Kroot Juurak: Once Upon

Disrespect for the audience as a creative means

Vienna, December 2006

(Text posted in

Kroot Juurak is an Estonian dancer and performer residing in Vienna. In Once Upon she assembled a stage performance, an audio piece performed in complete darkness and a video into an evening-filling sequence. By strictly partitioning media into separate pieces Juurak found a refreshingly new answer to the current demand for multimediality while completely avoiding music. Each part of the performance is independent of and unrelated to the other parts, except for a few trivial links based on using the same objects and symbols.

In her comment on the piece, Juurak wrote: "The aim is to research and make visible different readings of and expectations towards time in a performative context." This mainly held true in the first part, in which Juurak pretended a pointed disrespect for the spectators. The frustration she caused, however, was moderate as compared to classical forms of the idea, e.g. when Vaclav Nijinsky once infuriated the audience by sitting motionless in a chair for the duration of his whole performance. Let's look at the first part of Once Upon in detail.

The performer is a tall slim woman with tied up hair wearing jeans. She stands in the middle of the stage staring into the audience, her only action being opening and closing her mouth occasionally. No music or sound. The waiting is getting awkward. Suddenly the performer utters loudly: "There is more than that", walks towards a pile of utensils prepared at the corner of the stage and sits down on the floor. There she starts arranging a still life out of plastic cups, boxes and jewelry. It takes her fifteen minutes to create a small landscape. This feels like a long period of time to the audience, who wonder why they have to watch this apparently unmotivated and pointless activity. After the landscape is finished, Juurak binds a small dinosaur toy to a thread and walks it inside and outside the landscape, holding it on the thread all time. It takes her a further fifteen minutes, during which she makes disrespect for the audience a creative means. For example, the audience cannot see what she is doing when she starts walking the dinosaur, because the view is blocked by an assembly of home utensils, but Juurak does not care. After her hand gets tired, she simply puts the thread with the toy on the floor for a minute while taking a rest. At one point she leaves the stage without an obvious reason, making the audience speculate whether she felt like having a glass of water or needed to visit a bathroom.

These oddities are part of Juurak's plan to challenge the fundamental rule that the performer is there for the sake of the audience and he/she has to make the piece appealing in one or another way. Juurak chooses utterly uninteresting acting and lets the audience know that she does not care about them. She hinted at this idea vaguely when she wrote: "I am interested if it is possible to undermine these basic unspoken 'rules' of time and dramaturgy". A more explicit hint came from what she said in 2002 about De Keersmaeker: "Being bored is the first impulse for creativity. For boredom is not really boredom and not all good is really good." Once Upon is not Juurak's first attempt to intentionally inflict boredom, last year she irritated the audience in "Artistic Approach 3.1" with a half hour-long lecture on the probability theory.

In the middle part of the piece the visual perception is blocked completely by turning all lights off. Only emergency exit labels remain visible. Juurak narrates a story: A cat, a dog and a bird came together. The cat said: MIAO MIAO MIAO MIAO MIAO... The dog answered: HAU HAU HAU HAU HAU HAU... The bird responded: (a soft whistling is heard). She repeats the story and extends the duration of animal sounds as if to put the patience of the audience under test. After the last repetition, she adds a horse to the bestiary and generates a trotting sound by galloping loudly over the stage in an attempt to create a link to the next part.

The third part of the performance is a 20 min long video. Text fragments, apparently taken from a fairy tale, are typed on paper strips and pushed into the focus through slits cut in the paper background. Stones and glass beads, used in the first part of the performance, pour onto the paper. A silhouette of a horse is dragged over a picture of a castle. Naive drawings, out-of-context text segments and simple objects on a white paper background mingle with each other in diffuse light, creating a surrealistic atmosphere. There is something paradoxically comforting in the way how the narrative unfolds with mounting absurdity, keeping the meaning out of reach.

The conceptual character of Once Upon comes up in its purest form in the first piece, which is sincere in its effort but enjoyable only by an audience with masochistic inclinations. The audio performed in darkness is a nice gag which can hardly be integrated into any whole-evening performance. Only the video offers what one expects from a mature piece, including a coherent style, well-adjusted complexity and an esthetic appeal. I have not found out how "the phenomenon of time in performance" was exploited here, apart from a trivial aspect of disregarding the time scale. Reflecting on the whole performance, I value most Kroot Juurak's versatility and her serious quest for novelty. Once Upon testifies to the performer’s great talent and creativity, though it is not a piece I would watch for a second time. As with many conceptual performances, one starts liking it only after thinking about it for a while.

Petr Karlovsky