Actually Existed a Certain

Sabine Fabie and Mark Schulze

at Link’s Hall, January 19-21

By Laura Molzahn

This polished hour-long dance-theater piece lies before us like a beautiful stone, deflecting interpretation yet inviting our projections. Everything in it, from the old-fashioned furnishings of the set–satiny couches and chairs, a desk, two oriental rugs, and a couple of battered lamps–to the cool, precise dancing of Sabine Fabie and Mark Schulze, works together to create stasis, a timelessness at the heart of this mysterious narrative.

Fabie and Schulze based the piece on images from Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the musings of an existentialist (according to the two artists in a discussion after the performance) who’s obsessed with the idea of his impending death. The two main sections of text from the novel–one delivered onstage by a man, the other recorded in voice-over by a woman–both have to do with the speaker’s affinity for decay, but decay that stands as a kind of monument. In one section the speaker describes a wall not yet demolished that shows the tracks of worms and exudes the smells of poverty; with a combination of regret and pride, he says he recognizes this wall. In the other section the speaker describes encountering on the street an old, poor woman with reddened eyes filled with pus. She offers him a pencil, which he pretends not to notice, but he can’t help thinking of it as a “sign for the initiated”: “I could not rid myself of the feeling that there actually existed a certain compact to which this sign belonged, and that this scene was in truth something I should have expected.”

It is from this sentence, of course, that the title of the piece comes; taken out of context it says nothing, but even in context it’s cryptic. Does the relationship between Fabie and Schulze reflect this “compact”? For it’s clear that there is a sort of compact between them. Their characters are distinct but always connected somehow, even when they ignore each other, as they often do. We see Fabie first, seated in a chair downstage as we come in, dressed in an old-fashioned hat and closely buttoned coat; playing with her small, stiff purse and examining her shoes, she gives the impression that she’s preoccupied with herself. Then Schulze sits up on the couch he’s been occupying unseen upstage; his dressing gown makes him look stuffy, even pompous, and the short, analytical text he delivers at the desk seems intended to isolate him from the rest of humankind. In a movement sequence shortly afterward his phrases are abrupt, chopped off, as geometric and military as a clockwork toy. I didn’t like him at all, and I didn’t like her much better.

As the piece goes on the two characters seem a bit more human, seem to relate to each other more, whether in their dancing or in fond gestures. But Actually Existed a Certain remains airless. This creepily hypnotic world is so dull and isolated that rolling up a rug is a fascinating activity–and throwing a rug out the window an act of lunacy as abrupt and unmotivated as the murder in The Stranger. The only moment of genuine release, despite all the dancing, comes when the two characters jump up and down in unison on one of the couches like naughty children; but even that release is tempered by their pasted-on smiles. It’s no wonder that these people throw themselves at two closed doors with a shocking, self-destructive violence, desperate to escape. The wonder is that, when they race together toward the one open door, they stop. Stepping slowly away, they put their backs up against the beloved, decaying wall as if afraid to leave.

I found this piece almost unbearably sad, especially since Fabie and Schulze reveal no blame or irony: they fully inhabit their inert characters, continually slipping off the couches as if forgetful of their own existence. And because I found the piece so horrifying, I was shocked to hear Fabie and Schulze say during the discussion afterward that the relationship between the two characters reflected their own in real life, at least in some ways, and shocked to hear them talk about the combined comfort and irritation of a close relationship. Irritation! I imagined something more along the lines of existential dread. After being thoroughly horrifed by what I thought was the worldview of the piece, I was horrified by my own misinterpretation of it.

But as I thought about it later, I wondered whether “confusion” may not be built into the concept of the piece. Fabie and Schulze spoke of Rilke’s novel as a springboard for Actually Existed a Certain, which does not reproduce the book’s story. Yet the texts chosen were of a piece, all of them dark, detached, or both. Discussing their methods afterward, the artists mentioned the private languages they made up–one spoken, the other choreographed–each of whose signs corresponded to one of the novel’s images. Using private languages and using text from a novel in a manner “divorced” from it–these are risky ways to communicate. Perhaps because I’m an editor as well as a writer I’m hyperaware of the rules of language, the need to conform one’s wordless message to words, to grammar, if the message is to be understood. At the same time, puzzlement has its value. Sometimes departing from the rules–of coherence, of logic, of language itself–is what makes us stop and pay attention. Fabie and Schulze made me pay attention, close attention. And in the end it may not matter that their Actually Existed a Certain wasn’t mine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / William Frederking.