By: Mariko Turk
In “Old Forgotten Children’s Books” (1924), Walter Benjamin explores the child’s attraction to detritus, wreckage, and waste. Speaking of the child’s tendency to be drawn to the rubble left over by “building, gardening, housework, tailoring, and carpentry,” Benjamin writes that in these “waste products,” children “recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.”
L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn, Compagnie Non Nova’s family show that was a hit at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and is set to open the London Mime Festival this weekend, plays out Benjamin’s evocative idea using plastic bags, scissors, Sellotape, electric fans, an actor/puppeteer, and Claude Debussy’s haunting score Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) (1894).
Foehn was created by a company of adults, and seeks to entertain both adults (those occupiers of the greater world of things) as well as children. Still, L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn‘s gracefully whirling trash bags make visible the connection Benjamin drew between childhood play and waste materials, and the idea that this pairing can be productive, even revolutionary, in that it creates “materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship.” Indeed, Compagnie Non Nova’s motto is “Non nova, sed nove,” or “It’s not new, just seen differently.”
In her review of Foehn for The Guardian, dance critic Judith Mackrell says that “out of all the danced interpretations I’ve seen of Debussy’s score, I’d say this may be the most improbably perfect.” The plastic bags, Mackrell maintains, resist gravity “with infinitely more languorous aplomb than any human performer could achieve.” In this way, following Benjamin, L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn does not exactly “imitate…works of adults,” such as, for instance, classical ballet, so much as it produces a new and different artifact that nevertheless remains within the “greater” world of things.
As noted in The Telegraph, setting this detritus ballet to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is also a form of “recycling,” since the piece previously provided the score to another very famous ballet: Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 work of the same name, choreographed for the Ballets Russes.
Revolutionary to the development of modern ballet, Nijinsky’s scandalous work featured the sensual, decidedly non-traditional movements of a virile faun (played originally by Nijinsky himself) lustfully pursuing a group of nymphs. Watch the Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of Nijinsky’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun below:
Non Nova’s replacement of the earthly, erotic movements of Nijinsky’s choreography with the ethereal billowing of waste products indeed recycles Debussy’s score, and encourages listeners to hear the music in a new way. The twirling ascension of the plastic bags, for instance, captures the unearthly elusiveness of Prelude‘s melody.
Read more about L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn at the 2014 London Mime Festival here.
Benjamin, Walter. “Old Forgotten Children’s Books.” Selected Writings. Vol. 1. Eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1996. 406-413.