Concealed Movement of the Stage. Theatre of Ivica Buljan

Author Blaž Lukan Translated by Jernej Možic.
 
The work of director Ivica Buljan is marked by a series of parallelis, Buljan is – speaking somewhat metaphorically –a man of simultaneousness, parallel lives and activities. His career in the theatre takes place in two environments: Slovenia and Croatia (we might also add to that list – judging by his intimate preferences – France), and besides working as director he is also a dramaturg, artistic director, festival director, editor, and translator. He works in professional Slovene theatres (Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, Slovene National Theatre Drama Ljubljana, Mladinsko Theatre, Prešern Theatre Kranj, and Permanent Slovene Theatre Trieste) and outside (Mini Teater, Glej Theatre, Cankarjev Dom). Buljan’s theatrical poetics follow the principles of “artistic theatre” based on drama or poetry, however, he also adapts non-dramatic textual material for the stage and examines some performative procedures which in dramatic theatre are deemed “non-performative” (e.g. the stage appearance of a director or a prompter etc.) coming nearer to the definition of the performative as such, and so on and so on. Well, of course, not indefinitely: despite the parallels enumerated above, Buljan may be placed into a definable aesthetic space, his work can be contextualized, or at the very least one is able to sketch its fundamental features.
 
Ivica Buljan entered the Slovene theatre scene as dramaturg in Mladinsko Theatre’s 1992/1993 production of Tartif, Andrej Rozman’s and Vito Taufer’s re-working of Moliere’s Tartuffe. Contrary to the belief that Buljan was essentially a dramaturg and only then become to directing, it is a fact that his debut as director in the Slovene theatre came two years later with the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre production of Ime na koncu jezika (The Name on Tip of the Tongue). This was followed by a series of dramaturgical posts, however it should be noted that during this time (from 1998 to 2002) Buljan was artistic director of The Croatian National Theatre in Split where he also directed several productions; it may, thus, be said that his direction of Koltès's The Night Just Before the Forests in Mini Teater (his official "non-institution", so to say,) in 2000 marks the actual beginning of his career as a theatre director in Slovenia. Since then, Buljan has directed about 15 plays, making him of one of the most recognised directors of contemporary Slovene theatre and the winner of  several prizes, most notably the Grand Prix of the penultimate Borštnik Meeting in Maribor for Best Director for Botho Strauss’s The One and the Other at Mladinsko Theatre. 
 
Looking at the list of Buljan’s productions, one notices the atypical nature of the staged texts: Quignard, Rimbaud, Walser, Müller, Jelinek, Strauss, Svetina, Pasolini, Guibert, Mishima, and of course Bernard-Marie Koltès, in many variants. These are all either non-dramatists for whom Buljan’s dramaturgical and directional interventions ensure a stage presence, or the authors of so-called "post-drama" – in which the work of Koltès is considered something of his case-study. Koltès, namely, implies contemporary French (and European) drama through Peter Szondi’s concept of crisis in drama as well as Hans Thies Lehmann’s notion of the postdramatic, and, furthermore, the slender drama as well as the grand drama, prose as well as monologue - both of which Buljan stages as if they were examples of eminent dramatic writing. Buljan has staged Koltès’s early plays and also his later works from, and at the same time the work of this French playwright encompasses that contextual sphere which in Buljan’s case – in the manner of Deleuze and Guattari – we may define as "minor theatre".
 
Before expanding on this, let us mention that Buljan’s dramaturgical selections are original and unusually consistent. They focus on the dynamic corpus of contemporary European drama (to which we may also add the only Slovene author Buljan has worked on, Ivo Svetina), which continuously oscillates on the borderline of drama and non-drama or rather post-dramatic; therefore – to put it plainly – Buljan is perpetually pondering on drama. While examining his own immanent Aristotelian and Brecht-ian nature, he is also challenging the producers, (in the same way we once – albeit less justifiably – spoke of the theatre of the Absurd, we now – somewhat righteously – talk of the postdramatic theatre) facing them with some new (and fundamental) questions about transferring textual material on stage. To paraphrase Patrice Pavis, the dramaturgic choices which establish Buljan’s dramatic corpus form a fundamental theatrical relation (as De Marinis would say) between the text-centred approach and the stage-centred approach, or even better, between the text and the stage. This relation has made a great impact on the theatre of the 20th century despite the autonomization of directing as the new (and in some cases the only) theatre reality; in short, this is another of the many parallelisms which mark Buljan’s work in the theatre. 
 
