Zwaan, Zombies and Post-Colonialism

Improvised Identity

Conceived, written and performed by Zwaan de Vries
August 7, 2018
Malerargues, Roy Hart Centre, Southern France

Performing artist Zwaan de Vries presented a solo piece that happened to have a parallel thematic to the recently premiered Travers by Yane Mareine. See recent review: Qui est la plus belle?  Both address colonialism. Zwaan’s is an autobiographical piece on the impact of colonialism on her, on her family and on her families’ countries. Her father was Dutch, as her name indicates (and yes, Zwaan means swan – she is sometimes called Zwaantje, “little swan”). Her mother was Indonesian. As we have come to seriously realize, European countries have very dark chapters in the history of their colonial empires. I discovered recently how dark Belgium’s past had been, but I could have possibly bypassed the Dutch involvement in Indonesia, especially during and after World War II when it was invaded by Japan, creating an often-fatal triangle: Japan, Holland, and the Indonesian independence movement. Zwaan grew up in Rotterdam in the wake of this triangle.


Zwaan de Vries and I first met some thirty years ago in Germany; she remembers it was in Kiel – on the Baltic. I happened to be touring with a piece titled Concertino Disconcertante – full-out voice performance. Zwaan was living in Hanover where she and friends later created Am Kanal, a performance arts center. I remember her as the ultimate postmodern performer, dancing to Laurie Anderson’s famous and ‘ultimate’ New York postmodern piece, well worth revisiting: O Superman (1981). Cool, swift, gracious, witty, teasingly repetitive, and so American (as the Dutch can also be – Zwaan still has the accent…) I should add, to close the postmodern allusion: and camp (so important). Time passed, our paths parted.

Photo Yvan Midderigh

Improvised Identities could be described as what a Brazilian artist has proposed for our 2019 Festival: a “perfoconference” (but what an ugly university neologism!) Zwaan’s piece had grace. Her entrance was just perfect: calm and reserved, with an impressive, mature, physical presence. Her looks were serious, concerned even, clearly carrying a strong past on her shoulders and traits. She was neither hieratic nor unnecessarily solemn: she brushed lightly the audience with a very human, settled and direct look, and I would add: a ‘suffered’ one. It was clear of self-pity, and of defiance; her discourse was in fact going to tell us she had plenty of reasons for anger in her life. I saw no ‘victimism’, and before even uttering a word she had let us know that this was not going to be sermon-time. It was, rather, confidential. I was relieved and drawn in. The grace of her dancer’s youth postmodernism was all there, especially in her arm gestures (she never ‘dropped’ her arms nor her weight), and in the quality of her footsteps, at once grave and light. And having now acquired, unquestionably, an impressive voice. She and Yane Mareine must be close in age: both are mature, experienced, grounded and grand women. And, exceptional voices; both taking on Europe’s colonial past.

At the end of her performance, Zwaan asked the audience to stay for a further fifteen minutes, possibly longer. She wanted to hear comments. I admit I feared a sentimental hostage situation since Zwaan did not open an alternative for those who might have preferred to leave, or who had to go. The moment unfolded graciously. Again: relief. Writer Catherine Bedarrida expressed her particular interest in the stories in terms of post-colonial thinking. I happen to consider post-colonial studies to be, today, the over-arching frame of contemporary political and philosophical thinking. “Over-arching” as in arche and archetypes. Most readers of this blog know that my main intellectual reference is James Hillman, and that he named his work “archetypal psychology”, after Jung. The notion is crucial, certainly for me, even though I use it sparingly because archetypes have become such a pop-trendy label. Few persons study what it implies. I think post-colonial studies are very much (also) an archetypal way of thinking and of dismantling, by naming them, the powers behind the ideas, and prejudices.

Post-colonialism directly questions archaic/archetypal ideas of (mainly white) superiority – complexes, as Jung first put it. Hillman wrote on The Fallacy of White Supremacy. Fallacies rule our Western mindscape, at many levels. Its colonial root-dynamics are: conquest, convert and exploit. In many respects, the very idea of progress is colonial if only because it does not contribute or even account for what it considers to be the free resources of the planet (often ‘belonging’ to other populations). This puts ecological concerns within a post-colonial frame: humans ‘colonize’ the planet. I have also written elsewhere that I go along with those who consider that the very idea of consciousness is colonial. The unconscious: a vast (mostly dark) continent to be conquered, formatted and made ‘conscious’ on Western terms. Consciousness was one of the 1960’s ‘god-terms’; it was also Roy Hart’s. I have even written that the use of the piano in voice teaching has colonial connotations and that this very setup needs questioning if there are to be “advanced” voice studies – more on this at the end of this article. Post-colonialist thinking was sparked off principally by Palestinian scholar Edward Said in his, at the time (1978), highly polemical book, Orientalism. Post-colonialism has in my view become the main archetypal filter for contemporary claims, including gender ones. I am thinking of the writings of Paul B. Preciado: he foresees an ‘independance’ war, longer than the Hundred Years War, to vindicate and conquer a rightful place for women in our society. He also thinks humanity has colonized its bodies and their sexuality on the basis of cultural prejudices. He says that our bodies are the locus of our times’ revolution, not the factory, nor labor relations, nor so-called self-knowledge, but our colonized bodies.

These charged ideas are opened and unraveled in Zwaan’s piece through stories, some light, some not. I would describe Zwaan’s “perforconference” in terms of ceremonial journalism of the personal fait divers kind (news anecdotes), kept fresh and unpretentious (and non-sensational) by not fixing their delivery and by calling on the instability of improvisation. This fits with story-telling too: the performer as bard-narrator adapting to the moment. Zwaan had a display of Tarot-like cards on the floor; it was her memory reference score, so that, given the often-traumatic topic, the ceremonial became also a performative talking-cure session, addressing personal and historical wounds. It was clearly the outcome of her therapeutic journey. This is delicate confessional territory where Zwaan’s voice stayed maturely in-tune and in-tone – no excess of “touchy-feeling”. I did have preferences and wishes which I now offer in terms of the “comments” she requested.

