Teardrops falling down my face. Trying to forget all my feelings of love. God damn. I mean, you know what. What a shame to even have to write a song like that.
Bertrand Lesca & Nasi Voutsas’s ONE leans heavily on Nina Simone’s performance of ‘Feelings’, at Montreux Jazz Festival 1976.
The original ‘Feelings’ by Morris Albert is schmaltzy trash. In a good way, but it’s entirely different. Albert performs his song with a smug, big-collared melancholy which is blank and easy to project onto. In her 1976 Montreux performance Simone fights this mode and forces an expressive, fragmented interpretation on her audience. Simone performs with a sincerity which is impolite. Her responses to the song – including spoken ad libs and jibes at the audience – are unshuttered.
The audio of Simone’s version plays over the performance’s final sequence. Up to that point there has been little to no payoff. Nasi and Bert bicker, block each other and draw the audience into a monotonous shifting of masculine power. Nasi is stoic, Bert is childish, wretched and mean. At the head of the show, Nasi is up a stepladder and Bert’s laces are untied. There’s an implied risk they may end up hurting themselves, but it becomes clearer that their energy is directed at each other. Often it is reactionary, each of them simmering and kicking out at the other, who is breaking the performance, ruining the show, stopping it from happening, working. And it becomes clearer that their outbursts are posturing. Bert kicks the stepladder with Nasi standing on it, but it’s never going to fall over.
Because ONE is a performance, it is a charade of hurting each other’s feelings – of playing out the idea of leaving deep wounds. But also because it is interaction between men who are, ostensibly, close friends. Nasi and Bert inhabit a dynamic of casual violence; as men, they are coded through their physical strength and their mutual ability to injure each other, if they really wanted to. Their abstract disagreement, ‘conflict’, is expressed through the small structural powers they hold over each other. The two tug at threads of xenophobia without committing but the lion’s share of the aggression is sexual, and comes from Bert.
Bert tells Nasi he loves him in an empty but earnest display. He repeats the words desperately, and only as a means to get from him what he wants (whether he realises it or not). After Bert has been repeatedly asked and finally persuaded to sit at a table opposite Nasi, he asks leading questions about his preferences of gender. Bert begins writhing across the table toward Nasi, expressing a psychosocial sexual power at him, at Nasi’s expense. I hurt my back in a club on canal street once. I asked a man to stop grabbing the women in the bar by the wrist; he jumped on me and wrapped his arms and legs around me, clinging to me like a big monkey. ONE utilises the emotional and physical sexual clumsiness of men, in Bert.
Kind words to describe Bert’s character might be ‘brash’, ‘swaggering’ – they suggest deliberate movement. Bert is stupid and clumsy and swings like a drunken lout through the show. His emotional illiteracy is a block again and again. Nasi does most of the performance through surviving, enduring, trying to rein in Bert’s flights of schoolboy diversion and petulant threat. He appeals to the audience, to draw things toward how he wants them to go. They are not particularly on his side.
Come on, let’s hit the climax. Feelings. You know this song, come on.
When Nina breaks into ‘Feelings’, she breaks it open. Simone demands the audience join her. She demands they feel as wholly as she does. Her performance is a critical comment on the song itself, on the relationship she has with her audience. She performs with an air that she is thinking deeply about something else. She performs as if she is somewhere else, and trying to bring the audience there with her. Nina Simone is eccentric and vital, and audience members laugh at her and I can’t understand how.
ONE is a piece of live art which happens to be theatre. When Bert makes his final appeal to the audience, he gives them three options. We make the choice which seems most obvious, the one which hangs in the air. Most of us do not speak and allow the decision to happen as if it were a part of the show and our capacities aren’t as required as they are made out to be. Bert has described a technical marvel – music, tap dancing, the two performers flying over the audience, scattering stars.
If you like, ONE is about nothing getting done. Bert’s vision for the finale is impractically ambitious; he reads an email from the technical team describing as much. What we are to get, he explains, is what they are capable of.
The dance sequence which bottoms the show is inadequate but beautiful. It is performed in the shadow of Nina Simone’s performance. There is some tension relieved at last. Bodies are be borne, swung, forced. Nasi forms a pivot and anchor and propels Bert across the stage. For a few moments, the two move together. But the hope of an obscene romantic gesture isn’t enough. Because it’s superficial. It’s already broken by being explained. The payoff is stolen from Nina Simone, ruined by Bert’s description of it, and then delivered in a toned-down version. And Bert is no different a person than the one we have been with for the past hour.
Finally, they are separate. Bert sprays glitter confetti from atop a step ladder. This is his climax, not Nasi’s. Sometimes, when they are tired of you, people leave. Perhaps Nasi is sick of Bert’s showboating, or his neediness. Perhaps his investment in the charade of male friendship is worn out. In any case, he leaves.
Performance needs an audience. At Montreux, Nina Simone stares around. She knows the audience need to be there but they need convincing of their own importance.
Feed me, feed me, feed me.
Well, come on! Clap, damn it. What’s wrong with you?