David Guy Kono: Metamorphose

Alexis Soloski, who writes for the New York Times, lately gave his impression on two audio-guide shows that he had seen, due to the Covid-19 restrictions. It’s a funny thing to read his article—“For These Shows, Take a Hike”, published on September 11, 2020—because it is as if he never had taken part in this kind of performance ever in his life. I have the feeling that with the signature pieces by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, by Rimini Protokoll, or by LIGNA, at least, the audio-walk is a theater format that has been safely established since the 1990s, and is beyond discussion. (On this blog, I wrote about zaungäste’s Trip of a Lifetime two weeks ago, and it was only one of many theater walks that I had participated in these past months, in Frankfurt, but also in Mannheim and Kaiserslautern.) Soloski’s article ends with a strange paragraph: “Maybe this form seems stingy,” he writes, “—no costumes, no lights, no tap numbers, just a few words murmured in your ear—but advance the track and think of it as generous instead, a reminder not only of how much theater can give us, but how much it trusts us to imagine, too.” I had to read again: No costumes, no lights, no tap numbers? Who’s expecting tap numbers in contemporary theater? The funny thing is that, just some days later, I attended the opening night of David Guy Kono’s Metamorphose in Dortmund’s Favoriten Festival, and in the final scene, three performers adjust three wooden square blocks on stage, put on their tap dance shoes, and perform a powerful scuffling, in a rough way, with a lot of energy, as if to stomp out the ghosts that had haunted the stage up until that moment. When they stop and go off, casually, the show is over.

Calvin Yug, musician and performer, in David Guy Kono’s Metamorphose (Photo: Martin Rottenkolber)

Metamorphose is more or less loosely based on Franz Kafkas story The Metamorphosis, a German language classic. (The German title is Die Verwandlung, and it has sometimes been translated with The Transformation.) In the story The Metamorphosis, a young man, Gregor Samsa, wakes up in his room, only to realize that he seems to have turned into some kind of vermin [Ungeziefer].

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely.[1]

The family—his father, his mother, and his sister—don’t know what to do with the situation, and they hide him, and close him away. Samsa’s health and his responsiveness deteriorate, and he dies in the end. On the last page, the three remaining family members take a trip to the outskirts of the city in a sun-lit tramway. This classic has been brought to the stage many times. Why? The Metamorphosis seems to possess a dramatic quality, maybe because it is built like the plot of a chamber play. “Structurally, The Metamorphosis progresses like a drama, building through a series of crises […] to a final denouement”, Evelyn Torton Beck says, for example: “The three chapters which make up The Metamorphosis correspond to the stages of Gregor’s decline and relate to each other like the separate, self-contained acts of a play.”[2] But even without this reference to dramatic structure, this seems to be content that pushes into the space of theatrical, or filmic, or re-literatized representation. Now, in Dortmund, David Guy Kono’s take on it, Metamorphose, starts out with two metronomes that we hear at ticking away at the same time, yet in different speeds: two audible temporalities, two velocities, while all of us take the places in Depot’s theater space. We see three large canvas circles in the back of the stage, we see a set of drums, different technical devices, and microphones. Five people will be on stage, and it’s the musician Calvin Yug who starts to speak. There is a description of losing orientation: “J’ai la tête qui tourne”, he says, “J’ai du mal a comprendre.” (“My head is turning”, and, “I don’t really understand.”)

Journalist Dorothea Marcus, from Deutschlandradio Kultur, describes the piece as a “Lautgedicht” (i.e. a sound poem), and a “Wortkonzert” (i.e. verbal concert). Kono turns the evening around and away from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but he leaves enough of it to let it shine through time and again. At a moment, three performers on stage (Antoine Effroy, Kosrou Mahmoudi, and Kono himself) take small drinking glasses to balance them with their bodies, and to balance on them. Effroy’s lying on two of those glasses and putting the arms and the legs into the air could be read as depicting the insect state of Gregor Samsa’s, helpless on his back. In another, later scene, Kosrou Mahmoudi says: „Ich bin hier; ich werde immer hier sein; ich bin jetzt euer Problem.“: [„I am here now; I will always be here; I am your problem now.“] Also, the number three seems to be important: three circles, three tap-dancers. Many of those ideas and scenes can be read as illustrations of Kafka’s story, yet they could also mean something else. It is a poetic play with the source material.

