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Saturday, 15 April 2017

Zoo Indigo's "No Woman's Land" -- A Journey

In 1945, many people were evicted from their homes in East Germany and had to flee their homes, with whatever belongings they could pack up at very short notice. Many fled on foot, with hand-pulled carts, some more fortunate ones in their cars. Those fleeing on foot were vulnerable because of the weather, and always in danger of attack from soldiers. Many suffered from hunger, many died.

One of those who had to walk for many, many miles was Lucia Rippel, grandmother of Ildiko Rippel, who is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Performance in the Institute of Humanities and Creative Arts at the University of Worcester. She and Rosie Garton form the Nottingham-based Anglo-German performance company Zoo Indigo

Ildiko Rippel and Rosie Garton
In summer 2015, Ildiko Rippel retraced her grandmother’s journey of refuge, accompanied by Garton for much of the way, and other friends and members of her family for shorter periods of time. In May 2016, Zoo Indigo presented a performance of work in progress, followed by a discussion with the audience, at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. The first full-length performances took place in November 2016. The work is still being developed further and has had several tour dates for 2017, including the Drill Hall in Lincoln on 9 February, with more forthcoming.

 It was interesting to observe the development of the performance over the three stages from work-in-progress (May 2016) to full performance (November 2016) to further performance (February 2017). It was a journey in itself. The framing concept of presenting the performance as a Berlin cabaret was there from the beginning and has remained. Rippel and Garton are dressed in 1920s suits, and explained the context of their performance when the lights went down. They told their audiences about their 2015 journey, and about the journey of Rippel’s grandmother. They explained why there were two treadmills on the stage, and that someone would be on the treadmills throughout the performance, Rippel and Garton, but also members of the audience, who were asked to volunteer, allocated a number, and asked to come forward and step onto the treadmills when invited to do so during the performance. Rippel and Garton also checked which male audience members have a beard. Then they chose one and applied make-up to each other’s faces to represent beards. This was part of the cheerful nature of the performance, as was the introduction proper of the cabaret, with Rippel speaking in German and Garton in English. The seriousness of the context, however, was brought home quickly and suddenly when they revealed that many of the refugee women dressed up as men to avoid being raped by Russian soldiers, or pretended to be mad because allegedly the soldiers would avoid women they feared were mad. Rippel then revealed that her grandmother was not able to escape that fate of being raped. “Not again” and “not again in front of the children” were the chilling lines, in all three versions I.

The first full performance, in November 2016, was around 80 minutes long, compared with the 45‐minute ʺwork in progressʺ I had seen in May. Rippel and Garton had developed the material considerably, not only adding to the May work. In May, they had not yet developed the necessary distance from the summer 2015 walk and the emotional involvement in it‐‐the frame of their performance, to create distance through a 1920s Berlin cabaret context and style, was then a device to create distance, and had now become a frame to express distance.

 The two performers were now much more at home with the material, relaxed and confident. There was a good balance of fast‐paced funny material and slower, more thought‐provoking sections‐‐often sudden one‐line revelations that caught the audience off‐guard and led to gasps and sudden silence. Extensive use of footage from the film The Great Escape had been reduced considerably. Footage from the German film Die Trapp‐Familie, was shown as an example of the kinds of romantic film that the grandmother of a German friend of Rippel and Garton loved watching‐‐she also had had to flee her home in the wake of the end of WW2. While in the work- in-progress performance that footage was merely shown without comment, with some spectators able to identify it and others not, in this performance they explained the context and contents. As in the work-in-progress performance, volunteers from the audience were invited to walk on the two treadmills‐‐over the 80 minute‐performance, together they walked around two miles‐‐which was then compared to the 200+ miles that Lucia Rippel had walked in 1945, and that Ildiko Rippel and Rosie Garton had walked in 2015. The two performers also played with their language(s)‐‐the fact that Rippel is a native speaker of German and spoke many of her lines in German, while Garton does not speak German at all‐‐in some cases Gartonʹs very dry, very brief renderings of Rippelʹs longer German sentences was very funny indeed, esp. for those who understood both languages, but also for those who did not.     

Image from No Woman's Land
The third performance I saw, in February 2017, showed that Rippel and Garton had further developed the performance—further reducing extraneous material and making it even more their own, slowly and at times still tentatively, cautiously abandoning the distance they initially needed to be able to cope with the magnitude of the original walk in 1945, and that of their re-tracing it in 2015.
After the work-on-progress performance it had occurred to me, in relation to what I had seen of Zoo Indigo’s work before, online video and an excerpt of their Blueprint as part of a conference at De Montfort University in Leicester, or indeed read about their work: the previous work came much more immediately and without mediation from the heart—Rippel and Garton both opened up and framed pure love in the artistic context of the performance. There was fullness there, and both performers could give as much of that as they liked without them or us feeling any depletion. The fullness came from their shared love for their children in Under the Covers, and that for their parents in Blueprint. In the work-in-progress of No Woman’s Land, they had not yet achieved that. This may be why the audience kept on "wanting more" in the post-show discussion. 

It seems that Rippel and Garton found a way to that fullness for No Woman’s Land as well, building on the love they have for Lucia Rippel and her daughters. Of course, that love cannot be quite the same for Ildiko Rippel as a blood relative and Rosie Garton, who comes to this performance from a naturally bigger distance (also due to not having been able to join in the whole trip in summer 2015). However, neither proximity nor distance remained relevant in achieving a common ground of limitless love to serve as the basis for giving to the audience.

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