It is like being underground. Cold air, drips of water falling from the ceiling; an impression of darkness and space. On the stage Philippe Ménard is sitting on a large clouded block of ice; she is thin, huddled over, wearing a coat and lumberjack's hat. Above the stage large spheres of ice hang in ranks, bright and alive.
We sit in silence until the first sphere falls and shatters on the floor, throwing out a flower of dust and shards. It startles Philippe, rouses her, and begins a journey through a disintegrating world—but is she unwittingly caught or here by choice? She has many identities. She licks a ball of ice, tentatively, then stuffs it into her mouth and crunches through it like a starving animal. She walks a flat-footed, hobbling walk, and is very old. She juggles balls of ice and lets them fall, then throws them down, young and angry and elated.
She is forgetful. She enacts rituals or clings to ordinary acts as if they have the power of rituals: she washes a long dress in two buckets of water, madly hurling it from one to the other, pushing it down as though drowning it. Then she forgets it. Later she comes back and retrieves the dress from the water; it is soaked through and heavy, without the shape or quality of a dress, but she puts it on, pulls and shakes it up her body as she walks round and round in circles. Then she forgets that too. She sits down on the large block of ice, but when she tries to rise, she can't. The dress has frozen.
* * *
I go to Stoa; a cold afternoon, a light rain. Walking out the back of the building where they load and unload the stage equipment there's a rank of entranceways with drawn-down metal shutters. No numbers or signs to differentiate the doors, but something catches the eye out on the concrete steps in front of one: two big lumps of ice, not sculpted, side-by-side, creature-like with melted runnels and reaching limbs. They're a little beautiful, and a little ugly, not really scintillating now in the weak sun, and they put me in mind of a throwaway replica of the stone statuettes that certain families place at the end of drives or on porches: for the time being at least, Compagnie Non Nova lives here.
Touring P.P.P., Non Nova arrive four or five days before the first performance, to make the ice. At Helsinki's Stoa, with three days till their opening night, they are in an L-shaped workshop that connects the main theatre at one end and a dark, high storeroom at the other. It's narrow, and much of the available space is blocked out by eight trunk freezers that have been borrowed from locals and members of festival staff and set on raised crate pallets, the four company members working between the freezers, each other, and a long table on which are arrayed frozen spheres and semi-spheres of ice, in or alongside the plastic casing that is used to shape them.
They have a relaxed production line: one person is taking halves of ice and running the flat sides over a hotplate so that they can be joined and refrozen; another is encasing the fused ice balls in plastic and then wrapping them in clingfilm; the third, further down the timeline, is removing fully frozen spheres from one of the freezers, unwrapping and shelling; and the last is filing away the seams and drilling boreholes so that cord loops can be frozen into the ice. These are the midsize balls, around 5kg, about at a size where a large hand could grip one from overhead and a small hand could not. The company need to make 90 of these, and then 50 at miscellaneous other sizes, including a set that can be used for conventional ball juggling; 3 heavy contact spheres, as big as footballs, one of which will be used in the performance, two of which are spare in case the first is dropped and shattered; and a giant rectangle block, the size of a tombstone but double-thick, that is used as a kind of seat.
Some of the ice is made to be broken. The 90 spheres are hung in ranks over the stage, by the loops of embedded cord. These are frozen in at different depths, and the ice drops in a predictable sequence but with varying timing. To reduce the margin of error to the greatest possible extent the temperature of the auditorium is brought down to 17°C and the overhead ice set-up just an hour beforehand. The audience have to be ushered in quickly, as the cold escapes through the open doors, but then even seated they are, by their presence and attention, heating the space.
* * *
Sometimes Philippe ignores the crash of the ice, sometimes she is startled by it; it can be close or far away. She catches one falling sphere, and lies still as another shatters a few feet from her head. Even though I've been behind-the-scenes and heard it all explained, I find it almost impossible to believe that the fall of the ice is not mechanically controlled: not so much for the near misses, but for the seeming exactness of the theatrical rhythm—always at the right time.
Coming to the theatre I had imagined that Philippe's performance would be always just ahead of disaster—essentially a long flight directed by the behaviour of the ice as it manifested within an uncontrollable set of influencing factors: the number of people, the ambient temperature, the humidity, the particular rate of molecular dissolution on the particular day. But this isn't what it feels like, and this isn't how it is. P.P.P. is not improvised, though it is still different every night: the piece runs on a fixed choreography which is divided into parts and paced by the falling ice, less than one third of which is rigged to drop. Just before the performance Philippe is shown around the theatre by Rodolphe, the member of the crew responsible for the final set-up, to see how the movement will play in the dimensions of the space.
During the performance she doesn't give it much thought, only counting the impacts to locate herself within the pattern of the drops. It's still dangerous. After the show at Stoa Philippe told us the story of performing P.P.P. in South America in 27°C heat. The ice was melting and falling very quickly, but that was expected, and it was only when she counted one too many drops that she realised the show was out of control—that it was possible for all the ice to fall. It only happened once, though it left its mark.
'It is like being inside a cage with a tiger.'
