Friday, January 13, 2017

Pietragalla: Conditions Humaines

On March 10, 1906, 1099 people, many of whom were children, were killed in Europe's worst mining accident, The Courrières Mining Disaster. It was thought the majority were overwhelmed and suffocated by coal dust but this would never really be known. Many workers in the mine used lamps with naked flames (as opposed to the more expensive Davy lamps), despite the risk of gas explosions. As Monsieur Delafond, General Inspector of Mines, put it in his report:

“ The primary cause of the Courrières catastrophe could not be determined with absolute certainty. This is what generally happens in catastrophes where all the witnesses to the accident are gone.[wikipedia]"

The rescue and recovery effort was ridiculous. The french - no surprise - lacked even the simplest of training for such a disaster and the time it took to even begin the rescue mission was a cluster fuck. It was (again no surprise) when the Germans were called in that the actual order of the mission took shape and crews began pulling from the rubble severely injured survivors - but mostly they retrieved dead bodies. On March 30th, 20 days after the explosion, 13 workers were found alive, 3 under the age of 18, having survived by slaughtering and eating one of the cart horses used in the mine. On April 4th, the last survivor was found. Though I couldn't find anything about him other than that he was given the Legion of Honor which I find almost hilarious - the country's medal of honor for surviving 24 days in the country's death trap of a mine where the poor were exploited for shit wages and pushed to their own deaths? Does that not sound like some kind of early day hush money to you? Anyway, though I found nothing to substantiate it, I imagine this guy was completely out of his tree when they rescued him and would rather have died. At the very least, he couldn't have been easy to live with after that spending almost a month alone in a collapsed mine shaft, silent but for the occasional rumble of the earth and the fading cries of the dying somewhere buried in the dark.

CONDITIONS HUMAINES is Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Julien Derouault's show from 2006 (I think) about the life of the mining class: the culture, the romance, the fears and celebrations, the poverty, the solidarity, the tragedy...and the survival. The story is told through "theater of the body" as Pietra calls her choreography. I am in love with the depth of her work and vision (but concerned that I have to go back a few years for it). The story of Courrières is very sad but when you put the commonality of humanity around it - before it, that is - it becomes something more than sad. It becomes any man's story.
It resonates with us as people, it makes every strange gesture, every dance move mean something to us because we too have walked like that, stood defeated that way, postured this way, felt inside the way that dancer is expressing sexual tension or anger. That it becomes this without a word being spoken is where brilliance lies in dance and in performance art.

Pietragalla's genius for creating her performances around historical events, in my opinion, is the difference between lofty, arrogant theatre and organic, spiritual depth in performance. Theater of the body and yeah, it is. But the mind is not free to wander and though her/their work is entertaining, it presses on our emotions.

I watched this little highlights clip and for an hour after I thought about what it might have been like in the weeks following the mine collapse, how othe ranks would have closed. That community of mineworkers not killed would have survived with each other because of each other and only they would understand the loss. A class of people becomes a culture of resentment and life becomes a task: a task of forgiveness, the burden of getting over anger. But you still have to eat so you go back to the mine or another mine and you never forget the sounds from that day, the cries, the growing silence that followed, the slow process of digging for your friends, your children, your fiancee, your father...

I went to The Nutcracker once. By the 2nd act I was thinking about how much laundry I had to do.
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