Noumena: A Journey Through Plato’s Realm of Forms, Byre Theatre, St Andrews
Noumena: A Journey Through Plato’s Realm of Forms
On The Rocks, St Andrews
Noumenon, the programme explains, is ‘The thing-in-itself as opposed to the phenomenon - the thing as it appears to an observer.’ In an ‘introductory comment’ prior to the performance, Prof. Sarah Brodie of the School of Philosophy at University of St Andrews, thankfully expanded on this a little (for the sake of those, like me, unversed in Platonic philosophy). For Plato, everything we perceive around us is a transient copy of something whose ideal Form exists whole and unchanging, outside time and space. He believed in a cosmic harmony, imperceptible to the human eye (which sees only the superficial chaos), derived from mathematical relationships.
For artistic director Thomas Gotz, contemporary dance provided a fluid medium in which the nature of human perception could be explored, and its boundaries stretched. In Noumena, the combination of light, music and movement has a power that transcends speech and reason; it suggests our perception of something beyond what can be explained in language, something we can see only in ‘our mind’s eye’, as it were. For Plato, this might mean normally ungranted access to the ideal Forms, the prototypes for the finite world around us.
Act I played out the emergence, transformation and eventually harmonious collaboration of the four Forms of the Greek elements – fire, air, water and earth. Dancers wore baggy, grey trousers and red, green, blue or purple vest-tops, according to the element they represented. Such clear, simple symbolism told of the primal significance of the Forms, while focussing attention on the dancers’ dynamic forms (a word whose semantic multiplicity became increasingly apparent during the performance). As they leaped and rolled expertly over each other, formed interlocked clusters then broke apart, the lighting changed from blue to green to white to orange, according to changing dominance of the elements. Under blue lighting, the dancers took on flowing, cyclical wave motions; under green, their arms and legs stuck out to make right angles, suggesting earthly solidity.
Act II was concerned with, as Prof. Brodie put it, ‘our story’: human perception was again at the forefront as dancers enacted the myth of Plato’s cave. They stood in a line at the back of the stage, backs to the audience, observing the moving shadows of two dancers behind them on the large back wall. The shadows were cast by a stage-floor level light at the front of the stage, as they are by the fire in Plato’s hypothetical cave. Some minutes later, a single dancer broke from her line and turned to behold the master-dancers, whose shadows alone she had until now been doomed to watch. While Plato’s equivalent is bewildered and alarmed by the sudden extension of, and challenge to what he had previously known as ‘reality’, this dancer’s body language, as she tentatively mimicked the graceful movements of the shadow-casters, revealed curiosity overcoming fear. She turned back to the prisoners, moved around them with a fluidity previously denied by her (imaginary) chains, and encouraged them to follow her. Gradually the line between makers and watchers of shadows broke down: they had escaped a life of perceiving only shadows of reality, only copies of Forms. The interplay of the dancers’ physical forms (clad in tight, solid, black) and their eerily looming shadows suggested the possibility of our perceiving the Forms beyond the physical ‘reality’ we know.
For its thirty-minute duration at least, Noumena’s exquisite beauty, a beauty unfettered by ‘normal’ expression (both linguistic and physical), persuades us that we are perceiving something stranger, certainly, but bolder and perhaps more real than what flickers on the cave wall.