In the case of Ivica Buljan’s work, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of "minor literature" (littérature mineure) can of course only be traced up to the point where we detect a parallel “non-minor” tendency. “A minor literature does not come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language,”  write Deleuze and Guattari, adding that characteristic of minor literature is a language affected by “a high coefficient of deterritorialization”. Why is it that we ascribe minority to Buljan’s theatre? Despite doubtless experiences with the theatre establishment – or rather, the institution as its exclusive manifestation – Buljan’s selection of texts constantly seems non-institutional or "alongside-institutional", that is, “minor” or a minority in relation to the prevailing. Buljan “writes” his theatre in the language of the majority with consideration and accuracy, but he simultaneously remains at its edge, in the theatrical minority. The minority nature of his theatre is undoubtedly conditioned by the dramatists of a certain (homo-)sexual provenience that he chooses to stage (Rimbaud, Pasolini, Guibert, Mishima, Walser, and, of course, Koltès), but it is also shaped by several elements of his theatrical poetics which do not stand out as separate, particularly marked, positions of characterized systems established on stage. Nevertheless, when read in succession, they constitute a recognised system (e.g. a naked man’s genitals in The Night Just Before the Forests, explicit nudity in Ojdip v Korintu, (Oedipus in Corinth), the specific thematic and partially performative “logic” of Mlado meso (Young Flesh) etc., but they also visibly contaminate the implicit politics of representation through which his theatrical or performing body clearly shines through. Even though Buljan’s theatre never explicitly politicizes, everything – in the words of Deleuze and Guattari – in the minor literature/theatre is politics; due to the confined space, every individual (and intimate) statement is immediately connected to politics. This is connected to yet another characteristic of the minor: everything in minor literature has a collective value; there is no room of an individual statement that would be separated from that of the collective. 
 
Buljan’s “minor theatre” (théâtre mineure) which paradoxically is often classified as mainstream, produces a language that constantly reterritorializes. His processes are not so much about deterritorialization since he often very accurately places his productions into a clearly defined space (also in terms of scenography, costumes and music, for instance Ojdip v Korintu, (Oedipus in Corinth) or Mlado meso (Young Flesh). It is more about transferring the language and the audience’s attention and establishing new, re-worked spaces. Such is the space of Mishima’s Madame de Sade, at first sight a concrete space (a drawing room), but in reality a psychological space separating and at the same time offering the characters of the play a screen, sustenance, it covers their backs where they are most vulnerable. In Madame de Sade, the frontal struggle persistently hides its vulnerable side, the back, which finds shelter against the “wall”, the stable vertical, the surface that could, in some other deduction, be illustrated as a large protecting hand. The wall only partially evokes a cold (modernist) Antonioni-like or (postmodernist) Chéreau-like sense of being lost. The only support left in this sense of being lost is a framework which prevents the world from falling to pieces and also prevents man, terrified and without support in this space, from simply beginning to float. At one point the wall is a shelter, and then a refuge, a home, and the space between the outside and the inside in which the psychological states of characters are outlined. In some productions the wall is “staged” as a background, as space filled with air, in which an identical feeling is condensed; the space is defined by its edge and not by the centre. This is typical of modernism, the essentialism of which holds the central position in the space as an emblem of power, control and reason. By contrast, Postmodernism which Buljan ascribes to, moves alongside the minority – or the edges (“the name on tip of the tongue”, “the night just before the forests”, “afterparty” are some of the meaningfully evocative phrases from the titles of his productions).
 
