Thursday, October 30, 2008

In Anton’s Garden. The letters from Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper.

(Translated from Spanish by Tadeo Berjón)

Anton Chekhov

"Who envelops you, beautiful Anton?"

More than 15 years ago I wondered about the mystery of his person and his writing, and at the same time I wrote:

¿Quién te envuelve, bello Antón?

Tu misterio se escribe en la cara.

Tus lentes, reflejo ríspido de soledad;

de ambición desmedida por la nada.

(Who envelops you, beautiful Anton?
Your mystery is written on your face.

Your glasses, rough reflection of loneliness;

of unbridled ambition for nothingness.)

I continuously looked at the only photo available in those times of no internet, I observed it trying to discover its hidden secrets behind the colourless image; his life came to my in small bits, all I knew about him were his theatre plays translated into Spanish.

Then I found some letters, very few short sentences about his life as a writer, advices for his brother, comments of his disgust towards certain freedoms the Moscow Art Theatre was taking with his plays.

And I kept coming back to that photo, and writing about it...

Sonrisa que no existe.
Monalisa rusa de color sepia.

Impresión de pasividad.

(Smile that exists not.
Sepia coloured Russian Monalisa.

Impression of passivity. )

Yes, I didn’t see a sexual Chekhov, I didn’t seem him as open, or loving, or loved. He was just one image and chosen words for saying something; a strange combination of ideas superimposed on each other in my mind. And I still saw him as beautiful, him, the man.

¡Ay, bello Antón!

(Oh, beautiful Anton!)

And his plays...

Cada palabra desluce mis ironías;
tus diálogos desnudan mi alma,
su alma,

y la de los demás...

(Every word dulls my ironies;

your dialogues disrobe my soul,

his soul,

and that of the others...)

Cada palabra tuya espera,

se alarga en hermosos silencios;

cada palabra tuya también grita

si deseamos hacerla gritar.

(Each of your words waits,

elongates into beautiful silences;

each of your words also screams
if we want to make it scream.)

I was fascinated by the mystery, of course, of his work, of his secrets, of his immense fame. I ask myself, why, then, did I also see him as part of a failure?

¡Ay, Antón, que lloras y glorificas tu fracaso!

(Oh, Anton, you cry and glorify your failure!)

I knew of his repulse, of his continuous illness, of his remote life in a southern port of the then Russian empire.

I wrote poems dedicated to him and based on small stories and impressions from his work; little by little my reading repeated itself, his plays again and again, his stories again and again, his few letters once more; and when languages (English and French) made their appearance in my life, the different visions that translations into other languages bring to us, and with that the doors they open.

On December 2004 I decided to take a week to submerge myself completely in the French theatre of the moment; I had six apotheotical nights of theatrical performances, Le Cirque Antoine, three Peter Brook’s productions, Théâtre du Soleil and Arianne Mnouchkine, among others. I went to the theatre on the second floor of the Théâtre de Champs Élysées to watch, not without emotion, in a production directed by Peter Brook, Natasha Parry and Michel Piccoli, “Ta main dans la mienne”, a play based on the letters that Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper wrote to each other for 6 years.

“Lui : - Je prends votre main dans la mienne -
Elle : - C’est ainsi qu’il les a signées - ses lettres - ses lettres à Olga -
Lui : - 400 lettres. -
Elle : - 412 pour être exact - d’abord en amis -

Lui : - ensuite en amants -

Elle : - ensuite en mari et femme -

Lui : - une vie de passion en six courtes années -
Elle : - Il était écrivain -
Lui : - elle était actrice -
Elle : - et ils se sont rencontrés - comment se sont-ils rencontrés ? -
Lui : - J’ai oublié ! -
Elle : - C’était à une lecture - une lecture de La Mouette. Avril 1898 - tu t’en souviens?” (1)

The play presented to me, for the first time, a Chekhov in love, almost passionate about a woman (that was a surprise for me, of course), it presented, too, a Chekhov as an ordinary man, talking with less “Chekhovian sense”, well, not completely. For some (apparently obvious) reason, it was decided that the play be spoken mostly in the past tense; that made it Chekhovian, that made me lose he recently found man, it was as if it were a Chekhov written by Chekhov. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying it tremendously.

