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Hearing and seeing pulled apart in fascinating project by C de la B at Holland Festival #HF22

What does trauma do to people? A lot, I can say now, after hearing and especially seeing Le Moindre Geste at the Holland Festival. The performance is very special in its conception, and for that reason alone beautiful to experience, and confronting, for both the amateurs who performed it, and the fans who watched it.

Le Moindre Geste can be translated as 'The Smallest Gesture' and is a theatrical project that is documentary in concept, and then puts a twist on it. The makers, Selma and Sofiane Ouissi, born in Tunisia, use the title of their project to refer to the 1971 French film of the same name. In it, it follows a community of farm workers and autistic children, where verbal communication is virtually non-existent. Its maker, Fernand Deligny, wanted to explore whether and how language can be separated from the speaker. The film is in full viewable via YouTube.

A tricky construction to explain

The film shows how, without words, a rapport and mutual understanding could still develop, all against the backdrop of the wild landscape of the French Cevennes.

The performance explores this fact through a construction that is difficult to explain. Brother and sister Ouissi filmed people with a story. They did not do so in close up, but took the whole person into the picture. They ask new volunteers to look at the filmed person in a theatre hall and imitate their body language and gestures as precisely as possible. In doing so, they are not told the story, nor are they expected to playback the mouth. The audience simultaneously sits in an adjacent room and only sees the volunteers imitating the speakers' gestures and body language, but in turn hears the story with them.

Hallucinatory choreography

Yesterday, 11 June, I experienced the event at Amsterdam's Frascati and it was downright fascinating. We heard and saw two stories. One was from a Syrian refugee, an elderly woman who became a political prisoner as a child under the Assad regime. The second story we got from the now already grown into a BV'er Flemish Brenda, who recounts her psychiatric past with ironic detachment, which has already led to two books and a theatre performance.

As we heard the stories, we saw the performers acting out the body language, peering intently at a screen we could not see. Sometimes they stood alone, sometimes in close up, which was hallucinatory, sometimes as a group choreography, with the performers becoming dancers. Is this art or a social experiment? At Les Ballets C de La B, to which this production belongs, that is always a bit of a question.

Totally different experience

The third part of the evening consisted of a very necessary and therefore actually mandatory informal meeting between the performers and the viewers. That obligatory and necessary lies in the fact that the two groups had such completely different experiences. Because the performers did not know what horrors their examples were describing, it was confronting for them to hear what the text was really about because, and this is what the original film and the theatre performance touch on: there is no one-to-one relationship with the body language and the story told, especially with people who have been through severe trauma.

A question that keeps haunting

The Syrian woman spoke with small gestures, hands invariably palms turned up and close to the body: controlled and friendly, nowhere forward, as she recounted the torture in Syria and the humiliation on the run. Brenda, on the other hand, had all the gesticulations befitting a comfortable wild girl, which totally contradicted the described horrors of solitary confinement and coercive medication. Because the performers of the movements did not know the story, the discrepancy between language and gesture became even more palpable. So the aftercare came as a relief to both parties.

Did I learn anything? Because that is a question that keeps haunting the mind, on the train back home. Perhaps this: that looking at each other is important, but listening even more so.

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Le Moindre Geste is still to be experienced on 12 June. Information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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