Buljan’s theatre only rarely openly or explicitly politicizes, whereby we are referring to the pragmatism of the everyday politics; however, at the same time, every one of his directions is also his political statement. His work is anchored in the politics or the “second order”, that is, in the politics of dance, gender, and performance. Buljan’s reterritorialized space is inhabited by a new theatrical “race”, a new gender, where politics in the pragmatic sense is of no value and where Foucault’s biopolitics suddenly, in terms of manifestation, has no possibility of realisation. In Buljan’s theatre a statement is merely one movement of the body, its posture is a harmony of bodies in dance in a kind of non-compulsory loitering on the stage in the manner of flâneur (as we used to define Buljan’s strategies), which, as we know from Baudelaire, or rather, Benjamin is always “ideologic”. Flâneur, as Benjamin tells us, constantly moves in space determined by the outside and the inside (its “functioning”, Benjamin believes, was only rendered possible by the passageways of Paris) and therefore on a sort of ambivalent edge, but each step in fact represents a poetically political statement. Concealed movement of the stage is a description which is highly suitable for Buljan’s work. The characters in his productions escape dramaturgical as well as psychological logic and the action is lead forward on account of a poetic obviousness originating from the reterritorialized space, more precisely, on its edge where there exists the locus of the unknown.  Buljan is not a political director, or a director on the edge in the sense of experimental and radical performative expressiveness or ultimative excess. He makes use of a performative consistency “dictated” by the dramatic text itself; however, he does not decode its inscription directly onto it, but rather follows a soft associative logic. This is nicely displayed in his production of Pasolini’s Pigsty, where pigs on stage relate a political stance and at the same time consistently follow the poetic dramatic logic of Pasolini’s source text. Another example is found in Mlado Meso's intermezzo scene in which a half-naked young man on a beach is functionally “superfluous”, but – in terms of the performative – adds an associative almost “cinematic” width.
 
This brings us to the third characteristic of minor theatre: collectiveness. Even though Buljan works mostly as a non-institutional director, an individualist, he – paradoxically – works in a permanent collective. First of all, there is an obvious connection with actor and artistic director of Mini Teater Robert Waltl (Waltl acts in his productions, they direct together, Buljan is his dramaturg and vice versa, they also co-produce projects etc.), and then there is his team of collaborators (costume designer Ana Savić Gecan, composer Mitja Vrhovnik Smrekar, set designer Slaven Tolj, dramaturg Diana Koloini and others), actors (for example Jose, something of his trademark, Veronika Drolc, Marko Mandić and others). Buljan is therefore head of a “minor” theatrical “tribe”, while his collective always functions according to the principle of pars pro toto where individual voices can be heard only in the background of the collective which is established through distinctive individual contributions. There is no concealment in this theatre, but with an unusually sensitive integrative energy Buljan puts each individual excess back into the community. Buljan’s productions are in fact a rejoicing manifestation of the community, which enables and even urges individualism, but this is constantly integrated, sucked into itself. This is a persistent dynamics of interchange, a simultaneous charging and emptying of the theatrical relation and the discrepancy between the two creates a sort of theatrical negative pressure which is sufficient for attracting an onlooker’s attention, or even more, an onlooker’s body. Buljan’s directing is – speaking somewhat simplistically –  democratic, but we are not referring to the modern-day (neo)liberal(ist) or social(ist) democracy or the originally communist or even hippie democracy of the communes, but rather the original (ideal?) democracy of Ancient Greece Athens where the demos as a self-regulative community – optimistically, albeit with the knowledge of the urgency of external regulation – originated from. We could say that Buljan is a theatre romantic, a neo-romantic with the prefix "neo" not expressing the historical position from the beginning of the previous century, with a distinct awareness of the traps of romanticism that, yet, is too weak to resist it.
 
