Review of Brigitta Herman’s Physiognomy Of The Spirit
By Steve Antinoff
Performed by: AUSDRUCKSTANZ // Imprints in Motion
Choreographer: Brigitta Herrman
Venue: Meeting House Theater, Community Education Center, Philadelphia
Date: May 16-18, 2008
Cast: First dream figure: Brigitta Hermann; Second Dream Figure: Kristin Narcowich; Three Essence Holders: Rebecca Patek, Zornitsa Stoyanova, Emily Sweeney
In Brigitta Herman’s Physiognomy Of The Spirit death has two faces. One is called death. The other is called life.
The first face is Ms. Herrmann’s. My introduction to this face was decades ago, brought by a friend to a rehearsal of Group Motion. As I entered the studio a woman was moving with astonishing speed across the dance floor, every few steps convulsing maniacally. It was as if the protagonist in Edvard Munch’sThe Screamwas driven to dance. This woman was Brigitta Herrman. I was twenty and knew nothing about modern dance. She was the first “art-dancer,” and the first true artist, I had ever seen.
Not long after I was seated on the floor of this same friend’s apartment among several members of the same dance company. By chance, Ms. Herrmann was seated next to me. At one point she leaned into my ear and there occurred the only conversation that I ever had with her, until this past week. It consisted of two lines, both whispered by her, in thickly accented English: “Do you love to die? I love to die.”
She was in her thirties then. Now she is 70 and her face as she begins her most recent piece is the face of a corpse, and her body the body of a corpse. That corpse writhes and rises into a kind of death-in-life, death shroud in hand or about her, for the rest of the performance. Her face is disconsolate and ravaged. She is death, but she is also dying. Film footage in the opening part of the piece is of bombed out ruins as the dancers huddle together frightened by the sound of the explosions. Ms. Herrmann is superimposed on the screen, supine, repeating on film the writhing movements she has just shown on stage, her body semitransparent so that the bombed ruins appear within her heart. She, a dying woman, is a bombed out ruin, as all the other women in the piece risk being bombed out ruins. She knows it. They do not. These others, 10 dancers, drab in trench coats, are the “warriors of the earth” according to the program notes. Not of the Second World War but of the war against oneself. As in the title of Karl Menninger’s book: Man Against Himself, every self is against itself. The war resides in large part in going against that “against.” These “warriors” do not know that yet. They walk briskly about, stepping nonchalantly over Ms. Herrmann’s corpse — stepping nonchalantly over death — as if she were a puddle.
The first of the three parts of Physiognomy Of The Spirit is entitled: “How to comfort her soul?” This same question expands on the screen at the end of the bombing footage. Life has extracted from Ms. Herrmann’s face, as she moves on stage with her shroud, every possibility of hope. Her face says: there is no comfort and can be none, unless the answer be the comfort of death. Does she still love to die?
The second face is Rebecca Patek’s, one of the “Three Essence Holders” in part two of Physiognomy Of The Spirit: “Reflections of My Essence.” Her face is in exact counterpoint to Ms. Herrmann’s — life in its pure ascendancy, blooming, with no trace of withering — but only on the surface. That life experienced as pure ascendancy, pure bloom, can only be surface is from the outset proclaimed by the song that begins this second segment, the opening of Gustav Mahler’sKindertotenlieder:“Songs for the Death of Children.” The children are adults, the essence holders themselves, and the constant looming presence of Ms. Herrmann’s moving death silently declares that to truly bear their essence, their childish self-perception of themselves as essence holders must die. Must, because “essence” has a dual meaning. It is the core substance of one’s being, of what oneis. Yet it is also theoughtof one’s being, what humans are driven towards, aspire to ultimately. In this duality human existence is always divided against itself; hence the war. In the famous dictum of theologian Paul Tillich: “Existence is estrangement from essence” — what one is intrinsically violates what one ought to be. Not what society says one ought to be; the violation is of the inner imperative, the inner necessity, the “must” which presses one to become what one truly is but existentially is not.