Something else from this mise-en-scene by Brook remained in my memory, Chekhov was old, very old; Michel Piccoli could barely stand, he was a man of wasted voice, an old man, and when he played a young man he seemed like an old man trying to feel youthful; Natasha Parry was also an older woman but, once you forgot her beautiful wrinkles, when she expressed her love, her adoring of the great author, with great subtleness, you forgot everything, she was Olga Knipper, who reminisced about those letters in her memories.

Anton Chekhov was then split into two in my memory’s image: a photo of a young man, maybe mature, with an air of loneliness and simplicity; and an acting of an old, live, loving man, who I’d seen die on stage.

An old Chekhov...?

In 2007, when retaking the text of the acting method of Antonio González Caballero, with all that part devoted to the naturalist current of modern acting proposed by Chekhov, I had to go back to the artist and the man, and to delve more deeply I ordered two books, “The Moscow Art Theatre Letters” and “Dear writer Dear Actress(2), both compilations by Jean Benedetti. It was (as it remains) also the era of the flood of information and images that internet provides.

The book about the letter from the Moscow Art Theatre didn’t but corroborate my opinions and information about the opinion Chekhov had of his plays and of Stanislavsky himself, but it was “Dear Writer Dear Actress” which, along with the letters exchanged between Chekhov and Olga Knipper, that created a revolution in my perception of the man that wrote one the the most important groups of plays belonging to the universal theatre.

Having turned forty, I would wake up almost before dawn with a strange feeling of apparently endless youth; confused, I’d look at myself in the mirror and was surprised by what nature, genetics and exercise maintained in my body and face; that was the time I read that Chekhov felt old at the same age... at forty, at my forty... Ill with tuberculosis he saw life leave while love arrived with all its power; locked in a boring, uneducated and lonely Yalta, his writings enjoyed a success he himself simply could not enjoy.

Only irony saved his mind.

My little doggie” (“¡Mi perrita!”, how rude that sounds in Spanish!) was how he called, amongst dozens of other ridicule pet names, Olga Knipper, his beloved wife. In a 6 year-long love they met just a few times, and I strongly believe that that’s what kept their love alive while it lasted. Little sex, yes, but intense when it happened, sex that left them expecting a son, miscarried, who was supposed to be called Pamphil.

Letters upon letters show us how strange it was to depend on mail in those times; between Yalta, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, between Nice, Naples and Rome. Letters that arrive weeks late, some that arrive earlier than others, answers to others from weeks before...

-Why haven’t you written?-
-But I’ve sent you letters twice a day!-,

-Don’t be sad.-,
-I’m not sad, I wrote that in a different letter; now I’m happy-,

-I hear you’re ill-,
-I don’t have any health problems now-,

-Don’t send letters to Rome, send them to Naples; I haven’t been able to receive any from you.-

... A wonderful world of sentimental misunderstandings that never become a vaudevil, as it doesn’t happen either in his “comedies”.

Letters that presented a delicious Chekhov that washes little, that washes his hair even less, but who changes clothes somewhat more often; who enjoys a friendly dog until the dog prefers to sleep in his mother’s room. Chekhov, the man, lives the strange and tragic love of a young man that lives like an old one, who can’t go up the stairs, who suffers from colds, indigestion, continuous diarrhea, and an actress wife who parties and miscarries his son. A man who loves flowers, who devotes himself to a garden that sometimes goes crazy with tropical flair and other times remains as boring and dry as his neighbours in Yalta.

Those letters showed me also a Chekhov friend, worried for the health of Tolstoy and for the folkloric shirts of Gorky, for the lack of talent of his dear Nemirovich Danchenko and his wife’s worries; he is a man that dreams with a dacha near Moscow and with enjoying the silly and intellectual nights of a big city. Chekhov is a man of national fame but completely ignored internationally, who can travel through Europe and go to the theatre and not be recognised by anybody; he jokes with his wife for her being an actress that, thanks to a soon-to-be contract, would become as famous as Sarah Bernhardt.

Chekhov in his letters is a forgotten man in a small and remote world, old, sick, a smiling and ironical man that takes pleasure in seeing how people live while his wife reads or sings at his side. A man who constantly loses faith in his writing and suddenly becomes big with confidence once he finishes a play.