* * *
Philippe's interest is to juggle the unjuggleable. She's tried cacti and tyres, and would like in the future to work with sand, but for P.P.P. she picked ice—unjuggleable because you can't rest (the ball will freeze to your hand, or melt), nor can you go on indefinitely (you will drop and the ball will shatter). It's a substance with a stubborn life of its own, predictable but also contrary, so that the same block of ice that slides frictionlessly across the stage can hold Philippe fast in the trap of her wet dress. It forces adaptation. First, Philippe's ideas of how to use the material (most of the plans she brought to the earliest stages of the making process were impossible to realise), and then physically she has had to learn to control her response to contact with ice—to be at home with it. From hearing her speak I particularly remember her description of the scene in P.P.P. when she takes the largest contact ball and rolls it up under her dress, and how at that moment she she can feel her organs, individually, mapped out in the cold.
Ice was attractive, too, as a metaphor, the transformation into water (called a 'phase transition') resonating with Philippe's own experiences as a transgender person—which were the start of P.P.P. and which have been the narrative underpinning its two year tour and development as Philippe has gradually transitioned from a man to a woman.
It's a demanding piece. Talking about the physical impact of performing it, particularly in winter, Philippe says: 'It is strong. It is very strong.' And perhaps it's just a quirk that comes from talking in a second language, but there's something too in the idea, which I think for her might be more than an idea, that whatever is a source of hardship can also be a source of strength.
* * *
I don't know if the idiom 'coming out of the closet' exists in French. In P.P.P. the only objects to share the stage with Philippe and the ice are three tower freezers, motorised and controlled, sitting quietly most of the time, but lighting and gliding forward when needed, suggestive slightly of robotic butlers. They also serve as Philippe's changing rooms; she steps in, the fridge circles, she steps out in a dress or bathrobe, or only in underwear. Afterward she tells us that these sections mimic the child's game of dressing and undressing, but they are also the adult's game of self-presentation, here starkly rendered in light of the fact that Philippe is a transgender person—someone for whom every outfit is closely read as an expression of identity.
There is loneliness too. We feel the passage of days. A subway train clatters through as Philippe passes a ball of fallen ice, one she has caught and saved, around and around herself. Voices leak in, and snatches of song, impressions of an urban landscape. The next day it was revealed that in the dramaturgy of the show the voices belonged to the freezer butlers (human and not) and that many of the recordings were from a conversation with a prostitute, Lisa, who the company had met in Jakarta; but sitting there watching I didn't know any of that, and felt instead like the outside world was pressing at the sealed interiority of the piece: the people distant, seeming to come down phonelines and forlornly through the repeated tone of the answer machine, yet in their various languages poignantly spelling out the scale of humanity and its endless opportunities for connection—more than can be grasped—and offering finally, perhaps, the promise of harmony by the fact of so much difference.
* * *
What is a person alone? Philippe is alone on stage, but loneliness is a condition of awareness: acute only if you can see what lies outside of your experience, and then only if you want it. By this measure, P.P.P. is desperately lonely; it wants. It's a theatrical narrative where desire shapes and controls the body—most explicitly in Philippe's transgenderism and the steps taken toward transition; but also in the fidgety boredom of sexual and romantic longing, at once sensuous and somehow careless to the fact of being embodied, and in the seduced fascination with risk and death that gives the performance its compulsive energy and inspires the full title, Position Parallèle au Plancher or Position Parallel with the Floor.
It's the position of both sleep and death, and in P.P.P. a reminder of the troubling threeway relationship between self-extinction, self-determination and human creation. When Philippe is laid out on a bed of ice chips—like a morgue corpse, but in underwear and fetching earmuffs—you can feel if not hear the intake of breath among the audience, the sympathetic reaction, and Philippe talks about this moment as one where the spectators take her place: they feel more than she does. ('It is much worse for them; I am busy.') For me it was watching Philippe struggle into the wet dress—and in fact seeing any contact between skin and cold water—that brought on the creeping horrors, but it didn't strike me as the spectacle of self-harm or seem the same as watching a person like a fakir. What P.P.P. does I think is use situations of extreme physical stress to echo some of the ethical arguments which, particularly in countries with state health systems, tend to gather around the use of surgical and pharmacological treatments for gender dysphoria. It doesn't have the answers, but it has found a way to theatrically encode the questions in their limitless complexity. Is it voluntary? Is it simply necessary? Is it hardship or a source of strength? Is it happiness? How do you feel about it? How would you feel about it? In one of the darkest scenes Philippe takes a bright metal cleaver from an open freezer and performs a wild dance, cutting the air around her body. In the audience discussion afterwards someone wants to clarify and resolve: is it suicide ideation or an evocation of surgery? Or something else? What is the purpose? Philippe's reply was characteristic, and seemed to me typical of an artist who knows and protects the innate value of the ambivalent experience:
'I think. I feel. I don't know exactly what's happened.'
For more on Compagnie Non Nova see their interview and profile in the book Panorama contemporain des arts du cirque. The company are also featured on the double-DVD compilation Le Nuancier du Cirque.