The Spirit was a live art collaboration between Belgian performance artist and painter Thibault Delferiere and British theatre maker Jack McNamara. Between February and March 2020 they presented three unique performance works at Battersea Arts Centre, each one involving live collaboration with a leading improvising musician. Born with cerebral palsy, Delferiere has developed a unique, provocative and highly sophisticated means of expression across a variety art forms, all of which were brought together for these three genre defying shows. In this performance diary Jack McNamara describes the process of creation and its reception days away from the country entering lockdown.
Jan 30 2020
I pull into Louvain-La-Neuve station, an hour or so outside of Brussels, and am met by the waving arm of my friend and collaborator, Thibault Delferiere. We are going to spend the next month devising a performance trilogy together. It has been a year since our last collaboration, Sisyphus at BE Festival, and we embrace heartily. It all feels very natural until our accompanying film maker – Jan StÃ¶ckel, documenting the project – asks if we wouldn’t mind re-staging our meeting for the camera. I go back to the platform and repeat my arrival, this time forgetting even how to walk. “Glad to see you!” shouts Thibault in his thick Belgian accent, hamming it up for the camera. As we head over to his studio, we pass a large advert of a moustachioed man looking through a pair of binoculars under the words ‘I Love Theatre.’
Thibault’s small studio is littered with creative debris; paintings, scraps of paper, brushes, colours, bits of animal bone. Every surface is only half dry. I pick artworks off my shoe. There is no division here between process and product. Huge rolls of canvas stuffed under tables are unravelled to show incredible , frightening scenes. I find a pile of sheets in which the same human form has been painted 1000 times in 11 brushstrokes. Into this explosion of art and impulse I am to bring the comparatively dull, overly ordered form of theatre. I think of the man with the binoculars.
Thibault has booked us a separate room to work in and we make our way up a metal staircase to a squat attic space. He is carrying a black leather suitcase which he places on the table. ‘Props’ he says, in his best ‘I Love Theatre’ voice. I open the suitcase and a metre-long mallet falls out, followed by a teddy bear, an apple, some kitchen knives and a collection of plastic toy cars.
We sit down with pieces of paper and discuss the structure of the work we are going to make. We plan to make three radically different works, to be performed over a three-week residency in London. Each one is based on a developing part of the Metamorphosis of the Spirit as described by the philosopher Nietzsche. Ultimately this is a exploration of a changing human spirit, from servility to freedom. “The birth of the artist” Thibault explains.
The first part will be a series of contemplative actions in a quasi -religious setting, the second a sustained howl of rage performed in a huge metal cage, and the third an unhinged expression of freedom in grotesque version of a child’s nursery. The main images and actions are clear but I push Thibault to run through the dramaturgy in detail. He is at his most comfortable in a state of spontaneity – chaos, as he calls it – but I need to see the path in advance, even if we don’t stick to it.
We discuss the importance of the cage. The creator in me understands it but the pragmatist wonders how on earth we are going to build it. I offer a few more easily achievable images to Thibault – chains, ropes, imagination? But the image is too important to him. “I have spent my life painting in a cage” he says. And so a cage it must be.
For the final part of the trilogy he wants an environment to release himself into rather than a pattern of actions to follow. The room will be full of multi-coloured balloons with an over-sized rocking horse at its centre. Thibault (usually bearded) will have his head and face shaved for this last show and undress entirely for its final moments. My first thought is about his large black boots. How will he get them off in good, elegant time? “The boots stay on”, he reassures me.
In London we are joined by our key collaborator, the musician Giuseppe Lomeo, fresh off a plane from Palermo. There is news about a virus spreading from China that has made its way into Europe. But it’s still an abstraction at this point. Our main concern is how to turn our discussions, ideas and objects into a coherent experience for an audience who will bring their own expectations of theatre. Our stage is being built spontaneously, out of a combination of found and ordered items. That evening we eat Vietnamese food and laugh at finding ourselves listed in Time Out under ‘Hottest Shows Opening This Week” – an honour we share with Pretty Woman.
Our ‘tech’ is less a run of the production, more a group improv between a lighting designer, an electronic musician and a human body, patiently marshalled by our production manager Alison. To conserve energy, Thibault does not ‘run through’ in the conventional sense. Instead we step through the space and plot the show’s possibilities, hopes and uncertainties. Our superb lighting designer, Lucia Sanchez, is absolutely at home with our ad hoc approach. There will be no spoken lines or agreed actions to cue, only the need for the operator to be alert to what is happening at every given moment. Equally at home with the unexpected is our musician. Giuseppe begins his improvised score with a combination of percussive triggers and bowed guitar loops. The tone and feel brings the whole show into being from the first note. It is as if he has somehow found exactly the sounds to give the show its strange soul.
