Dreiske Performance Company

It’s difficult to imagine spending 40 days and 40 nights in a desert without something dramatic happening, be it physical, intellectual, or spiritual. And it was into the Tunisian Sahara that the Dreiske Performance Company trooped to develop their trilogy “The Book of Lear.” Their current offering at the International Performance Center, The Path of Ashes, represents the third part of their experiment.

What the Dreiske ensemble is striving for is no less than a complete severence from all we have ever learned of the 17th-century play called King Lear, and a unilateral reconsideration of the universal themes contained therein, in order to render its material meaningful outside of its superficial cultural limitations. Since its inception in 1975, the Dreiske Performance Company has made its goal the creation of a hybrid theatrical form called by its artistic director, Nicole Dreiske (addressing the Colloquium of Theatre and Life Sciences at the University of Paris in 1984), “symphonic-kinetic theater,” whose object is “to challenge the predictable patterns of the dramatic form by using theme and image rather than narrative as the foundation of the drama,” and by making performance, rather than text, “the aggregation point of multidisciplinary cultural resources such as sociology, anthropology psychology, mythology . . . incorporating them into the actor’s material during play development.” Hence the journey into xenotropic isolation, pursuant to a redefinition of personal freedom, paralleling Lear’s search for spiritual freedom through divestment of power.

This is a pretty heavy theory to carry into an inferno of salt and sand (and the arduousness of the Dreiske Company’s ordeal cannot be emphasized enough–even in the American southwest, people have perished from exposure less than a mile from civilization). The distillation of this sojourn is recognizable as the Bard of Avon’s Lear only by its cast of two nomads, played by Nicholas Peneff and Dreiske herself, who resemble Lear and his Fool in bodily proportion to one another, but here represent a band of several travelers. They have survived a cataclysm that has shattered their tribal structure and now wander in the wilderness searching for a new leader. By the time they finally succeed in reestablishing a settlement, their cultural identity has become so altered by intermingling with that of others that when an elder recalls the old ways, they no longer understand his words. With the old man’s return to the regions outside the tribal settlement, the members must decide whether to remain or to go with him. What is a leader, the story asks, and what constitutes a leader whom we are willing to follow?

The text to The Path of Ashes is drawn from many sources–among them Shakespeare, the biblical book of Exodus, Velikovsky’s treatise Worlds in Collision, and the folktales of the tribes that settled in North Africa, including Berbers, Jews, Arabs, and the remnants of the Romans, Carthaginians, and Phoenicians. Words in other languages and sounds that approximate the natural sounds of the desert are woven into the English text, as are incidental melodies from the music of the areas (composed and performed by Michael Zerang). The effect is that of a poetry springing directly from the characters’ minds, with particularly significant lines (significant to the characters, though not necessarily to us) repeated for emphasis: “Those who die here will not go on to suffer–go on to suffer–not go on to suffer.”

The most fascinating aspect of The Path of Ashes is not its literature, however, but the visual kinetics of Dreiske and Peneff’s performance. Executed in the ritualistic manner associated with Kabuki, Kathikali, and the interpretive dance forms of Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham, the choreography blends “orchestics,” gymnastics, signed language (though it’s dissimilar to any sign language I’ve ever seen) to produce a 60-minute spectacle with not a moment of stasis, but full of constant motion and unbroken communication. The arduousness of this task cannot be overemphasized either–not only does exercise of this duration require feline agility and equine stamina (at one point, Dreiske carries the nearly-twice-her-weight Peneff on her shoulder as effortlessly as a fireman) but the almost total lack of natural reference points–vernacular dialogue, metrically regular music–means that every step of this highly disciplined pas de deux must be cued from memory. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this: At one point, Dreiske strides away from Peneff but halts when he places a hand in front of her back foot–if she does not freeze the instant his hand blocks her foot, she’ll sprawl full-length, dragging him with her. In another movement, Peneff gets down on his hands and knees and Dreiske places one foot on his back and, in this posture, the two take several steps with neither showing a trace of the disequilibrium that should occur. The concentration demanded by this precision is grueling enough in a 5-minute acrobatic drill or a 20-minute ballet sequence, but for two people on a bare stage to sustain it for an hour is nothing short of phenomenal.

The Path of Ashes is not for everyone, I’ll admit–as I will admit to occasionally losing track of the story line–but the Dreiske Performance Company provides a courageous and superlative demonstration of what can be done by going to the very roots of form to fashion something anew.