A Butterfly

22 August 2008

A butterfly is loose on the stage during the second performance of That Night Follows Day in Gotenburg. The kids are all speaking in unison, just as they usually do, their eyes are steadily working the audience and they are making their way through the text and it all feels very present, very strong. And then there’s this extra layer, beautiful and distracting in equal parts – the butterfly, moving here and there, with this constant, unfolding micro-narrative of where will it go and what will it do. The kids say afterwards that as they watch the audience they see them move their heads in strange choreographed unison movements, each one trying  to track/watch/follow the butterfly’s path about and around the stage. And from time to time the butterfly comes to rest – on Viktor’s shirt for example, or on Taja’s shoe, or on Yen’s shoulder or on Lina’s arm where it stays for the longest time, so perfectly still and she so focused on what she is saying that and I’m not even sure if she has noticed it or not. The butterly seems to like green colours and he certainly loves the bright light of the stage. He is not the performance, but from time to time he really is the performance. I keep waiting for his story to resolve somehow. Will one of the performers panic or react when he too gets near them, or freak out when they notice that he has landed on their skin? Will one of them crush the butterfly or kill it with the swipe of a hand? or catch it? But nothing like that happens. The performance is taking place. The butterfly goes around, red and black colours, beating wings. He visits various people. He lands on one of the white lines that mark the gymnasium style floor. Then later I don’t see him anymore. There’s no end to the story.

Afterwards Keng Sen says that in China the arrival of the butterfly (or a moth) means there is a spirt in the room, a visitor from another realm. At a funeral especially it means that the deceased person is back – taking a look at what’s going on. I guess I don’t know who it was there in the theatre three nights ago, taking a look at the show, or at the building, or the audience. I guess the butterfly always seems like he’s from another story, another logic, another set of understandings even in out the world in a meadow, a garden or a park. On stage it seems doubly so. Also, as I think about it now the butterfly is all about gaze, about gaze in transit – about shifts of attention and  trajectory – fluttering from place to place, landing, staying setting off again. Strangely circuitous and arbitrary but always, in fact, going somewhere, searching, looking at, or for something. I loved the way that in Gotenburg he slipped out of my story.

Writing now though I’m suddenly thinking of the end of Herzog’s documentary/memorial to his friend, sometime-adversary and life-time collaborator Klaus Kinski, My Best Friend. In the final scene of the film Kinski faces Herzog’s camera while a large Amazonian butterfly flies around him – resting from time to time on his face, his shoulder, his outstretched hands. Kinski smiling in the brilliant sunshine, his movements patient, delighted and calm, in love with the moment and with its recording. Herzog on voiceover talking about how, perhaps against his better judgement, this scene and not the tempestuous and confrontational ego monster we’ve had glimpsed elsewhere in the film, is how he would most like to fix Kinski in his memory. Watching the clip again now I had to think about the double layer which was always there in it but never so explicit for me as it is now – Kinski being gentle, careful, kind to the dead spirit in the butterfly, just as Herzog, on the soundtrack is loving, and careful with the spirit of Kinski himself.