Feb 26 -28
Our first show goes even better than we had hoped. The audience is engrossed, I am relieved, Thibault is happy. There are not many shows in which the principle action involves a man piling planks and ladders on top of each other in monumental formations, the entire room praying for the forces of balance to be in his favour. Battersea Arts Centre’s Artistic Director, Tarek Iskander, leans over to me and declares it “the most stressful show I have ever seen” which I decide to take as a compliment. The performance finds its place and something new is achieved each night, though never the same. After a few days Thibault starts to feel shivery, Giuseppe has the hint of a cough. We laugh at what bad luck it would be if this distant virus knocked one of us out after all this build up. Confirmed number of cases is currently at 40.
March 5 – 7
For show two we bring in Steve Noble, largely considered the greatest drummer in the European experimental scene. Steve was unfazed at the idea of finding the sounds to follow a man thrashing against a cage with a slab of meat taunting him from above. We rehearsed the piece’s one dance sequence (using the word ‘dance’ here in the loosest sense). The eventual performance was intense to say the least. Steve played mesmerizingly while Giuseppe providing a deep bed of pulsing electronic sound. The action pushed things to the extreme, with Thibault thrashing against the cage until it shattered inches away from the audience’s feet. A number of people walked out but those who stayed really stayed.
We say goodbye to Giuseppe, as he returns to his family in Italy now under lockdown – a notion that still strikes us as unimaginable here. The UK death rate is now at 10. A future show of ours in May is cancelled, which we consider a surprising overreaction. We move onto show three and I am feeling panic about this one’s looser structure. I am also feeling a strange pain in my arms, legs and neck and am finding myself avoiding having to move. With the other two works behind us, Thibault is now wholly confident that chaos will fall in his favour. We start filling the stage with balloons and Thibault improvises with a large rocking horse. This time we are being joined by another exceptional musician, Sharon Gal – an artist with an utterly unique approach to voice, objects and electronics. Her presence onstage as a counter to Thibault will be electric, there is no question.
The first day of the final part of our trilogy and the pain in my legs makes it almost impossible to get out of bed. I manage to make it to the kitchen and realise I am using both hands to lift the kettle. I call my GP back home in Nottingham for reassurance and receive the opposite. “Self-isolate immediately” he barks down the phone at me. A rather new phrase at this point, but having heard it I now cannot conscientiously enter the theatre or any other public space. So I will not see the last show that we have spent months plotting. I tell Thibault and Sharon they are on their own. We do a walk-through over Facetime.
Eight o’clock arrives and I lie in bed trying to picture what is happening on a stage across town, imagining my abandoned performers cursing me as it all goes wrong. Nine o’ clock passes and my silent phone assures me of widespread disappointment. Then it buzzes with an image. Thibault nude and dripping in red paint standing before a packed audience all up on their feet. Something must have gone right. He phones me after a shower, elated by what he calls the best one so far.
The next morning I watch a filmed recording of the performance. Sharon’s haunting vocals have a transcending effect on Thibault as he enters the stage possessed by a new energy. He plays the audience entirely, swinging them between laughter and stunned silence. It’s clear that he is going to take them as far as he wants to and he does. As I watch it I am moved but also struck by the strangeness of experiencing such a very live moment on a screen this way, unaware that this is the new shape of things to come.
Three months later and the world has changed. The three shows now exist in digital form on a website. I share them with people fondly but wonder if film will ever be able to convey the knife-edge tension of watching such works being made right in front of you. The films make the performances seem safer, more controlled. But that is where we are now. Live performance is effectively banned, spontaneity evokes a whole new fear. Seeing theatre on a screen is more than just a temporary re-housing, it expresses our current need to keep the world at a safe distance. A world that has betrayed us by reminding us that we are no bigger than nature.
The Spirit trilogy was performed at Battersea Arts Centre from Feb 26- March 14 2020. All three parts of The Spirit trilogy can be viewed for free at www.newperspectives.co.uk Watch a behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of The Spirit here. Read more about Thibault Delferiere’s work as a live artist, performer and painter at www.thibaultdelferiere.be