Chekhov, from what I read and I can read, was a man who, when he died, said a sentence in German and had a bit of champagne...


And today, watching his photograph again, I can write:

En el jardín de Antón

¿Quién te envuelve, bello Antón?

Tu misterio se escribe en tu cara.

Tus lentes, reflejo ríspido de soledad;

de ambición desmedida por la nada.

Sonrisa que no existe,

como una Monalisa rusa de color sepia.

Eres un hombre-mujer,

impresión de eterna pasividad.

¡Ay, bello Antón!

Cada una de tus palabras desluce mis ironías.

Tus diálogos desnudan mi alma,
su alma,

y el alma de los demás.

Cada una de tus palabras espera,

se alarga en hermosos silencios.
Si queremos las hacemos gritar.

Grita diciendo uno o dos...

¡Ay, Antón que lloras y glorificas al fracaso!

¡Revolucionario de 40 años que a nadie mató!

In Anton’s Garden

Who envelops you, beautiful Anton?

Your mystery is written on your face.

Your glasses, rough reflection of loneliness;
of unbridled ambition for nothingness.

Smile that exists not.

Sepia coloured as Russian Monalisa.

You’re a woman-man,

Impression of eternal passivity.

Oh, beautiful Anton!

Every word dulls my ironies;

your dialogues disrobe my soul,

his soul,
and that of the others...

Each of your words waits,

elongates into beautiful silences;

if we want we make it scream.

Scream saying one or two...

Oh, Anton, you cry to and glorify failure!

40 year revolutionary who nobody killed!

(1) Original text of "Ta main dans la mienne"
“Dear Writer Dear Actress” The Love letters of Anton Chekhov & Olga Knipper. Selected, edited and translated by Jean Benedetti. Methuen. U.K. 2007.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Strindberg photographer

Strindberg walked his life researching, he found similitudes and coincidences between matter and energy, he wondered about others' discoveries in fields like psychology, occultism and natural science. August Strindberg, a poet, a scientist, a thaumaturg, ill with an obsessive desire for being recognized as a renovator and a sage; in his obsession he penetrate secrets of many disciplines; he was an erudite but also had terrible mistakes, he was considered by many as pernicious and suffered humiliation; the prototype of a genius, he was only capable of recognizing his own reality and truth.

Walking through his marvelous life he talked about Bohemia, in which he found flowers which seemed images he recognized from his photographic plates; he observed streams of water similar to chemical products he worked with; he perceived above the wind the light from which everything comes from; he intended to penetrate bodies and discover their real interior.

“Je sais très bien que les psychologues ont inventé un vilain nom grec pour définir la tendance à voir des analogies partout, mais cela ne m’effraie guère, car je sais qu’il y a des ressemblances partout, attendu que tout est en tout, partout”. (Inferno) (1)

If we try to understand his genius only through his theatrical career, then we will miss an enormous field of precious information.

Strindberg was also an alchemist who looked for the origins of objects, throughout an internalization process he worked with substances to penetrate any matter and discover its secrets. Strindberg the photographer used photography as a ”medium”, chemical combinations didn’t work, so images, photographic plates, experiments with light, could do the job then. He photographed his face, his rooms, his family, he tried to find the soul in the portrait with a special technique.

“J’ai préparé dans ma tête une histoire qui contient le maximum d’humeurs differentes. Je me raconte l’histoire tout en exposant la plaque et en regardant fixement la victime. sans suspecter ce que la force à faire, sous l’influence de la suggestion, il est obligé de réagir à ces influences qui le pénètrent. Et la plaque fixe l’expression de son visage. Le tout dure exactament trente secondes - mon histoire est minutieusement calculée pour cette durée. En trente secondes j’ai capté le sujet dans sa totalité!” (Quoted by Per Hemmingson)

Strindberg photographed the sky, the clouds, the stars; he used to leave his plates during the night under the effect of the moonlight and the next morning came back to look for changes and tried to explain what he saw there: images of the night, images of what we are not able to see with our eyes, images of the invisible. He subscribed to the crazy idea of extracting part of the soul of others through photography (what other thing could a photographic image be but part of the soul?). He trusted in X Rays as a philosophical way of understanding matter and energy. He detested the delusion of our eyes but he was amazed by them and he used to penetrate that delusion and imagined stories; gelatin plates were a field of illusion, a way of wonders.