Antoine Effroy (left) and David Guy Kono dancing on, and with, glasses, and evoking insect images (Foto: Martin Rottenkolber)

Kono doesn’t take Kafka’s story at face value. He puts a lot of distance between himself, his performers, the text, and his audience. There is the impression of a stand-still, or at least of a shift that is almost non-perceptible. What is striking is a central scene, repeated, and repeated again, of the reaction to a child to-be-born, a boy: “Bienvenue à l’enfer!”, Kono says, and the monologue starts da capo. This insistence on the speech acts around a male baby coming to this world (or this hell) seems to comment on the fact that we see only men on stage (even if it is important to say that not only men were implied in the production process), and this thinking leads us to the fact that, in a way, Kono brings on stage Kafka, who brings on stage Gregor Samsa. Literary fiction and autobiographical writing interconnect here, and put the question on the table how giving birth to this creation might be something about men doing art, and about staging their masculinity. It could be that I only have this idea because gender and sexuality play such an important role in many of the other pieces in Favoriten festival, such as in CHICKS*’s Love me Harder, in which Elischa Kaminer confronts the audience with his fragile masculinity all the while holding a powerful spell over them; or as in Saskia Rudat’s Defining (i) dentity olo dentity oio dentity (l) dentity, in they place themselves at the borderline between male and female; or again as in caner teker’s psychedelic oil wrestling dance piece Kırkpınar, which lets two bodies fight each other in slow motion, completely blending carefulness with brutality, and evoking the images of antique fighter’s sculptures. But whereas CHICKS*, Rudat and teker very explicitly take a queer stance at things, and use this queerness as a theatrical means, Kono creates a homosocial performative universe in which women are neither seen nor heard, and I think he is doing this very consciously so: He brings to the stage the question how a ethnically diverse male ensemble with different training backgrounds can embody Kafka and his male creations, namely Gregor Samsa and the creature Samsa turns into, and what this succession means for them. The phantasma of male birth and male creativity is enigmatically summoned, and questioned.

Yet, the question of colonization and migration looms over all of the performance on stage, in an implicit as well as in an explicit way: We get the impression that four of the five men performing here are not born in Germany. (The fifth man, who I haven’t mentioned until now, is white German Jan Ehlen, who is responsible for video, lights, and set design, but who also is visibly on, stage, for example when he fills up the drinking glasses with water with an industrial container.) Calvin Yug’s, Antoine Effroy’s, Kosrou Mahmoudi’s, and David Guy Kono’s voices and bodies tell us about the struggles of being in this country and finding their place in it. Coming to this country, the piece seems to say to us, has a massive impact on languages and the bodies of those who have crossed the border, and a feeling of unhomeliness sets in. Not being at home in the own language, switching constantly between French and German. Not being at home in the own body, looking at the own body as something that might not really belong neither to the place nor to the mind of its owner. It is a body that maybe has another color than those around (think of Kafka’s depiction of white Gregor Samsa looking at his “brown belly” in the second sentence of the story), that has developed some kind of resistance to the outer world (think of the back which feels “hard, as it were armor-plated”). Thus, Kono lets us experience Kafka’s story through the lens of a group of four men that all have a different relationship with Germany, and with all of them trying to adjust their minds, tongues, and bodies to a German-speaking context, all the while turning a classic German text into something they want to see on stage. Instead of further illustrating Kafka’s own condition and his struggles with his status as a Jewish-German man in Prague (and instead of making it easy for us to take it in), Kono cites into Aimé Césaire’s writing, and one of the sentences is crashing into the fragile set-up like a bomb: “Au bout de tout, il y a Hitler.” (“At the end of everything, there’s Hitler.”)[3] While Césaire is cited (and rephrased, as far as I can trust the notes that I scribbled in the dark), the scene is changed, and the three tap-dance boxes are installed. We are at the end of Metamorphose, and it is clear that this scene works like a coda, like an artificial end for an evening that might go on forever in its logic of blending Kafka’s motifs with political ideas, statements about colonial and post-colonial politics, and gender speech acts—all the while acting, making music, dancing, and performing.