I did wish Zwaan had entered more of a performance-mode – at least once; her presentation was on the edge of being ‘only’ a didactic story-telling one. My militant stand says that an actor enters performance-mode when she “descends” (Nekyia): when she rolls on the ground and screams. Her conquered integrity and vertical speaking poise did not enter krisis, did not break down, or into underwordly echo chambers. It did break out into song and singing, mostly gentle-voiced, with moments of dance. I would have liked to follow her longer and deeper into the mindful wealth of her experiences, including depressions. Shadow areas too: inferiority complexes, of course!

Writing on Yane Mareine’s melancholy, and on her exceptional singing voice, I said I would have reversed the text-to-singing ratio (80% text, 20% singing) into 80% singing and 20% text. But then, Yane Mareine’s was not what I would call “ceremonial reporting”, it was more of a ritual meditation. Was she building a ‘post-colonial’ case? Not really, I would say; she was beyond it, she had reached and shared ancestral affections. Zwaan may be at a stage where she had to build and verbalize her case – to ‘come out’ with it. Maybe she will enter more of a performance-mode when she feels her points are made, and invite us into a more meditative, private zone, with expanded dancing-singing that touches the ground, the grave, her soul and ours, artfully and deeply.

Technically this might also ask for a less frontal tribunal solo-setting (which also had something of a visit to Madame Zwaan, in her Tarot parlor with the cards spread out around her); dislocating such formalities might take us into more of a dream-like use of the courtroom, and compensate or even get away altogether from the potential rhetorical demands of a defense or indictment tribunal. It is my tendency to prefer the magical private chambers where ghosts and echoes linger – maybe the very tribunal halls themselves, but visited at night, when the ministries are closed.

An important point on Zwaan’s text delivery. She brings a mature and dignified presence to the stage but her text delivery is ‘green’. This in part has to do with her generous efforts to speak (and improvise) in English, clearly not native to her. And it can make her endearing, but Madame Zwaan obviously also has in her a strong, red, demanding baby-demon, ready to scream and scratch. Her manner of speech, or sprechgesang lapses into what has become a pervasive, naive ‘Roy Hart’ text-rendering mode, an old-fashioned prosody where the voice becomes illustrative with redundant amplifications, a bit like comic-strips onomatopoeic sounds. With Yane Mareine I mentioned Aphrodite-Erzuli’s putti mannerisms, but as clear ploys of seduction. Here, with Zwaan, the ‘greenness’ is a weakness in poetical artisanship with language, not so much in its writing, certainly not in its content, but in its use, in its rhetorical performance-mode. Maybe it is too close to illustrative reporting, journalistic in this sense. I found it needed the art and craft of disassociation, the sophistication of counterpoint between voice, text and movement. With piano-playing one has to learn to disassociate the two hands in order to achieve more complex renderings; to advance into performance-mode with voice, dance, words and ideas, what is needed is mytho-poetical craft and training – to bring in the moods, metaphors and spirits of the stories.

The other side of what I would consider to be “advanced studies” is Depth Psychology, i.e. Analysis. Here I feel Zwaan has a lot to offer, given what she has worked through in her life, and in her ancestral memories – and crypto-memories: she spoke of dreaming events that uncles of hers had actually lived and of which she had not been informed – something like trans-generational traumatic memories. In Haitian vodou, those ‘trans’ figures and events are also called zombies: visitations or psychic thieves that can actually be initiatory devil-angels, or, and as the very same figures, ill-omen succubi: complexes that linger in the halls of our memorial tribunals, who judge and drain our lives, burn us out. I wished for more time to gage and engage with Zwaan’s sensibility in these areas, not only in stories – necessary and strong as they are – but in what I call “performance-mode”. Ceremonial spiritism, why not?

Zwaan’s performance, with Yanne Mareine’s, fulfilled my Malerargues compact summer dose of performances – only two (outside the Myth and Theatre Festival), but I was lucky – and glad I chose well. Gratitude to both artists.     Enrique Pardo, Malerargues, August 12, 2018.

Une réflexion sur “Zwaan, Zombies and Post-Colonialism

  1. Dear Enrique, thanks so much for such great inspiration! These are the first words I am able to send you, because I am deeply touched by your words. And your wishes are exactly what I wish to to discover, as I go deeper into the world of zombies. You naming this in this way gives me creative energy. But like I say, this is al directly after reading. But it did hit so precise on the spots where that deep wish is living that I wish to develope, that I got emotianal reading it. And I am sure that if I do so, the language will immediately be quite different. And I feet a big ‘Yes’as you speak about the ‘colonial piano’ ( my interpretation of what you wrote) I find Malérargues very simalar to the Netheralnds in the 50-ies with only several black spots. And lots of the talk unconsciously colonial. But these are itchy topics. This is up till now, I have to get some one from Thoiras and take her out shopping now. Again, thank you so much! I knew when I started this journey, whom I wished to direct it. And that is why I came to you. What you give me now is a lot to work on deeper and might be enough. Never of course the ‘real’ work. But it does not look like that I could ever afford that.

    It is great that you keep inspiring me. Love Zwaan

    *foto; Ivan Midderigh* *Zwaan de Vries* *Roy Hart Theatre* *teacher, performer* *voice,* *dansexpressie.* *+31 24 3231252* *+06 50216275*


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