatret whom I interviewed, another version of the question - "How do you 'build' characters?" - she talked for a long time about costumes. She explained that the theater’s colors are red, black, and white and that the actors must stay within that scheme, but that otherwise they are free to create their own costumes. Shoes help the most in creating characters, she added. 

I was flabbergasted. And, though I didn’t know it yet, this went against some of the ideals Grotowski expresses in the title essay of Towards a Poor Theater

I told Elena I don't fully understand the idea of creating a character from a costume and without any sense of their story, their desires, and the relationships they have with the characters around them. Elena said that that “psychological” work doesn’t interest the company, and that Eugenio Barba doesn’t want to know anything about each actor’s experience or thought process behind the characters. She talked about the actor’s “inner garden.” Your “inner garden,” she said, is for you, not for the audience. The audience does its own work by projecting all manner of things on what you’re doing. Elena, a musician, started to understand Odin Teatret’s process when she realized it was like composing – there was a rhythm, a groove. It may be that this kind of performance is better understood as music rather than drama. 

As it turned out, Iben Nagel Rasmussen had already answered my question on the first day. She did it, however, in the language she spoke best, the language of doing, not the language of theory. 

At the end of the first day, Rasmussen taught a simple set of actions to one of the students: Run in, look both ways, turn around and jump three times as if looking over a fence, then turn back and sink to your knees with your hands over your face. She had the student leave the room and then described three scenarios to the rest of us: First, someone is running from the police. Second, someone is looking for, then finds, their cheating lover. Third, someone fails to find a place to relieve themselves. She then called the student back in and had her perform the sequence three times, as we imagined each scenario. I assume the point of the exercise was that the performer doesn’t need to know what they are doing in order for an audience to project their own story onto the performance. I say “I assume” because there was no explanation given as to the meaning of this exercise. That lack of theory, I suppose, was part of the didactic approach.

At the end of our interview, Elena Floris told me Odin Teatret will stop creating new performances when its director, Eugenio Barba, passes away, and that, as its performers, like Iben Nagel Rasmussen and Tage Larsen, gradually pass on, as well, so will Odin Teatret. She calls this an organic process. The natural death of the ensemble encapsulates the ethos of their performance process. The body - the mortal body - is above everything else in this kind of theater - above text, above sets, above the score, above the physical space of the theater, above all those things which, within the European tradition, are regarded as the stuff of theater for which the bodies on stage are mere temporary, interchangeable and replaceable vessels. The bodies, here, too are temporary vessels - but in an ensemble like Odin Teatret, that makes the theater temporary as well.