Michael Chekhov taught an exercise called ‘Crossing the Threshold’. In it, the ensemble of actors imagine an invisible line on the floor of the rehearsal room. When they cross the line, they leave the everyday world - and with it, all its thoughts, worries, and distractions - for a creative realm, where anything might occur. The compatibility of Chekhov’s and Lecoq’s acting techniques is well-reported; still, I was surprised to learn so much about Chekhov’s threshold in such an unexpected place, underneath one of Lecoq’s most bizarre, frustrating, and revelatory devices: the neutral mask.
And it wasn’t, in the end, so much of a line
I stand up.
because you don’t just cross it once,
Ready, set -
but keep crossing it, until the line
becomes a groove.
His neck burnt on the walk to the Giardini. He forgot his hat and his sun cream and by the evening he could feel the hot, red skin blistering under his fingertips. He got lost in Venice’s spirals: he followed the narrow lane that emerged out of nowhere, climbed the wrong way over the steep bridge, traded the wrong timeless emptiness for the wrong hectic modernity, turned the corner that unrolled a whole piazza and stopped there for long enough to watch the the paper cut-out shadows cohere into a 5-minute Matisse. By the waterside, he took a video of the water refractions under the tiny steel bridge to somebody’s front door.
The principal task of the Neutral Mask is to go on a journey through natural spaces (the sea, the beach, the forest, the mountain….), first calmly, then swept up by cataclysms. Wearing the mask, the actor creates an expanded world through an engaged and open body, a face-body, calm and receptive to all that surrounds it. At the end of the journey, the actor continues to wear the mask without any need for the physical object. The neutral mask is the mask under all masks. It is the first two parts of ready, set, go; it is the passageway - in Chekhov’s terms, the threshold.
The Belgian pavilion was dark and cool and offered some respite from the sun. He sat for a long time in front of a video of a small boy rolling a tyre resolutely up the slope of a wide and dusty hill. At the crest, the boy climbs inside and rolls thunderously down. A tumble-dryer child, yellow and red swirls inside the bounding rubber ring. Once at the bottom, he jumps outside and rolls the ring up the hill again. Ready, set -
The neutral mask is indefatigable. It pauses, it reacts; no stop, no drop, but rolling forever onwards and when it reaches the bottom, it climbs to the top again. It is extra-human, almost unsurvivable. It requires risk and calm in equal balance. It is living at the cusp, as if every action were both your first and last.
She said words to the effect of I feel braver now, thanks to this building. He agreed and he said so, but he didn’t go any further. He didn’t have anything to say which didn’t sound silly when he rehearsed in his head what it would sound like to say to someone out loud.
The Goat Island Performance Group said that they found the performance in the making of it. Alain Platel said that what he shared with Pina Bausch was the fact that they were both not afraid to be very afraid when they worked. They did not force their way head-down through fear, nor cower in the face of it; they accepted it as a necessary creative ingredient to make work that pushes the entire world out of its comfort zone. Somewhere in a book by Anne Bogart, I read that the Japanese word ‘irimi’ means ‘to enter’ and also ‘to face death’.
He leapt from left to right up the ladder-stairs, widened and shortened his strides on the xylophone-pavement, ran his eye along the pause between the wall and the water, the door and the floor, the ceiling and the wall, the steps that exchanged steps between them, the panel that slid out through one, the view that came into focus via another, the space above and the space below and the space where he was
in the groove a gap which is also a flow not a stop a pause a movement from one moment to another a meeting a threshold
For ‘Crossing the Threshold’, see Sinéad Rushe, Michael Chekhov’s Acting Technique (Methuen, 2019), p. 295; whilst, for a discussion of the dialogue between Lecoq’s and Chekhov’s techniques, see Roanna Mitchell’s chapter in Michael Chekhov Technique in the Twenty First Century (Methuen, 2020), edited by Class Fleming and Tom Cornford, pp. 119-121.
The video of the boy playing with the rubber tyre was featured in Francis Alÿs exhibition on Children’s Games at this year’s Venice Biennale and can be watched for free here. The section I remember and describe above is the last 3-4 minutes of the video.
Alain Platel was quoted in Katalin Trencsényi’s essay in The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B (Bloomsbury, 2020), edited by Christel Stalpaert, Guy Cools, and Hildegard De Vuyst. The quote is on page 33.
I took the photographs on visits over the past year to three sites designed by the architect Carlo Scarpa - the Brion Mausoleum, San Vito d’Altivole; Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo; and Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona. Carlo Scarpa came from Venice.