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Avignon Festival: Gentle poetry of China Rose and Invocation of the Muse

media Invocation of the Muse, Caritia Abell (Muse) and Vanasy Khamphommala (poet), Sujet à Vif, 72è Festival d'Avignon © Christophe Raynaud de Lage Hans Lucas

The vast performing arts festival in Avignon allocates a special space and time to 30-minute pieces where two artists, not always from the same discipline or the same country, experiment together. The result is often interesting or fun or both. Its title, Sujet à Vif, is not easy to translate because it's a play on words in French, but we'll call it Matter in the Raw.

French actor and playwright Scali Delpeyrat wrote La Rose en Céramique (The China Rose) about love, loss and memory, such fragile things. The title refers to the china flowers often found on graves in continental Europe.

Delpeyrat's character has lost his love, Rose. She left, he doesn't say how, but he's grieving at home.

Memory is often sparked by objects. La Rose en Céramique, uses a few quite wittily. One is a towel with an embroidered name, another an unclad dishwasher and, even more unusually, a red bowling ball.

Dancer and circus artist Alexander Vantournhout from Belgian and Delpeyrat sought familiar yet quirky objects for their important role in La Rose Céramique.

Vantournhout explains that objects in theatre draw the audience in in a particularly subjective way. "It's all objects which we haven't seen much on stage. A bowling ball is an absurd thing. It's seven kilos, it expresses the burden of missing someone. It's sort of destruction as it's really heavy for me to carry. A dishwasher is a sort of stupid object, which is a bit funny. Everyone knows this object, everyone has emptied a dishwasher. I like this empathetical aspect."

Almost throughout, the two men - one very tall, bald and clean shaven wearing shorts, the other bearded and rather short in dark T-shirt and slacks - are joined together by two hands placed on two elbows.

"Scali has written the text and I do an assisted solo," says Vantournhout. "So I amplify his movements, his emotions and at the same time I'm very abstract. So the spectator can project quite a lot of imagination. Sometimes I'm a rose, the person he's missing, sometimes a kind of angel, some people think I'm his character but 30 years younger. While he's realism theatre, I make it a little bit larger."

Delpeyrat and Vantournhout's words and bodies balance just the right amount of drama and humour, static and in movement, to keep the audience with them, while still anticipating, to the short, sweet end.

Roses and identity

In the second piece, L'Invocation à la Muse (Invocation of the Muse), Berlin artists Caritia Abell and Vanasy Khamphommala tell a story of a poet, Khamphommala, seeking inspiration, wearing a tote bag on his head and, symbolically, blind.

Ringing a ritual bell, he invokes a muse (Abell crowned with bright fake flowers). Through a little erotic play - with objects like a rose, books, a rope, a cat-o'-nine-tails and silver stiletto shoes - and some pain, the poet is transformed and she finds her voice.

"Ironically, it's the gentle things that hurt more," says Khamphommala, a French artist of Laotian descent, of the rose which the muse uses to tickle and caress the poet, provoking murmurs and giggles in the audience. "It has thorns."

The duo personally invest in this artistic exploration of non-binary and other identity questions.

For UK-born Queer Afro-Carribean Caritia Abell, "It's about defining one's own journey. often queerness is a self-definition, not defined by somebody else. It's a different thing for everyone."

"It's a very inclusive term, that's one of the reasons we like it," says Khampholommala, adding that he also defines himself as trans or non-binary. "Queerness is a refusal of abiding by norms. So this is also something we try to do artistically, that queer artists try to do. They use the norms, they use the classical myths as we do, but we give it a twist!"

Like other productions at the festival, L'Invocation à la muse is more than just a show. It's a call for freedom of expression.

Compact theatre

Le sujet à vif is quite an exercise in compact theatre, not only because the sun is overhead at noon, which is a cue for the final bow, but also because the stage is a small, leafy courtyard in a 19th-century school building.

Both these pieces manage to fit in all that is required, to go, in their own distinct ways, from start to quite a satisfactory finish.

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