“Je suis retourné à mes formations de cristaux que je photographie directement en les copiant de la plaque de verre où la cristallisation se trouve. Ces agrégats, des fleurs de glace, m’ont ouvert des perspectives dans les secrets de la nature qui me stupéfiaient” (Quoted by Per Hemmingson)

My heart always breaks when reading his honest letters, his petitions, his explanations and his furious claims over the incomprehension of others; I have also cried watching his photographs of dark skies and clouds over Stockholm.

As for the soul, when Strindberg discovered psychology, he called it “the unconscious”, and during his long walk of life he bases his research on the supra-natural; having rolled in the sick pleasures of realism and naturalism, his hunger for more pleasure led him to look even deeper or more downward or more inward; later “the others” would call it surrealism: supra-natural was his word.

“C’est donc à moi de jeter la pasarelle entre le naturalisme et le supranaturalisme en proclamant que celui-ci ne constitue qu’un devéloppement de celui’la” (Quoted by Eric Renner)

When he came upon camera theatre where, through actions and words he exposed the world of the soul, of the supra-natural, of the unconscious, the road had been already been traversed by the avatars of exploration; his theatre was and (still is) revolutionary because it came to him as an inevitable result of those failed encounter with alchemy, astronomy, science, philosophy and photography.

“Je cherche la vérité dans la photographie, intensément, comme je la cherche dans beaucoup d’autres domaines.” (Inferno)

Today more than ever I’m fully convinced that to know (and to enjoy even more) Strindberg’s work we have to see and read his “images”.


I received, as a birthday gift from someone who loves me, a small book edited in 1994 by Actes Sud, “L’expérience Photographique d’August Strindberg”, written by Clément Chéroux, with a delicious “anexo” including some short extracts from texts written by Strindberg himself about his photographic experience. At the beginning the book seemed to me a little bit conventional, but when I started to read and to feel Strindberg’s powerful experiences with Photography and his research, those words caused real admiration for Chéroux’s work to awake in me.

Now I can understand why, some years later, and after the book was published, The National Stockholm Museum and Le Musée d’Orsay exhibited a large part of Strindberg’s photographic and painting work (2), without any preamble to his literary and theatrical work but as a unique painter and photographer.

(1) I’ve decided not to translate those texts ( some are translations from Swedish to French themselves) because I thought I could make terrible mistakes trying to put Strindberg’s ideas in English (or Spanish). I’m sure there are some versions of this texts in your language.
(2) The exhibition was mainly known thanks to the book that was published about it: “August Strindberg Painter and Photographer”, edited by Yale University and Stockholm Museum.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"The Little Prince" in a Chinese production, in Beijing.

Xavier Froment is a French stage director who came to Beijing seven years ago and made it his base for making theatre, in Chinese, for Chinese spectators.

Cases of foreigners coming to Beijing and establishing themselves to do the same thing as Xavier has these seven years are few. Many come to study, Beijing Opera in particular, but they soon go back to their countries. There is only one foreigner, and his is a very special case: Ghaffar Pourazar, a British citizen of Iranian origin, who came to study Beijing Opera and established himself in the city, and he is still working as any other Chinese traditional theatre player; even more so, he is an important figure at some of the main Beijing Opera companies in China.

In general, in Beijing, we find some English speaking directors, having fun (or money) with some theatrical productions for expatriates or Classical Western plays for Chinese people; there are very few cases of other languages or nationalities; but nobody, absolutely, like Xavier Froment.

Xavier is living his life in Beijing and earns his money by doing theatre and selling his productions to anyone who wants to pay for them. His company, 三枝橘制作 Théâtre des trois oranges, produces, since 2003, plays by Chinese as well as by French writers, but all in Chinese and addressed to Chinese public. The company has a group of actors coming from different Chinese acting schools but most of them educated in what is called "Huaju" or Spoken Theatre, Western Theatre. Every production is usually performed between 4 and 5 times for season, as is common in China.

