It is telling to me that Rachid Ouramdane’s Ordinary Witnesses, which had its New York premiere at New York Live Arts in October, begins not with the sense of sight, but with a demand upon its audience to listen. The first onstage action begins with a man walking on the stage and turning up the dial on an electric guitar. What issues forth is a controlled hum. We will hear this hum throughout the performance, as though the sound formed the work’s very ground or basis.
I like to also think of the hum as an evocation of what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas terms the Il y a (“there is”). Il y a is the primitive sign that a world—or the world—is being formed, out of a chaotic soup of sight, sound, and sense. It antedates the encounter with “the Other” (Levinas’s term for God, or a metaphysical being which defies all reason), anticipating the ethical demand made upon one’s self by others.
What follows is a projection of text accompanied by the voiceover of men and women being interviewed in French and Portuguese. A man describes his experience of torture, and the attempt to re-enter society that followed. His measured speech belies the violence perpetrated against him and others during the Rwandan Genocide, which he fled in 1994. Throughout the performance, Ouramdane’s interviewees make reference to a number of human rights atrocities and violent conflicts—in Brazil, in Chechnya, in Iraq.
One of these survivors addresses the impossibility of finding language that could represent his experience. He talks about the difficulties in embracing the reality of the world after suffering torture, an act intended to render the individual worldless.
In a discussion I attended following the performance, Ouramdane spoke about his process of interviewing. For him, he said, the interviews were about waiting, listening patiently to others until their speech started to invoke something just at the edge of narrative, of being able to tell a story. His interview footage asks us to bear witness, to recognize a presence that comes in the act of attempting to speak the truth of events that challenge anyone’s ability to represent them.
I have gone on at length here about Ouramdane’s choice to start with listening and not seeing, because I think it sets up everything that follows in a crucial way. Namely, that what we see ostensibly becomes yet another kind of witnessing that issues forth from the original testimonies. Without illustration, against explanation or representation, the dancers of Ouramdane’s performance struggle after the testimonies to rediscover and rebuild the world. The place where they start from is a kind of zero degree of the human body. It mirrors both the hum of the guitar feedback and the blankness of a theater in which we can only hear foreign languages and see sparse subtitles projected on a wall.
In this place—zero or nil—the dancers move low to the floor. They are grounded—literally. And it is from the floor that they will rise, and writhe, and continually fall again. As if gravity itself were complicit with the violence committed against them. As if it were also a force of resistance embodying the harm that had been done to the violated and tortured. Gravity becomes an active and visible material through Ouramdane’s choreographers, propelling the body/subject (back) into being.
The dancers’ muscular control is incredible throughout the performance. They seem like gymnasts, if not contortionists. Many of the movements place all of the body’s weight upon the head. Headstands, backbends, moves that we associate with the most athletic acts of break-dancing—albeit gradually performed, and at times nearly in slow motion—are reiterated throughout. If torture is what reduces the body to nothing, if it is what breaks down body and soul and language, the actions of the dancers are not so much deformative as reformative. They are trying to find new centers, new organs of perception and horizons of movement. Here an elbow becomes the axis of the body as a dancer rests his entire weight upon it. So, too, the legs and torso, as the dancers drag themselves across the floor and miraculously pull themselves up.
As the dancers move from the ground upwards, finding new centers of balance, and often drawing our attention to their failures to find balance and coordination in the process, the sound and light change accordingly. The hum becomes more modulated, micro-tonal, and warbling. The light issuing from the would-be amp to the right side of the stage flickers, forming patterns within a system of 60 circular lights upon a 10-by-6 grid.
Light, sound, and dance reach a crescendo when one of the dancers, Lora Juodkaite, enters the center of the stage, whirling—part dervish, part figure skater—for approximately 10 minutes. What astounds me is how much light and sound affect the way I perceive the dancer’s continuous motion, as though she turns before a strobe light. I catch her at different intervals, some in sync with the body, some apparently behind or ahead of it, languid or panicked.
Having brought his audience through an emotional experience of sound, light, and movement, Ouramdane’s performance ends much as it begins. The lights and sound soften and dim, their patterns becoming less intense, the din settling to a low hum. Meanwhile, the dancers settle into more peripatetic movements as the video projections and a monitor to the left of the stage feature additional interview footage. We listen to a women describe her experience of armed struggle, how it changed the way she thought about violence. Appropriately, this meditation on violence gets the last word, trailing off into the hum of the guitar, which a dancer hangs from a wire in front of the lights to signal the end of the performance.