With the help of reterritorialization, poetically political statements, and the collective spirit, Buljan produces his own version of minor theatre and at the same time declares its manifesto. His productions are not merely manifestations of non-conflicting collective escapist transference into the space of ideal democracy,, on thecontrary, his productions are constantly and in each case implanted into the traumatic essence of contemporary existential utopia avoiding polarisations that might occur in advance.  His work is uniquely “tender” and seemingly indifferent, but in fact Buljan’s performative cosmos is always differentiated. The procedures he makes use of may be defined by four principles which Marco De Marinis  traces in the theatrical and pedagogic work of Eugenio Barba. First is the principle of equilibrium (déséquilibre), displayed as a shifting of the axis, a surfacing of the centrifugal force which pushes the performers from the centre to the edge. The characters in Buljan’s productions are rarely still, they pulsate incessantly, avoid static and vibrate internally. Between them there exists a Lyotard-like current of energy which grows throughout the performance in convergence of all its elements and there is nothing external that could prevent this. The easiest manner for characters to express themselves is through choreographed movement, a dance which they sink into incidentally, spontaneously. At a particular moment, the movement separates from the dramatic and physical task and becomes independent. A character is thus given a new, almost metaphysical, function which also calls for its own immanent notion of the performative, that is, the performed as such, which is not corporal to a point that would allow the assertion of a sort of “performative shift”, but is obvious enough to face a (post)dramatic structure of a production with its corporal edge. De Marinis offers the expression “precarious equilibrium”  which seems to fit Buljan’s work as well; Buljan does not practice the “poor theatre”, despite the fact that he mostly operates in “non-precarious” contexts, yet still the characters in his productions flourish with life along with all pertaining details and decorations. Buljan is theatrically talkative and eloquent, but this is not to say he is dispersed; his dramaturgical origins ensure his productions with a reliable mental substance. The second principle is the principle of contrast that is not concerned with binary oppositions but rather with the way to the end which takes place by means of deviation, or rather, different positioning of movement, shift, and action. The way to the end (of meaning) is thus never linear in an essentialist manner, it is “descriptive” and seductive. Buljan is well skilled in seduction; animated action in the forefront always conceals the silent tumult in the back. If we follow the path too consistently, we lose the point of termination; enjoying details does not necessarily signify a sense of a holistic delight – it is quite the opposite. The third principle, that of simplification, represents condensing and reduction of action on stage to the point of the essential, but without a withdrawal of the “non-essential” which in the context of the theatre is life as such, live and everyday existence in a community and art. The last addition bears significance; Buljan’s advocacy of the artistic in the theatre addresses his position in the aesthetic field in a wider sense and not only in the functional space of dramaturgy or the “naturalist” world of life as such. The characters in his production thus primarily live as dramatis personae and secondly as “everyday people” meaning that they become at home with the stage to a point that makes one think that they find it difficult to let the audience into their familiarity. Not least, they also live in the symbolic sense, in imaginary bodies (corps fictif) in art. The last principle is the principle of "lavished energy" which should, again, be understood in a slightly different way, it is about “the maximum use of energy to achieve the minimum result”. This does not (necessarily) posit extensiveness; Buljan is lead by Barba’s idea of “the dance of oppositions”, or the dance which takes place more “in the body than with the body”. If anywhere, Buljan’s theatre lavishes in the emotive layering of characters, their relations and situations; the emotive net is what creates deep ties between characters, the stage and the audience. Buljan allows the audience into the performance only through the emotive net, so when he fails - and when the onlooker does as well – they are left to senselessness, the insufficiency of the auditorium: Buljan’s own "majority" world.

Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Kafka: toward a Minor Literature, (Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 

p. 4.
Ibid., p.16.
Ibid.

SNG Drama Ljubljana, 2006/07.
SMG Ljubljana, 2007/08.
SNG Drama Ljubljana, 2006/07.
 
Walter Benjamin, 'The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire' in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).  

SSG Trst, 2006/07.
 
Marco de Marinis, Razumijevanje kazališta: obrisi nove teatrologije, (Zagreb, AGM, 2006).
*The terms cited have been translated into English by the translator of this article.  

Ibid.; p. 159.
Ibid.; p. 163.
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