At the beginning of September I received Xavier's invitation for the premier of "小王子" "Le Petit Prince". Being one of the most universally known French texts the simple idea of listening to it in Chinese was kind of morbid. It was also the first time I could observe Xavier's work, so my curiosity had some professional level.

The Little Prince was adapted (remember that it is a short novel) to theatre as a monologue, so no evident characters are displayed on stage and the whole group of dialogues is played by one actor alone, Gen Shaoye. That singularity of the performance made it more difficult for me to get a total comprehension of the text. I decided then to listen to the rhythm and to the musicality we all remember well of Saint-Exupéry's words, but that idea brought another problem: the Chinese language has a special musicality, its 4 different tones give it its own immanent music, so no simile with French pronunciation at all... I'd rather not talk more about what I listened to there and leave it to your own experience listening to the video.

The image of the spectacle, in contrast, fluctuated between gray and colourful moments, between light and shadows; at some moments I saw mythic dreams on stage: one big elastic piece of cloth worked like that famous coat Saint-Exupéry drew for his main character, but it also was the snake's body, and worked as the sky on Earth itself. Those images are now in my memory and I think they will be there for long time.

Théâtre des Trois Oranges is working on a new production (for the end of October, 2008); they invited me again and this time I will have the opportunity of seeing some rehearsals also, so I hope my comprehension after the premier will be a little bit more extensive.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"The Roses of Heliogabalus" and inspiration through painting.

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1)

Let me paint flowers and men, some death and joy.
No! Let me listen to soft music and write about it.

I also want to see my naked eyes, without colours,
without eyelashes that float and envelop me;
I want to see men running to save themselves, and then... to sleep.

Let me feel a smile for what they say about you,
and see those flowers that they say you let drop from heaven.

I want to see your painters and poets,
I want to listen to those narrators that don’t know how to sing.

I want to see kerchiefs and roses!

...millions of roses falling.

Let me see your flowers, your men and your stories,
and so I can inspire myself on death and the past.

Let me see your painting coloured in shades of red,
and of pink and violet,
then lick your dirty hands,
then lick your mind too,

... is that possible?

I have eyes no more, don’t be afraid,
I will only be able to hear your sketching,
I will only feel your breath while painting.

I want to write some more, but my hands become tense!

Without you,
... I walk like a handicap on the passage to the mythical world.

So let me stay here, since I don’t harm,
I only want to see what I cannot see without you


About half a year ago the modern art museum of Beijing hosted an exhibition of the collection of Pérez Simón: “Masterpieces of the 19th Century European Paintings at the Pérez Simón Collection”. It was the first time I was going to look at, with some awareness, some of the originals of the most famous paintings by the so called pre-raphaelites and classical victorian artists. Tales, novels, simple stories and myths, cinema itself, legends from old Europe, all of them gathering before me as images. The experience of the exhibition became a feast of figures, colours and textures, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty and finesse of the paintings and the stories flowing from them.

Walking along the exhibition I remembered some words my teacher, a writer as well as a painter, once said to me about those victorian painters: that they were immensely famous in their time and Oscar Wilde (who was an art critic as well) dedicated whole pages to them, but once the impressionists made their appearance, they all disappeared from the map. I didn’t know what to think, I love impressionists and I simply could not compare; what I saw now, in those forgotten artists of the 19th century, was completely different; I was discovering a new world, a world that inspired me to action, theatrical action.

Lovers of history and detail, the victorian painters of the 19th century were closer to photography and the soon-to-come cinema than to the theatre of their time (in fact, what they were close to was to literature and the myth that derived from it); their epic was atmospheric, their action was dream-like. In their paintings what is shown is the before or the after, not the decisive moment; the massacre doesn’t take place, it’s the road leading to it that is important, it’s the preparatory action to the brutal action, as if Chekhov had wanted (and he did it) to write a poem about a scene taking place before his most dramatic scene...

That’s why I enjoyed it so much, because, being a stage-oriented person, I could still perceive the dramatic action in unbearably beautiful surroundings, in this case in a delayed dramatic action, submerged in silence, a most beautiful subtle action.