Kono throws his audience into a state of disorientation towards this piece, precisely because he lets Kafkas The Metamorphosis transform into something else on stage. No, that’s not right. Because, as in Kafka’s text, the transformation has already happened before the narrator’s voice sets in. It is not the description of a transformation process, it is—quite literally—a waking-up to a transformed state.[4] We were not there to witness the process, we cannot explain it: the conceptual phase and rehearsal process are already over, the work has been done, and we only see what Kafka’s text has become in Kono’s hands; a translated, distorted, enigmatic riddle that is as hermetic as it is mesmerizing.

Antoine Effroy (left), David Guy Kono (middle) and Khosrou Mahmoudi in the final scene of Metamorphose (Foto: Martin Rottenkolber)

And with this, we’re back at beginning, and back with the tap numbers. Because while writing this, I realize that I like using the English expression “to tap into” something, in the sense of, to manage to use something in a way that brings good results: tap into topics, tap into motifs, tap into other artists’ works, tap into energies. Kono’s Metamorphose taps into Franz Kafka, into Aimé Césaire, into his own experiences, but also into the different strengths and abilities and backgrounds of those being part of the production. If you will, they are doing their own meta-tap-dance already, and then they literally start to tap-dance! All of this lets me look freshly at Kafka’s text again, and I had to think of the German notion of “tappen“. It designates a kind of slow and clumsy walking around, either because it’s too dark or the person moving doesn’t really pay attention. People like to say that one shouldn’t tappen into a trap, for example. Kafka also uses this word in one crucial moment in The Metamorphosis. In most of the parts of the story, the family tiptoes around him (“he could hear the three of them stealing away on tiptoe”[5]). But when his sister and his mother take everything out of his room in a long, heart-breaking passage, there’s a moment when the only thing perceivable in the apartment is the scuffling of their feet:

They were clearing his room out; taking away everything he loved; the chest in which he kept his fret saw and other tools was already dragged off; they were now loosening the writing desk which had almost sunk into the floor, the desk at which he had done all the homework when he was at the commercial academy, at the grammar school before that, and, yes, even at the primary school—he had no more time to waste in weighing the good intentions of the two women, whose existence he had by now almost forgotten, for they were so exhausted that they were laboring in silence and nothing could be heard but the heavy scuffling of their feet [und man hörte nur das Tappen ihrer Füße].[6]

It’s funny to see how, with this in mind, what we see on stage mirrors this moment in the story. The old set-up is taken down, and then we only hear the scuffling (or tapping) of feet. Yet where we have four scuffling women’s feet in the story, we have six tapping men’s feet in Kono’s show. Have I said that the tap dancing is wild, aggressive, and non-synchronized? Effroy, Kono, and Mahmoudi move their feet as if they were a multi-headed, six-feet insect that forgot how to walk. It is as if the on-stage-ensemble itself has waken up to a state where they are already transformed, and now they’re making an exit.

There are some last words uttered in this last multi-tapping part, words that linger in the room after the show has ended. They are by Franz Kafka as well, even though they are not directly taken from his Metamorphosis. These last words are: “Liebe ist, daß du mir das Messer bist, mit dem ich in mir wühle.”[7] The sentence is from the letters Kafka wrote to Milena Jesenská, and it’s difficult to translate, therefore it’s not wonder that I find it in different versions online: “You are the knife that I turn inside myself; that is love”, one translation goes. Another one puts it like this: “In this love you are like a knife with which I explore myself.” Wow! What seems so simple at first turns out to be a difficult thing to do. I will try my own version here: “Love is like that you are the knife for me with which I rummage inside myself.” I like that the rummaging is close to the German rummachen, which means something like making out, even if has an even stronger sexual connotation. Rummaging, rummachen, “doing around”. A gory image, a sexually loaded, complex quotation, to go out of a show. It is symptomatic of the love-hate relationship this evening of David Guy Kono’s has with Kafka, which is doing around with its source material (and oftentimes going around it, tiptoing and tapping), as well as it is strongly affected by its body-horror language, and by its haunting images.

