Avant-garde in its noun form refers to “an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts especially in the arts.”¹ And translated from the French the phrase literally means “fore-guard.” The avant-garde is at the forefront of theatrical experimentation, as well as experimentation in the wider arts. Avant-garde practitioners explore the possibilities in their art forms, with theatrical practitioners pushing the boundaries of traditional theatre. This ranges from the stage space to the scenography, to the movement, and to the location of performance. An important feature of avant-garde theatre is the way in which space is utilised; through the use of space, whether on stage or in a location, a practitioner can communicate meaning and purposeful purposelessness. Though the avant-garde moves away from text-based works there can still be a sense of meaning in the way a scene is presented to the spectator. For this essay, the author shall examine the works of two avant-garde practitioners in relation to their use of space.
A review of Romeo Castellucci’s production of Salome contains the following statement: “What secrets would these [visuals] impart? Any help would be welcome because Castellucci only offers riddles.”² The author believes that this encapsulates the oeuvre of this theatre creator. Though his work draws an audience in and bombards them with striking and unforgettable imagery, these images defy simple explanation. The avant-garde rallies against easily digestible fare and opts for a more cerebral experience. The traditions of linear plot and structure are of no interest to this style of theatre. One of the aims of the avant-garde is to create artwork that challenges its spectators. The avant-garde challenges the notions of what constitutes art, what defines the parameters of theatre.
Along with Claudia Castellucci and Chiara Guidi, he founded Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio in 1981. Prior to this, he graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna with a degree in painting and stage design. This background in art would find its way into his stage work, which often features painterly like composition, with an emphasis on lighting. A still image from Tragedia Endogonidia BN.#05 Bergen featuring a child curled up on a table, while a massive ram’s head looms over it from the shadows, brings to mind the chiaroscuro technique of Giovanni Baglione or Caravaggio.
Castellucci’s theatre is one of visuals. He often works within the frames of iconoclastic theatre, utilising images and emblems of religion, politics, etc. in order to garner a reaction from spectators; and to explore what it is about these images that produces such a response. He wants his works to create an emotional connection, despite the distanciation and transparent artificiality of his works. His stage is a place of violence, reminiscent of Artaud. This combination of the unreal and the exploration of violence creates some of his most memorable work. A scene wherein a policeman is beaten by his colleagues allows the spectator to see the real source of the fake blood, yet the piece is startling and disturbing in its starkness. The stage is all white, allowing the red to stand out even more and push home this idea of mindless violence. Peter Brook once wrote: “We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin.”³ This is the approach of Castellucci’s performances.
Prior to this beating, Castellucci puts a baby on stage. In a vast cube lined with grey-and-white marble and lit by fluorescent bulbs, the smallness of the baby is overwhelmed. The space above and around the baby is eerily empty, waiting for the infant to grow and fill his own space. That this scene is followed by the brutal beating is interesting. The empty space around the baby is rife with possibility, with hope for his future. This hope is destroyed when the baby is replaced by an old man who is subjected to such brutality. The use of the baby has been called morally dubious but undeniably provocative and unsettling.
Castellucci often uses young people in his productions. Tragedia Endogonidia BN.#05 Bergen features a young child in several scenes. The smallness of the figure is emphasised through the use of the looming space above it, filled with the ram’s head that seems to rush at him. The foetal position suggests fear, the child cowering from the danger, trying to make himself as small as possible. But the overbearing ram comes down upon the child displayed on a table as if presented as a meal or offering. The ram appears from behind large plastic sheets, pushing against them, threatening both the child and the spectator.
In another scene, the child is surrounded by pale-faced individuals, who tend to him and feed him from a large cup of white liquid. There is a tenderness to the actions, but the way in which Castellucci positions the adults lends the scene an air of menace. While the child is tended to, other people watch from behind the plastic sheets, or from the peripheral stage space. There is a reverence is their movements. The darkness of the piece is replaced by a blinding whiteness, sometimes enveloping the child in its severity. The sensation is one of entrapment, by the people surrounding him and the literal space itself.
These implications and assumptions do not come from anything tangible, such as a textual basis or dialogue, but rather through the way Castellucci uses the space he has and the way he positions bodies within that space. There is no basis for thinking the child is in danger from these people other than the unsettling way in which they surround the child and the coldness of the white surroundings. This shows the immense importance of the space in the performance of an avant-garde piece.
