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A theory of two worlds

Within every art form there exists an unending renaissance.

If history has taught us anything, it is this evolutionary spiral upon which we continually revisit the same longitudes only at different latitudes, different levels of the same experiences, experiences informed by the past yet ever mindful of the present. Following an aesthetic of deconstruction over the last three decades of productions, the tandem Barbe & Doucet have distinguished themselves in the world of opera by the way in which their work turns towards a spectaculaire signifiant, signifiers of the spectacular wherein every detail reflects the thought which embodies it––like fractals or the fragments of a mirror which reproduce in miniature monumental motifs. 

Among the many reasons which explain this aspect of their work one concerns the question of their origins. 

One is North American, the other European. While André Barbe studied in Montreal in the Fine Arts program at Concordia University and afterwards at the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada, Renaud Doucet, a trained musician, began his career as a dance soloist, a professor and choreographer for various dance companies and international schools. Since they first met at the Opera of Montreal in 2000, they have combined in their productions a sense of the spectacular––inspired by a civilization which gave birth to Hollywood, Broadway and the Cirque du Soleil––with the intellectual rigor of another which gave birth to the Encyclopedia, Voltaire, Nietzsche and Le Clézio.

By way of this unusual combination Barbe & Doucet made their mark, with their theory of two worlds: a return to the origins in order to recreate within the present a work which manages to capture what was pertinent in the first place. The researching of emotions together with the pure pleasure evoked by performance are key elements of what Barbe & Doucet pursue, elements which are often discarded in post-modern mise-en-scene by way of serving a radical deconstruction in a quixotic quest for universality.

Barbe & Doucet have defined their own way of deconstructing as a point of departure but it is in their particular way of re-appropriating and reconstructing that allows them to offer the public a work which, by way of a curious familiarity, opens the doors of perception while at the same time granting access to intelligent emotions by way of re-temporalising the work, by reinvigorating its pertinence.

While it appears impossible to deliver a performance strictly within a historic perspective, which achieves little more than a pitiable glimpse of life as it once was by way of period photographs, it is equally bizarre to reduce an opera to a dramatic schematic independent of the historic, cultural or social circumstances within which it was conceived. 

Like archeologists, Barbe & Doucet rigorously research and excavate the circumstances which prevailed at the time a piece was conceived by way of revealing and updating the ruins of a former epoch, those oft times dusty testimonials of works which in their time were considered modern. Their process consists of remaking a piece with the intention of offering contemporary audiences the same pertinence, the same emotional vigor, the same freshness and astonishment that was emoted in the past.

It is in this way that popular success does not appear so much as a defect as a stamp of approval, the product of fruitful questioning; an intellectual approach which seeks to situate the piece within an ever changing humanity which in itself is perpetually in crises and afflicted by a tendency to forget thus rendering it myopic.

What do Turandot and Cendrillon have in common if not having once been great and moving performances which spoke to the collective unconscious? But that time has passed and the mirrors have since been tarnished. One epoch follows another and each in its turn turns its back on what came before convinced of its own superiority. What was once spectacular becomes a cliché and the emotions disappear beneath the sediment left behind by successive vogues which come and go like the ocean’s tide. 

One must feel the pulse of the present to determine the rhythm of its heartbeat. What are its dreams and nightmares? What are its desires, both admitted and denied? What are the fault lines upon which at any moment it risks complete annihilation? It is only within these conditions that the interpretation of a piece, its re-birth and re-pertinencing, permits the public to embrace it within its contemporaneousness. 

Somewhere between the sacralization of a work, which kills it by rendering it inviolable and the betrayal of a work, which only corrupts it, Barbe & Doucet affirm the importance of theatrical emotions as the vector for reflecting upon the present.

In his theory of Ideas, Plato postulated the existence of an ideal world of beautiful forms and emotions situated in a higher realm inaccessible to humans who live in a state of deprivation and degradation. And yet this is the state within which we live and it is precisely from within this imperfect world that opera was created. It is this which Barbe & Doucet understand and affirm production after production as they seek to put their finger on what it is, in every instance, that distinguishes humans from this lofty ideal which they dream of attaining but never will. 

Our humanity is the stuff of their art, its subject and its object and therefore its unique reason for being what it is.

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