In the days leading up to Friday night, various friends asked me what plans I had for Friday night. “I’m going to the theatre,” I said, then hedged. “Well, maybe it’s dance. At the New Hazlett. By City of Asylum,” Invariably I received a puzzled look. Of course, I myself didn’t know what I was in for. I had read the press release three times and didn’t grasp it. The performance was entitled A (Micro) History of World Economics, Danced, and if that wasn’t enough to trip you up, it has a director (Pascal Rambert), the artistic director of Theatre de Genneviliers, plus a producer (City of Asylum), 17 local non-actors with disabilities and 28 of their family members, friends, and caregivers, eight singers from the Bach Choir, three professional actors, and an artist-activist.
The performance was divided roughly into three sections, each addressing a stage in the evolution of political economy: the emergence of commodity production, the shift to consumption, and finally the ultimate stage of capitalism, the production of the commodified self. The first section opened quietly, with a poetic prelude read by the actress Clémentine Baert, who was soon joined by the full cast. Let me pause here to acknowledge how radical this is. Usually people with disabilities are marginalized in visual culture; in television, for example, actors with disabilities often play characters with disabilities. By contrast, in this performance all cast members participate equally in all parts of the performance: speaking, dancing, singing, writing. Consequently, we see a performance of diversity, not a performance of disability as such. Moreover the radicality of all this is given visual articulation by the costume design, which is absent. Everyone wears street clothes, which, in the context of the austere black box, highlights the diversity of color, cut and fabric.
As the cast entered the space and distributed themselves throughout, they began silently performing everyday activities such as cleaning, cooking or reading a book. These form a background for a the first of several dramatic set pieces. Baert with fellow actresses Chelsea Fryer and Alessandra Calabi take on the roles of eighteenth-century shipping stockholders, debating the relative health of markets in England and France. It’s an exaggerated comic performance, like period caricatures come alive. This set piece is echoed later with a different trio of characters: nineteenth-century avant-garde French poets, who debate the nature of beauty and ultimately reveal themselves as deeply embedded in economic affairs as the businessmen.
In between, segments of dance and music occur, and these are punctuated in turn with short lectures on economics addressed directly to the audience by the activist John Malpede. Tall and handsome with longish grey hair, Malpede cuts a romantic figure. His delivery was improvised, situated ambiguously between a lecture, which is performative by nature, and a performance of a lecture, and as he spoke about political economy from Adam Smith to the 2008 subprime crisis, I felt myself transported back to an undergraduate seminar at a liberal arts college, basking in the warm discovery of my first professor crush. “Crisis is not a problem for the capitalist economy, but a system of renewal.” Indeed!
If all this sounds crazy—even anarchic—it is, and that may be the performance’s greatest strength—and weakness. At times the various parts (poetry, dramatic vignettes, song, monologue) aligned in a way that felt coherent, but fragile, and refreshingly open, at others, totally disorientating. The breakdowns mainly occurred in the transitions between segments, for example, between a choreographed and an improvised one.
But the openness produced some wonderful moments, particularly readings of personal statements written during the course of the performance itself. Rambert has said that he never tells the participants what to write, just that he wants to hear about their experiences, not generic platitudes. In this way the cast addressed the audience directly with sensible insights about disability: “Do not be ‘inspired’ by this—be convicted!” and “The elephant in the room is disability, which I’d rather call ‘differences.’ They describe, but do not define.”
Unfortunately, the performance concluded weakly, with the group singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, which struck me as trite and unworthy of the seriousness of the preceding material. It’s exactly the kind of song that’s calculated to be “inspiring” and so inevitably crumples into a cliché. It’s also aspirational in exactly that way that Karl Marx—whose name is finally uttered in the closing scene—would have despised. The title suggests an appeal to the divine, whereas Marx advocated organized struggle and ultimately, revolution. The two are not compatible.
In the talkback after the show I asked about the relationship between disability and economics—two central themes that inhabit the show but never fully connect. Josie Badger, one of the cast, who holds a PhD in Healthcare Ethics from Duquesne University, responded that these two spheres intersect in multiple ways: (dis)ability impacts individuals’ employment opportunities, thus, their financial security, for example. Then there’s the issue of accessing support: insurance is often insufficient to cover the cost of care so family members leave their jobs and become caretakers. This is all true, but it didn’t come through for me in the performance itself. (There are no parables about the evils of insurance companies, as we would expect from Berthold Brecht. And the jump from Michel de Montaigne to insurance is too great.) But one of Badger’s points was helpful in framing the specifically artistic achievement of Rambert’s work. Whatever the technical barriers to access and participation for variously-abled people whether in economic or cultural life, fear remains the overriding social barrier. And it seems to me that fear is one thing that performance art is uniquely adapted to addressing. As Aristotle observed, theater helps us to hear and see things that would otherwise frighten us, by constraining them within the familiar rituals of drama. The fact that the cast presents itself as largely non-fictional (they present themselves as themselves) strikes a balance between fiction and reality, and encourages us to extract new experiences and insights from the black box, for application on the street.
Pascal Rambert and Théâtre de Gennevilliers (T2G), A (Micro) History of World Economics, Danced. Tonight at New Hazlett Theater, 7 pm. Free tickets online: cityofasylum.org/events