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I have missed you forever: a collective voyage of discovery

Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
Photo: Aktas Erdogan

A large rehearsal set has been constructed in one of the spaces of DNO&B, which feels like an arena. In the centre is a large platform with different trapdoors that give access to the space underneath. Below one of the trapdoors is a sandpit of the kind you might find on a community allotment, complete with rake. All kinds of shoes lie discarded around the stage. People feel at home here and pad around in their socks. Large racks filled with costumes and masks have been set up around the edge of the space. Instruments such as a marimba, double bass and trombone are positioned on the stage. A group of performers kick a ball around. A sense of peace and creative freedom fills the air. This is a place of play, of discovery and of creation.

It is Tuesday 23 November 2021, and the second week of workshops for I have missed you forever (see box) is in full swing. It’s day four of the week and today is special day. While so far, the performers have been working as a collective, today the task was to think about what aspect of themselves they haven’t had the chance to show yet but would like to share with the group. The result can be likened to an amateur variety show, albeit with far more serious material, where performers take turns to introduce their co-performers and makers to a personal talent, story or favourite piece of music.

From a classical piano recital by Katharine Dain to an expressive performance by dancer Gil Goes Leal that reduces co-performers to tears; one person’s tour of their tattoos is followed by another’s ‘guided experience’. Performer Esther Mugambi asks those present to put on a skirt and go sit inside an opening in the platform, as though they’re in a jacuzzi together. What follows is an intimate moment of storytelling that evolves into a group of dancers swirling around the stage in skirts to a Portuguese song. Each contribution is followed by a long silence, as those who have yet to take stage decide whether it’s their turn to take up the baton. These performers form a rich collection of different voices, talents, disciplines and art forms. But whether they’re a musician, singer or dancer – and although I introduce them as such in this piece – no distinction is made between them in the production. A collective of individuals is gradually taking shape.

Voyage of discovery

“It is one big voyage of discovery,” says music dramaturgist Pete Harden when I speak to him in between acts. He was involved in deciding which composers would be involved in the project and helped find existing material that could be used in the performance. He is collecting, adding, and ultimately helping to bring the pieces of this large jigsaw together – gathering all of the collected material to create a performance. “Things we thought up before have turned out completely differently here on the stage.” He draws a lot of inspiration from watching the individual contributions: “Esther is contributing a beautiful Portuguese song, which gets me thinking that could also be wonderful, too. You can really feel the performers’ individuality, but at the same time they’re already very much a collective.”

That is the main aim of these workshops, which are taking place before the start of the whole rehearsal process. This is where a collective has to be forged. We’re no stranger to theatre collectives: groups of makers who make collective performances and are attuned to one another without subjacent hierarchies. Things are different here: the people working on this performance all have an individual, autonomous creative practice and are only coming together as a temporary collective for the occasion. “Eventually they have to be in harmony with each other, like family,” explains conductor Manoj Kamps. “Much more than in an opera production that is based on a more traditional approach.”

Sketches

I return to the rehearsal space two days later. Composer Rick Veldhuizen has made a few initial sketches. Different instruments and vocals are being used to practice and experiment. Stephanie Pan is using her voice in a way that sounds like it has been edited with autotune. Screams and growls are alternated with sul tasto glissandi on the double bass and melodies sung by mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini. Veldhuizen is extremely enthusiastic. “Lovely!” he calls out. The texts being sung are also sketches. In collaboration with text dramaturgist Sarah Sluimer, a group of writers has already written material for this week’s workshops, and that’s already being used for the first composition sketches. But they continue to write during the workshops, typing away at long tables beside the stage, gaining inspiration from what’s unfolding around them.

Everyone here is busy sketching, gathering and sensing. Connecting and coming together. Somewhere in my peripheral vision, a collection of vibrantly coloured and elaborate masks by costume designer Carmen Schabracq comes into view. Some performers try on the masks, others take photos of them. Long tables are scattered with pieces of texts – varying in length – and piles of short sheet music fragments. Anything created on stage is carefully recorded, photographed, and filmed as potential pieces of the jigsaw that will ultimately become the performance.