Man’s being … is not only given to him but also demanded of him. He is responsible for it; literally, he is required to answer, if he is asked, what he has made of himself. He who asks him is his judge, namely, he himself, who, at the same time, stands against him. This situation produces the anxiety which, in relative terms, is guilt; in absolute terms, the anxiety of self-rejection and condemnation. Man is essentially finite freedom … in the sense of being able to determine himself through decisions in the center of his being. Man, as finite freedom, is free within the contingencies of his finitude. But within these limits he is asked to make of himself what he is supposed to become, to fulfill his destiny. … But however the norm [of what one is to become] is formulated, man has the power of acting against it, of contradicting his essential being, of losing his destiny. And under the conditions of man’s estrangement this is an actuality. … The judge who is oneself and who stands against oneself, he who “knows with” (conscience) everything we do and are, gives a negative judgment, experienced by us as guilt. … It is present in every moment of moral self-awareness and can drive us toward complete self-rejection, to the feeling of being condemned — not to an external punishment but to the despair of having lost our destiny. *
Ms. Patek, among the three “essence holders,” dances this dichotomy between the “is” and the “ought” of her being in its full contradiction. Her beauty in her character of essence holder is perfect, and yet it lacks. The essence that the three dancers hold in their beakers, which they constantly measure to ascertain how much they have accumulated or lost — expending essence by pouring it into the beakers of the other two dancers in order to gain more essence — this essence fails her. What her movements and countenance gradually disclose, for Ms. Patek is as subtle and superior an actor as she is a dancer, is that her essence, which she seeks to enhance through her transactions with other essences, is being undermined through these very transactions. This is achieved by slowly injecting into her purity and glamour a covetousness that suffuses her face and gestures, spawned by the need to increase essence and to preserve herself against its diminishment. Initially her approach to her essence is sheer carnality; she hungers for her essence, seduces it, is orgasmed by it. But however much enhanced, it proves not enough; the essence of what she is is always an insufficientquantity,and inqualityinherently violates the essence of what her existence ought to be. She needs more essence andwill have it.Her covetousness takes on traces of the demonic — a sense that she will corrupt in order to protect or accrue, early signs of a decay in her purity that is a mere foretaste of, and yet inseparable from, the pure decay in Ms. Herrmann’s dancing corpse, but which Ms. Patek’s youth and glamour can still keep more or less subdued. The choreography suggests it will not long be subdued. The essence that one has — or is — is intrinsically squandered even in the attempt to augment it. The essence holders have from the outset been subverted; as each holds her essence-filled beaker aloft, beholding it with wonder and desire, they click their tongues in unison. The opening night of the performance I thought this was the second-by-second marking off of spent time, which — whether well or ill spent, is in the end, spent, as in a spent bullet. Upon second viewing I think I was wrong. The clicking is the sound of essence leaking drop by drop, as from a faucet, and serves as the soundtrack for the encroachment of death on the day the dripping stops — in the form of the ever-lurking presence of Ms. Herrmann, now clinging to the side of a wall like some awful sloth, eternal and silent.
Through this one touch a double dimension is created in the scene. There is the horizontal dimension in which the transactions and exchanges of essence take place. And the vertical, ultimate, dimension that takes no accounting of which of the essence holders has the lesser amount of essence and which more, but absorbs each exchange, regardless of outcome, as essence down the drain. This, I think, is the significance of the large empty transparent bowls that now become the three essence holders’ obsession. Perhaps at first they delude themselves that these simply are larger vessels in which to gather quantities of essence that their beakers could not hold. They soon realize, it seems to me, the bowls represent the hole into which one’s life and experience inevitably disappear. In the end the three bowls are stacked one atop the other, as all that occurs and is extinguished — last night, a night centuries ago — dissolves into the same void. Each empties her essence into it; the dream figure who sang of the death of children smears her face with the stuff, but the depleted essence holders have access to it no more. Ms. Herrmann appears in the wake of their departure, airing out the space with waves of her death shroud, purging it of the essence holders and their transactions as if they were never there.
As the company showered Ms. Herrmann’s dancing death with blossoms at the end of the first part, there had been an obscure ambivalence: at first they tossed blossoms as if celebrating her with confetti, then, fists clenched and in a variety of defensive postures, the showerings were angered and hate-filled. All humans are ambivalent towards death: we dread it, but need it. Paul Tillich interpreted Freud’s death drive as having emerged, subconsciously, from the life drive itself, for the life drive (eros, libido) wearies of the endlessness of a quest for satisfaction that is inherently dissatisfied. The third part ofPhysiognomy Of The Spirit,“Engagements,” bears this out. The warriors of the earth couple in search of an end to their war, break apart in search of an end to their war until constricted by a transformed essence: stunted, arthritic, and aged. Two lovers in the film clip overhead, locked in a seduction that never seems to take place, are thrown apart and frozen on the screen, shocked by their own destinies prefigured in the contorted lives of the dancers below. At the close, the dancers, frenzied, run hands over their own bodies hunting for what cannot be found. Death appears center stage with her shroud. There is no disconsolation in her as there was at the beginning, no judgment on the human quest or on human evasion, only a transcendent wrapping up, as Ms. Herrmann wraps up her shroud in a dance and face not to be decoded by the living. She lets go the shroud. She drops cherry blossoms upon it.
Why did Ms. Herrmann, in her thirties and vital, not the least ravaged, not withered, whisper in my ear that she loves to die? I couldn’t respond; I was still in my diapers then, long before I stumbled onto Kafka’s aphorism: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die,” before I’d learned that the French word for orgasm is the little death, or that Zen speaks of enlightenment as the great death, or of Freud’s death drive, or that the great 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said without the “mighty death” that the living must “die before dying” we could not attain God. Two nights running this week I sat three feet from her front row center, studying her face as she danced that final dance and scattered blossoms on her shroud. On both those nights tears fell from my eyes, wondering which death it is that Brigitta Herrmann loves.
*Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 51-52.
Steve Antinoff teaches Philosophy and Eastern Thought at the Univerisity of the Arts.