Tragedia Endogonidia derives from the theatrical philosophies by Antonin Artaud. Artaud said he wanted to create an experience that for an audience be equivalent to the plague that decimated Europe, yet inspired great art. He wanted to terrify and awaken his spectators. Castellucci follows this principle in his desire to create a space that tests spectators. Artaud also outlines in his essays his belief that seemed improvisation is at the heart of theatre. Innes says that “Artaud stressed that a performance should only seem to be improvised and merely ‘give us the impression of not only being unexpected but also unrepeatable.’ ”⁴ Although the staging of Tragedia Endogonidia betrays the fact that it is not improvised, the style of movement within space implies that it is.
The avant-garde is vastly different to any traditional theatrical practice. The paradox is, however, that it is vastly different to itself as well, as the most prominent distinguishing feature of the avant-garde is that there is no common style. The term is a very loose net cast over work that experiments with new forms. Even within the work of one practitioner there can be a multitude of variations. Within Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogonidia he dabbles in different ways of using the stage space:
“In the first episodes the space was looking very monumental and claustrophobic at the same time, five sides of a cube without doors. Remember the golden room in Cesena or the huge marble chamber in Brussels. They show an architecture which is extremely naked, but overwhelming to the same level. […] In the later episodes however, the architecture grew more open and transparent, which was however blurred by many net or plastic curtains in the front. What you saw, you saw behind a non-reflecting mirror.”⁵
Beyond the more traditional physical space that Castellucci’s theatre, though anti-theatre, does not reject all the trappings of traditional theatre. His works are often performed onstage, with the spectator separated from the proceedings by the framing of the stage. Tragedia Endogonidia is staged in the confrontation form of theatrical space. Not all his works are staged in this way — Folk was produced at an event location known as Gebläsehalle in Ilsede, Germany, a location with an industrial atmosphere to it. The performers were placed in a large inflatable pool while the spectators observed from the perimeter. Throughout his work Castellucci can be seen to be continuously experimenting with various aspects of theatre. The use of space and scenography is one place where his title of an avant-garde practitioner comes from.
Merce Cunningham once said: “Dancing for me is movement in time and space. Its possibilities are bound only by our imaginations and our two legs.” The author would expand this infinite possibility to encapsulate not only movement but the space that movement takes up. A practitioner of chance procedures to create art, Cunningham was interested in art for art’s sake. His work was non-representational and was designed to stand alone.
Cunningham, more so than Castellucci, stages his pieces in non-traditional locations. By moving away from the theatre and the regular division of performer and spectator, he challenges what the relationship between these two parties can be. For example, his Ocean was performed in a granite quarry outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota. This production was in collaboration with the Walker Art Center. By removing the theatrical event from the theatre with traditional seating, Cunningham asks his spectators to consider the nature of theatre. He asks that they put aside any pre-conceived notions of theatricality, and to consider those notions.
One of Cunnigham’s pieces is entitled Deli Commedia. It was conceived as a slapstick comedy, inspired by the two-reel movies of the early silent film era. Indeed, it is easy to see the influence of the physicality of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton throughout. Though Deli Commedia has moments which the author feels have the sensation of being from a piece with a linear structure (such as the inquisitive head scratch at 05:51), it resists easy analysis as there is no overarching narrative or theme. The name, music and use of bodies bring to mind the commedia dell’arte, with its exaggerated movements and light-hearted atmosphere.
The phrase “theatrical space” is a point of contention in the realm of the avant-garde. In its etymology and cultural use, the phrase suggests a physically fixed building or space. Balme notes that the “notion of architectural fixture is, however, by no means a conditio sine qua non for theatre.”⁶ There is a term that better suits the avant-garde approach to staging: ludic space, a ground for theatrical encounters. Cunningham’s works benefit from discussion under this term.
The physical space of Deli Commedia is what appears to be a workroom. At the beginning of the recording, the viewer is shown the exposed lighting rigs above the dancers. These lights flood the space with even light, allowing the proceedings to be seen easily. The room in which the dancers perform feels generic, like it could be any rehearsal hall in any country, allowing it to a relatability that traditional theatre doesn’t have. Cunningham, in choosing this space to stage this piece, heightens the casual feel of the work. His dancers use what feels like everyday movement, masking their skill and allowing spectators to feel like they could perform with them. In this way the piece invites spectators in, never calling attention to the fact that the performers are in fact trained. Watching the piece feels like watching a final rehearsal for a performance. To the author, this poses a question: when does theatre become theatre? When the ideas germinate? When the cast is assembled? When they rehearse? Or when the piece is performed in front of an audience? At which stage of the proceedings can one point and say that this is theatre, this is dance? To perform in a rehearsal space is still performing, so is it theatre? What the avant-garde excels at, no matter the art form, is in its ability to make a spectator ask such questions.