Post scriptum, on September 29, 2020

I published this last week, and some days later, a friend calls me: “You know”, she says, ” I think it’s an interesting take on how you think the performance does something with Kafka. But isn’t the show also a lot about the post-colonial condition? I mean, you propose a lot referring to the whole tap dancing thing, but you don’t do anything with it. It might be at least good if you bring that into context.” Well, what can I say? She has me there. I realize I don’t know anything about tap dancing besides the information that is easily accessible online. That’s why I did some research, and wanted to share some additional paragraphs on Metamorphosis, even if the article is already very long. Among the recent scholarly works on tap dance (with Constance Valis Hill’s Tap Dancing America[8], e.g., which goes through the history of tap dancing in the 20th century chapter by chapter and decennium by decennium) I found Brian Seibert’s book from 2015. The title is What the Eye Hears, and the subtitle is A History of Tap Dancing.[9] Seibert’s account draws me in, because it is written very personally, and the different chapters lead you along the different argumentative and historical threads. Seibert says that most dances, for him, arise from an interaction between music and movement. “But because tap can be can be both dancing to music and dancing as music, it’s especially concerned with the combination.”[10] Additionally, as the title suggests, tap dancing brings together hearing and seeing. I think I would claim that tap dance, in this sense, has its very own theatricality. We have here a performance that is producing sound and movement, and plays with the connection of both of them.

Tap dancing, Seibert explains, is at least as old as the United States, and he tries to go back to one of the first documents on the dance. There is an account by the slave James W. Smith who, just before the Civil War, gave his impression of a dance that happened every Saturday night, which included a „jigging“ competition. This oral account has been preserved in transcript form, and the snippet paragraph Seibert gives us starts with the description of one of the most notorious dancers, named Tom, starting to tap:

Everybody around tried to get some body to best him. He could put de glass of water on his head and make his feet go like triphammers and sound like snaredrum. [11]

I was immediately hooked, of course. Water glasses and tap dancing? It seems like Kono’s show points directly back to this one scene reported by Smith. The scene continues as follows, and I will quote it full length, without having access to the original material.

He could whirl round and sich, all de movement from his hips down. Not it gits round that a fellow has been found to beat Tom and a contest am ‘ranged for Saturday evening. There was a big crowd and money am bet, but master bets on Tom, of course. They starts jigging. Tom starts easy and a little faster and faster. The other fellow doin’ the same. Dey gits faster and faster, and dat crowd am a-yellin. Gosh! There am ‘citement. They just keep a gwine. It look like Tom done found his match, but there’s one thing he ain’t done—he ain’t made a whirl. Now he does it. Everyone holds his breath, and the other fellow starts to make the whirl, but jus’ a spoonful of water sloughs out his cup, so Tom am the winner.[12]

The dancer is so good that, in this contest, he does a very difficult movement, a whirl, while all the time keeping the glass of water on his head, and only a little bit of the water in it spills over. Seibert, as for him, wants to dig further here, and he asks what is happening in Smith’s story: “This contest—was it the master’s idea or the slaves’? The glass on the head, the hip-down action, the feet behaving like ‚triphammers‘ and sounding like a snare drum up on a platform—where did these practices come from?“[13] The researcher goes into the historians’ account of the West African music traditions that came to America with the slave trade, especially Senegambian music and dance. The difficulty here lies in the fact that a lot of the historical approaches are generalizing, but Seibert tries to follow the idea here and makes an interesting point when he brings up the notion of a certain “sense”:

Music of that character, and the dancing to it, required a particular approach to time. One musicologist called it a ‚metronome sense‘, the listener’s ability to hear the regular pulse of a metrical pattern, to feel it bodily, whether or not it’s expressed aurally. In relation to tap, what’s most intriguing is that, in addition to handling polyrhythms, a person with a with a strong metronome sense can divide or multiply the pulse, so that rhythmic accents that might seem off or random are sensed instead of being /on/ the beat—the beat if the song were played at two or three times the tempo. Call it fractal rhythm, an apprehension of patterns across scales of magnification.[14]

Unexpectedly, in this short read-up about the history of tap dancing, the notion of the metronome also comes into play, and I have to think about the beginning of Metamorphose, when two different metronome sounds can be heard at the same time, ticking with and against each other. I slowly realize that some of the elements in Kono’s show (the metronomes, the glasses, the tap dance number) point back to that moment of American, and especially Black American performance tradition. It’s something that I can only see the surface of (instead of being able to tap into it), but this is really a reference I missed in its impact. It’s wonderful to see how, in hindsight, the mise-en-scène and the ideas behind it grow stronger and more complex when discussing it, when trying to make sense of the different elements, and when doing some research. And thus, Kono and his team, with their Metamorphose, tapped into tap dance, all the while twisting one of Kafka’s stories, and intertwining different performance traditions.

