Diversity: Beauty or threat? A dance critic’s view on the children performance “White”

Translator: Anna Valdís Kro

This article was first published in hugras.is, an online journal of School of humanities at University of Iceland.

Margbreytileikinn: Fegurð eða ógn?

Nothing is irrelevant to art. Armed with creativity, artists have taken on some of history’s most fervently debated issues and forced us to face reality, see conventional wisdom in a new light or put ourselves in the shoes of those whom we would rather not identify with. They use any medium available and often in the most innocent piece of art lies the biggest truth. This is certainly true in the children´s play White by Andy Manley and Ian Cameron, premiered in Hafnarborg, Hafnarfjörður (Iceland) in January of 2016. White is written for the youngest children – as well as their adult followers – with the aim of introducing the magic of theatre to children through a beautiful story about colors. On the surface the piece teaches the names of the colors but underneath lies a more serious meaning related to the threat and beauty of diversity. Told by physical expression and wonderful scenario, the story deals with the big questions which arise whenever external effects threaten people’s vision of the world.
At the beginning of the piece everything is white and as it should be. The two characters, Cotton and Wrinkle, work delicately at maintaining the white world they live in but little by little the colors start to play a part in the world and suddenly nothing is as it was. White is promoted as a play for children with the primary aim of introducing the youngest generation to a world of colors, however, another deeper meaning can also be found in the piece as it reflects on the bigger problems that humans deal with on a daily basis, problems that relate to the ideas of us and others. What does it mean to be different? What happens when someone is different? How do we maintain our world view? How do we feel when our most dogmatic of views are threatened? How do we learn the established social norms and how do we feel about them? What happens if we stand up against the established ideas of society? What .. ? What … ? What … ?
Cotton and Wrinkle live in their white world. They feel good in their world just the way it is, even though they can feel how these colors which sometimes appear in surprising places affect them, awakening their curiosity and a sense of excitement. There´s something about this foreign energy that affects them but perhaps it is for this very reason that they must be removed so as not to disrupt the balance of their lives and raise questions which challenge their world view. But when a small, colored inhabitant appears everything changes. A small object can be thrown away but is it possible to throw away a small creature just because of its color? This frightening question is the underlying theme of the piece and it provoked strong feelings among the audience, young and old, as the characters´ agony over having to make such a decision could easily be felt.
The story of Cotton and Wrinkle and the colors is at its base a simple and often repeated tale, as stories for young children tend to be. It´s a lot of fun and possesses excitement, comedy, sincerity and calmness just as every good story should. Conveniently for the youngest audience, it is a short piece but it demands a lot from both the director and performers since it needs to be clear and capable of simultaneously expressing the beauty, love, warmth, fear, roughness and uncertainty encapsulated within the story. Because of the short form of the piece the interpretation of the characters must be subtle and mustn’t cross lines of excessive comedy or playfulness. I first saw the piece during the final rehearsal but at that point I found it lacked the sincerity, passion and power required in order to effectively deliver this short but amazing story. This severed as reminder that a good piece does not guarantee a good performance. However, on second viewing, after it had been premiered, any trace of uncertainty was gone and the story appeared before the audience in all its diversity. Virginia Gillard, playing the role of Cotton, and María Pálsdóttir, in the role of Wrinkle, captivated the audience’s throughout the entirety of the performance.
Virginia Gillard is a clown by profession and has a lot of experience in the form. Her experience was very much on display as she took on this serious comedy because if anyone in the world can mirror the tragicomic; it´s the clown. In her role as Cotton, Virginia clearly delivers the struggles which follow when one learns about societal norms and what they must do to maintain them. The audience senses the doubt which weighs heavily on her mind as she struggles with the ideoligy of whether a white world is the only right world and her disbelief in the notion that to rejoice because of colors is wrong. Cotton´s agony over an inhabitant being tossed for no other reason but the fact they are the wrong color is obvious and infects the audience which looks on with excitement as she adventures by night to try and save the outlaw.
María Pálsdóttir serves as a beautiful contrast to Virgina in expression and appearance. In the role of Wrinkle she´s the one who knows what´s right and what´s wrong in this world and what needs to be done to maintain it. The surprise and insecurity she feels when the colored inhabitant appears in town and interrupts the clearly defined world is obvious and provokes compassion. Despite the fact that deep inside she wants to celebrate the changes, she knows that´s not what she´s supposed to do and therefore the little red egg has to be put in the trash along with all other colored object. To maintain a tradition is not an enviable task and when ones own world view comes under threat it is a serious matter.
The stage design, an infinitely beautiful white and clean world of tiny houses and a tent where Cotton and Wrinkle live, also helps keep the story going. It was obvious that every detail had been meticulously thought out from conception to creation. The costumes – short pants and a blouse or shirt in the style of Austrian or Swiss country clothing except instead of colorful they were white – also expressed this same accuracy. The music gently higlighted what was happening on stage; stillness, changes, expectation and tension. The actors also added to the audiovisual by applying sounds to their actions. Everything brilliantly done. Words were not needed to deliver the story, physical expression was more suitable. However, a part of the show used words to repeat the names of the colors and create a simple dialog between the characters. The way in which Cotton and Wrinkle world was transformed from white to colors was implemented in quite a fun way. The colors appeared in the white world with the help of light and small objects like colored confetti and small everyday things like a comb. They didn´t force their way into the world but rather sneaked in one by one, bringing colors and life to the world within the play. Changes in society usually happen in the same way, little by little until suddenly nothing is as it used to be. Just as in this play, White, the attitude of any individual towards changes differs and is mixed from person to person and the insecurities and inevitable opposition which follow is a reality many must face on a daily basis.
Children are the most sensitive audience actors can have. They don´t only watch with their eyes and mind but also with their heart. What they see and hear in that moment is life as it is. It is not until later on that they come to realize that not everything is as it seems. A candid performance and an open energy toward the audience is more important in children shows than in most other theater. Children react to stimuli without the use of the many filters we aquire through life. For example, they need to be able to express their views about the show as it goes on which can easily interrupt the performers focus. As far as Virgina and María are concerned, they clearly connected with the audience. The children (and their adult followers, men and women) watched with palpaple excitement as the play unfolded on the stage, often commented on what they were seeing as it was happening. My 5 year old companion thought everything was remarkable and revisited events from the show for some time after (as did I, as a matter of fact). It´s commendable for an author to be brave enough to invite children to a deeper piece that requires them to think as well as experience strong emotions. It has been, and hopefully will always be, one of the important parts of art to move people and provoke their views of the present. It´s also quite admirable when directors dare to stage insistent pieces without drowning them in comedy or just barely breaking the surface of the potential depth the material provides.
The piece White is pure gold that needs to be treated with care in order for it to glow. Virgina and María most certainly succeed in doing just that under the direction of Gunnar Helgason, who is also known for his children books where he talks about very seriouse issues in a fun and constructive way. The crew behind the show brought the adventure to the audience with the affection and respect they deserved and at the same time showed them how powerful art can be.

By Sesselja G. Magnúsdóttir independent dance critic (Iceland)

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