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” was etched unto my mind, I’ve dreamt about it and I’ve woken up many mornings looking at it and trying to write a play thanks to the inspiration it’s left me; flowers that kill the guests, tragedy in an empire, passions and indulgence. Petals, soft gestures, music and incredibly beautiful textures (2)... Some scenes have surfaced, still few, but it doesn’t matter, something more complete will arrive when the time comes.

For the time being, a poem is what came from it, and is now my best memory and my best way of sharing.

(1) Translation by Tadeo Berjón. The original is in Spanish:

Déjame pintar flores y hombres, un poco de muerte y de gozo.
¡No!, déjame escuchar música suave y escribir sobre ella.

Quiero también ver mis ojos desnudos, sin colores,
sin pestañas que floten y me envuelvan;
quiero ver hombres corriendo para salvarse, y después... dormir.

Déjame sentir una sonrisa por lo que cuentan de ti,
y ver esas flores que dicen dejas caer del cielo.

Quiero ver a tus pintores y poetas,

quiero escuchar a esos narradores que no saben cantar.

¡Quiero ver pañuelos y rosas!

... millones de rosas que caen.

Déjame ver tus flores, tus hombres y tus historias,

y así inspirarme en la muerte y en el pasado.

Déjame ver tu cuadro pintado en rojos,
y en rosas y en violetas,

entonces lamer tus manos sucias,

entonces lamer tu mente también,

... ¿es posible?

Ya no tengo ojos, no temas,
sólo podré escuchar tus trazos,
sólo sentiré tu aliento al pintar.

Quiero escribir un poco más pero, ¡mis manos se tensan!

Sin ti,
... camino como un lisiado en el pasaje al mundo mítico.

Por eso déjame estar aquí, que no hago daño,

que sólo quiero ver lo que no puedo ver sin ti.

Contrary to many other paintings where photography improves on the colours or dimensions of the original painting, in this case, the original of “The Roses of Heliogabalus” is truely impressive. Take the photograph I’m publishing as a simple visual reference point.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Beijing Opera Lessons 1: A Clown Scene

A few months ago a new series of educational VCDs appeared in stores in China, those digital videos were designed for teaching Peking Opera (Beijing Opera) to Primary and High school teachers: "中小学京剧进课堂必学唱段名师欣赏与教学". (1)

Chinese government decided Chinese Opera should be taught in many regions of the country as a way to introduced children in one of the treasures of traditional Chinese culture. This program has been badly criticized by many art specialists and pedagogues, and the reasons for it are simple: How teachers can transmit something they don't know? Beijing Opera (and Chinese Opera in general) is not only a very difficult Performing Art, it is simply unknown in the new China, only specialist can talk and teach about it, teachers are simply not prepared for it.

Well, these videos seems being an effort to resolve this problem, and it could help yes, but the problem is much wider I guess.

Let the Chinese government resolves this question and we can step forward taking advantage of its "products".

We are not Chinese high school teachers but we are almost in the same level of knowledge about Chinese opera (much less, of course), so we can also use them for learning this ancient and special art and we can do it with practical exercises!

I was very surprised these videos were performed by very young actors, but all of them professionals and currently teachers in professional Opera Schools in China.

Seeing it from this point of view it is a very important step to open Beijing Opera to anyone in the world, trying to show some hidden secrets on acting in this kind of theatre. I'm pretty sure that being a very codified and elaborate Performing Art, Peking Opera needs this kind of products to show how is performed and how its acting technique is without myths or second tales in between.

Of course for Westerners (actors or not) it is a real exotic curiosity but I'm sure it could be a big help to anyone interested in Asian Performing Arts and Acting techniques. Even if the videos are very basic and only spoken in Chinese, they could be understood by anyone interested just making a small effort: movements, rhythm, tempo, everything (I believe) is understandable without knowing the meaning of the speech. Of course any knowledge on Chinese language would be a great help.

The first video I want to share explains how to perform a Chinese Opera clown character, a Chou type (or Xiaohualian), in a scene called “报灯名” or Bao dengming (reporting the lights) from the opera 《打龙袍》Da Longpao (Beating the Royal Robe).

Video of Beijing Opera Lessons 1


(1) You can find information about this video at: (It is a Chinese site of course, but you can automatically translate the page and get the information in your language).
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