Their bodies move through space, never lingering long in any one spot. The movement itself is abstract, the dancers meeting and separating throughout. As with Changing Steps the dancers very seldom utilise the central space, either on the ground level or on the raised platform. Instead they perform their pieces off-centre, far to the extremes of all sides of the space. This creates the feeling that there is no focal point; this along with the everyday feel of the movement, could be read as an abstract portrayal of everyday life itself. Artaud believed it to be “self-defeating for the stage to attempt to copy everyday life,”⁴ and to an extent Cunningham follows this belief. However, it is possible to watch his works and feel like it sprung from true life. On this concept Cunningham’s frequent collaborator John Cage said:
“The structure we should think about is that of each person in the audience. In other words, his consciousness is structuring the experience differently from anybody else’s in the audience. So the less we structure the theatrical occasion and the more it is like unstructured daily life the greater will be the stimulus to the structuring faculty of each person in the audience.”⁷
Defining meaning in avant-garde can be difficult, but that is one aspect that makes the style so intriguing. A lack of plot or lack of a central focus to lead the spectator’s response allows for various readings and interpretations. Changing Steps also takes place away from a traditionally theatrical space in favour of an unusual lucid space. Moving away from the proscenium stage blurs the line between spectator and performer, allowing both to arguably occupy the space.
Cage and Cunningham’s production at Black Mountain College in 1952 is an example of environmental theatre, wherein the line between spectator and performance is blurred beyond recognition. As a piece of theatre in the round it allowed the audience to see itself, becoming the observer and the observed, thus they entered into the act of performance itself. One could relate this to Duchamp’s theory of the ready-made. Duchamp’s theory was that by “taking everyday objects and transforming them by means of metaphorical framing devices into works of art”⁸ he could challenge the notions of what makes art and examine the divide between art and life. The spectators are the ready-mades in this case, participants in the work they observe.
Cunningham’s inspection of the relationship between space and the body is at the heart of his work. He once wrote: “The fortunate thing in dancing is that space and time cannot be disconnected, and everyone can see and understand that. A body still is taking up just as much space and time as a body moving.”⁹
In relation to early practitioners of the avant-garde, Castellucci is closer to the philosophies of Antonin Artaud than Cunningham is. The Theatre of Cruelty finds a spiritual successor in the striking visuals of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, while Cunningham works within a hypnotic form of bodily expression.
“The idea of avant-gardism implies that progress is always the result of a rebellion against an entrenched establishment. It is linked with the concept of innovation and modernity.”¹⁰ At the core of the avant-garde and the work of its practitioners is a desire to perform this rebellion. Through every era in the history of the theatre there has been innovation and a need to experiment. The avant-garde takes this desire to its extremes, producing works that challenge the very notions of the theatre, even down to the very space and location that it is performed. Both Castellucci and Cunningham have produced equally valid works of the avant-garde, which work to rebel against conformity to commonly held notions of the theatrical space.
 “avant-garde.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/avant-garde
 Pullinger, M. “On the rocks: Castellucci delivers an ice-cold Salome in Salzburg.” Bachtrack.com. 10th August 2018. Accessed 31st November 2018. https://bachtrack.com/review-salome-castellucci-grigorian-welser-most-salzburg-festival-august-2018
 Brook, P. The Empty Space. Granada Publishing, 1977 (First published 1968).
 Innes, C. D. Avant Garde Theatre 1892–1992. Routledge, London, 1993.
 Hillaert W. & Crombez, T. CRUELTY IN THE THEATRE OF THE SOCÌETAS RAFFAELLO SANZIO. Lecture delivered at conference on “Tragedy, the Tragic, and the Political.” Leuven, Belgium. 24th March 2005. https://www.scribd.com/document/264634834/Cruelty-in-the-theatre-of-the-Societas-Raffaello-Sanzio
 Balme, C. Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies. Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 47–61.
 Cage, John, et al. “An Interview with John Cage.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 2, 1965, pp. 50–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1125231.
 Aronson, Arnold. American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History. Routledge, London, 2000.
 Cunningham, M. “Space, Time and Dance.” Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, Dance Books, London, 1992, pp. 37–40.
 Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, London, 2000.