[1] Evelyn Torton Beck: “The Dramatic in Kafka’s Metamorphosis“, in: Harold Bloom (ed.): Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphis, New York a.o. 1988, pp. 53-60, here pp. 58-59. Torton Beck compares Kafka’s story to the Yiddish drama Der vilder mentsh (The Savage One, or The Wild Man) by Jakob Gordin, from 1893. Kafka knows Der vilder mentsh (even though he Germanizes the title and writes Der Wilde Mensch), and discusses it in his Diaries (cf. Torton Beck 1988, p. 53). Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis, transl. by Willa and Edwin Muir, in: idem: Collected Stories, ed. and introd. by Gabriel Jospovici, New York a.o. 1993, pp. 75-128, here p. 75.

[2] Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis, transl. by Willa and Edwin Muir, in: idem: Collected Stories, ed. and introd. by Gabriel Jospovici, New York a.o. 1993, pp. 75-128, here p. 75.

[3] This refers to Aimé Césaire, who writes, in his Discours sur le colonialisme, from 1955: “I have talked a good deal about Hitler. Because he deserves it: he makes it possible to see things on a large scale and to grasp the fact that capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics. Whether one likes it or not, at the end of the blind alley that is Europe, I mean the Europe of Adenauer, Schuman, Bidault, and a few others, there is Hitler. At the end of formal humanism and philosophic renunciation, there is Hitler.” Aimé Césaire: Discourse on Colonialism, transl. by Joan Pinkham, New York a.o. 1972, p. 15.

[4] Other scholars see this differently, of course: Here, I only refer to Tara Beany, who develops her argument with Stanley Corngold: “Gregor’s insect characteristics seem to develop as the story progresses”, Beany writes, but she also adds: “However, this need not mean that Gregor is becoming more like an insect, but rather that Gregor is discovering his physical nature.” Tara Beaney: Metamorphosis in Modern German Literature. Transforming Bodies, Identities and Affects, Cambridge 2016, p. 61.

[5] Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis, p. 93.

[6] Kafka, Metamorphosis, pp. 105-106. The original text in German would be: “Sie räumten ihm sein Zimmer aus; nahmen ihm alles, was ihm lieb war; den Kasten, in dem die Laubsäge und andere Werkzeuge lagen, hatten sie jetzt schon hinausgetragen; lockerten jetzt den schon im Boden eingegrabenen Schreibtisch, an dem er als Handelsakademiker, als Bürgerschüler, ja sogar schon als Volksschüler seine Aufgaben geschrieben hatte, – da hatte er wirklich keine Zeit mehr, die guten Absichten zu prüfen, welche die zwei Frauen hatten, deren Existenz er übrigens fast vergessen hatte, denn vor Erschöpfung arbeiteten sie schon stumm, und man hörte nur das Tappen ihrer Füße.”

[7] Franz Kafka: Briefe an Milena, ed. by Jürgen Born and Michael Müller, Frankfurt on the Main 1983, here p. 263. The quoted sentence is part of a compley multi-letter message written on September 14, 1920, to Milena Jesenská. (September 1920, this is exactly 100 years ago!)

[8] Constance Valis Hill: Tap Dancing America. A Cultural History, Oxford a.o. 2010. Hill goes through the history of Tap Dance in the 20th century chapter by chapter and decennium by decennium.

[9] Brian Seibert: What the Eye Hears. A History of Tap Dancing. New York 2015.

[10] Seibert, What the Eye Hears, p. 4.

[11] Seibert, What the Eye Hears, p. 28.

[12] Seibert, What the Eye Hears, p. 28.

[13] Seibert, What the Eye Hears, p. 28.

[14] Seibert, What the Eye Hears, p. 31.

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