The Chinese emperor asked Chuang-tzu to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he would need five years plus a country estate and 12 servants. The emperor gave him what he requested. Five years later, Chuang-tzu still had not started on the drawing. “I need another five years”, Chuang-tzu said to the emperor. The emperor granted them. After 10 years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and in a single stroke drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
This is the story with which Italo Calvino ends his second memo. Here, Calvino mainly talks about the importance of rhythm. For telling a story, for instance. Or telling a joke. What is more discomforting than a joke badly told? Which is why Calvino likes this short story about the emperor. It is told with the greatest economy. There is not a single unnecessary detail. It is purified to the essence. One movement. One stroke. The perfect story.
But besides the story itself having the right rhythm, it also tells about the right rhythm. It is a fable about time, about patience, about concentration, about waiting. It is a fable about the artist who waits for the right moment to make his move. It is a story about development that is not always immediately visible. Who knows how many thousands of crabs Chuang-tzu drew in his studio and then tore up and threw away in despair in order to arrive at that one perfect crab?
Moreover, the story is also about the government and how a government views the artist. This Chinese emperor is wise. He has patience and gives the artist the material possibilities to work in peace and quiet. What the emperor gets in return is much more than he requested. He asked Chuang-tzu to draw ‘a crab’. What he gets is much, much more: the most perfect crab ever seen. That is the generosity of art.
In recent months we were confronted with an unusual experience of time and speed. So unusual that we did not know how to deal with it. The cadence of our lives and our work was thoroughly disrupted. Most of all we wanted to maintain the old rhythm or get back to it as soon as possible. The theatre sector quickly mobilized itself to find alternative forms of presentation and communication as well. But theatre is a slow medium. It does not lend itself well to fast action.
Toneelhuis has taken advantage of that slowness to thoroughly prepare for the next season. We want to respond in an artistic manner to the new challenges and special circumstances that the theatre is facing. We are taking the time to do so. We need to find a new rhythm.
They say that at the end of the 17th century the clockmakers decided to come together regularly to attune the ticking of the clocks to each other and slowly increase the tempo, in order to adjust it to the tempo of the modern age. If one compares the slow, calm ticking of old clocks with the nervous ticking of modern clocks, one gets the impression that a second has become shorter. It is as if the nervous ticking keeps accelerating the energy in our society. Always producing more, and faster! Always consuming more, and faster!
The digital time displays on our computers and our smart phones only indicate the exact moment. They show only one number. We see what time it is, but not what time it is not. In other words, we no longer see what moment of the day we are at, exactly where we are in the day, which hours have already gone by and which are still to come. The dial of an analogue watch with its slowly moving hands shows us what point of the day we are at. It shows us our location on the circle of time. With our digital timepieces we are forced to live in a mere succession of separate moments. As a result, we have lost the true cadence of time. We have lost the rhythm that Calvino was talking about, and that is why we can no longer tell our story.
What made Chuang-tzu a great artist was his awareness that his inner rhythm – the rhythm of his art – was not the same as the mere passing of the hours and days. When the neurologist Oliver Sacks was asked what a 'normal person' is, he answered: a person who is capable of telling his or her story. And this means that normal people place themselves in time, know where they come from, have a past, and can project themselves into the future.
Toneelhuis has always focussed in its artistic activities on supporting theatre makers in long trajectories. You could call this a form of artistic sustainability. The theatre makers get the chance to discover their inner rhythm, to tell their story throughout the years each at their own pace, to build up a past and imagine a future. Over the last 15 years, Toneelhuis has supported different theatre makers. A number of them left to set up their own structures, but many have remained. A company like Olympique Dramatique has been associated with Toneelhuis for more than 20 years and in that time has been able to set down deep roots in Antwerp. Together, the artistic rhythms of the various theatre makers tell the story of Toneelhuis.
Just before the turn of the 21st century, the French scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière wrote: “We are entering the next century as blind people, guided by the little bit of reason and wisdom we still possess. And leaning on electronic crutches, with an acute realization of how vulnerable they are." The coronavirus has once again made clear how vulnerable we are, not only physically but also economically and socially, being at the mercy of the tick-tock of production and consumption.
When we have experienced something intensely, we often say that it was as if time had stood still. Who knows exactly how long it takes to read a good book? Or to watch a theatre performance? Numbers say nothing about the intensity with which we experience time while we are reading or in the theatre. An intense experience breaks through the normal chronology and confronts us with a different time: a time of wonder, astonishment, stillness, internalization. During that experience we are confronted with the absence of something, but also with the possibility of dealing with that absence. According to the Russian director Tarkovsky, that is the reason why people go to the movies: “Viewers go to the cinema in order to fill the gaps in their personal experience. They try to fill the spiritual vacuum that arises from their restlessness, their need for contact and lack of spiritual development. They are in search of lost time."
Lost time, stilled time, time of wonder, internalized time: perhaps they are all synonyms. And perhaps they also are all descriptions of what theatre wants to achieve. The shows of Bosse Provoost, for instance, seem to stop time in enigmatic images. And in their own way, the shows of Mokhallad Rasem are also meditations on time: the time of leavetaking, of migration, of displacement and of building a new home.
These are shows that I watch in the same way that the Chinese emperor looked at Chuang-tzu's crab. In wonder. Stillness. Momentarily outside the tick-tock of monetary time. Outside the relentless stream of data. A moment of beauty. Without needing to decide anything. Without needing to have an opinion. Without needing to be for or against anything.
Guy Cassiers, 30 June 2020