I suspect this is going to be a long review, so for those of you who need the executive summary up front, yes I liked it. Go see Codex Nocturno!! I will make an effort to see it again before it closes next week.
Of course if you’re the sort of person who has a short attention span, someone who needs things spelled out, someone with a low tolerance for ambiguity, haha then it would be a sadistic punishment to send you—that superficial person with no patience that is—to this show: because it’s brilliant and complex and difficult.
Let me add that I suspect the reason Kadozuke Kollectif –the artists responsible for Codex Nocturno—fly under the radar so far is because new work tends to be difficult. PT Barnum, that prototype of the successful impresario, never proposed that artists should challenge their audiences, did he? But some of us thrive on newness. Too bad critics rarely have time for the difficult. How else to explain why I haven’t heard of Kadozuke Kollectif before now?
I had a sip from the fountain of youth tonight, a reminder of Lindsay Kemp in Flowers. Oh my God I know that makes me sound so old. Kemp is an unexpected kind of eclectic, mixing butoh movement, drag, music-hall and theatre into something richer than the sum of its parts. I remember being alternately terrified, aroused, disoriented and amused. I was often on the edge of my seat simply because I did not understand what I was seeing and wanted to resolve some of the ambiguities.
I hope nobody in the show is offended that they’ve reminded me of a drag performer, when they probably don’t think there was any drag in the show. They might also be wondering what drags I have been taking (or what drags I am high on).
Sigh, I hate talking in too much detail about a show that has a colossal power to surprise. If I spill the beans I make the show more intelligible but likely far less powerful. Its ability to stir you begins with the ambiguities, moments that aren’t quite this or that, putting you on the edge of your seat, as you strive to make sense of what’s happening.
Speaking of mysteries, let’s begin with the offbeat title, “Codex Nocturno.” The night that we traverse in Codex Nocturno is a place of dreams & shadows, metaphors and suggestions, rather than explicit declarations and clear statements. A Kadozuke Kollectif book of the night avoids being reductive or explicit, and celebrates the anti-rational, the bizarreness of dreams and the surreal. If you’re a person who might say “ugh that’s weird” and shiver in fear, don’t see Codex Nocturno.
Let’s address drag. No, there are no people doing cross-gendered drag. I am speaking of something more esoteric, and indeed, something that probably surprises the cast. I am thinking of “Disability drag,” an idea that has been with us for awhile, but only recently has a name. Here’s a quick example:
In December 1999, I had an altercation at the San Francisco airport with a gatekeeper for Northwest Airlines, who demanded that I use a wheelchair if I wanted to claim the early-boarding option. He did not want to accept that I was disabled unless my status was validated by a highly visible prop like a wheelchair. In the years since I have begun to feel the effects of postpolio, my practice has been to board airplanes immediately after the first-class passengers so that I do not have to navigate crowded aisles on wobbly legs. I answered the gatekeeper that I would be in a wheelchair soon enough, but that it was my decision, not his, when I began to use one. He eventually let me board and then chased after me on an afterthought to apologize. The incident was trivial in many ways, but I have now adopted the habit of exaggerating my limp whenever I board planes. (SOURCE)
People who have been disabled do not, as is so commonly assumed, simply ask for help. Typically a person tries to blend in as well as possible, faking competence, while limping or otherwise failing at some crucial part of the large task of pretending to be human. Humanity is a performance, comprised of several different bits and pieces. The drag of gender is only one of many sorts of drag. People attempt to be competent in their job, in their courtship, in their walk to the bathroom. Sometimes the imitation of competence—for instance in a dragqueen—becomes a parody that invokes our laughter, because of the visible discrepancy between the performance and the ideal.
In Codex Nocturno we’re confronted by several physical spectacles of human action, and often we find that the imitation of humanity falls short in some way:
- A girl hauls a tiny plastic toy baby out of herself, and then proceeds to nurture and “mother” that little baby; it’s gross, silly and poignant all at once
- A beautiful automaton breaks down, becoming progressively less and less human, yet ever more heart-breaking in its blunt pursuit of competence, even vomiting metal parts at one point; is she a she or an it?
- Transactions in a hotel resemble hospitality superficially, but without any real understanding of what’s involved; the lack of compassion does, however, resemble some nightmarish transactions I’ve been through (ha I wish I were kidding)
- Wetness & blood and other mysterious liquids from inside the body figure prominently; what is it to be human, and are we a “who” or are we more of an “it”? there’s a great deal of objectification in this show
- on a number of occasions people are restrained or confined, a condition resembling disability even though artificially created
It’s often much funnier than this sounds, but then again, having written about this, I know how twisted some of those images must sound. The humour is extreme, undoubtedly. So is the poignancy. I cried in a couple of places, and also guffawed like an animal.
The space is used brilliantly. I won’t say how –can’t spoil the surprise, remember—but promise you something uncommon, verging on brilliant.
Kadozuke Kollectif have apparently been doing Codex Nocturno for awhile. The 2011 staging is a remount after a previous incarnation. Tatiana Jennings is the artistic director. There’s a great deal of dream-like imagery, as we’re confronted by several videos on the stage, displays that seem to take us inside different personages whomwe also encounter physically as well as virtually. I suspect that what I’ve chosen to focus on –that disability drag thing—is not what the Kollectif would identify as the primary expressive element of this show. I think the reason it grabbed me so hard is because I am seeking a handle on the original idiom I see in the Kollectif. I see a combination of humour and poignancy, slivers of humanity, little bits and pieces of performed emotion that sometimes coheres into a person, sometimes seems like a fragment. Their style is wonderfully physical, brimming with talent, and still too modest to swagger. But they’re masterful, without a moment of falseness.
The newness of this flavour is as intoxicating as the discovery of a new cuisine. Remember the first time you tasted something really intense and exotic? …like (don’t laugh too hard… maybe you eat these every day, but to me they were once brand new) mango or gorgonzola. I picked two of my favourite flavours that I know are sometimes liked sometimes loathed. Kadozuke Kollectif are not likely to win any popularity contest, certainly not when they’re unknown. They deserve your attention, and might win your love.
Codex Nocturno continues at the Image Foundry, 1581 Dupont St until July 3rd.