God's Children

19 January 2018

At the end of March 2016 Boris Yukhananov spoke at the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater. Yukhananov was the first prominent director in Russia to work closely with people with Down syndrome. THEATRE publishes Yukhananov’s story about this theatrical and human experience.

By Boris Yukhananov

As far as I know there are two ways of interaction with people with Down syndrome. The first is to “acclimate” them to the manner of existence in which a typical person lives. Such a person is naturally attached to a particular civilization, to notions of tolerance and the idea of the Other. This experience is very effective. It illustrates the way people with DS are educated; society assimilates them and they learn about various aspects of life. In fact, the usual way of working with special needs individuals is to bring them closer to people with a different number of chromosomes. In the nearly ten years that I worked with people with DS, I never consciously took this path.

If you force these people into a structure they will become freaks. I am not willing to accept such an approach either in terms of social culture or aesthetic terms. I am not ready to accept that these children must learn words by rote repetition. I am not ready to accept that they must dance like ballet dancers. Personally, I suffer from aesthetic shock every time I see this happen. It reminds me of making bears dance. Do-gooders who love to love others instantly appear and begin “oohing” and “aahing” at them. This is unacceptable to me; although it is precisely the approach that tolerant civilization chooses.

Unlike my work on other projects, my work with people having DS was not planned in advance. It just happened that at a certain moment I lost contact with my generation and the principles it followed, and that I had followed myself. I quietly slipped out of the underground. This was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It was a time when people were trying to free themselves of the Soviet way of life, the Empire, political pressure, and other lifeless things… Irony, sarcasm, and a desacralization of life and art became fashionable. It felt like I needed to get myself out from under a corpse. At a certain point I began to feel I couldn’t stand this gloom, doom and filth anymore, I couldn’t keep carving up the same corpse. I was eager to escape all that, but whereto?

The Orchard project (based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) came about as a result of just such a “negation of negation.” And there is good reason to talk about it here in the framework of a meeting devoted to work with people having DS. We began the Orchard project not because that is precisely what I wanted to do, but because it felt like the play’s text might allow us to escape the limits of time. The Orchard (which also means “the garden” in Russian) became the place, the myth into which we immersed ourselves. The most interesting interpretations of the play text were connected with beauty. The idea of beauty, of the attraction of beauty, was an idea that occupied, for instance, my teacher Anatoly Vasilyev. He defined it as “beauty squeezed between two apocalypses.”

I didn’t want to do this. I saw Chekhov’s play as a play not about beauty, but rather about happiness. I had studied it as a mysterial comedy in which there lurked a tale about a world without catastrophe. That’s how we read the play, paying particularly close attention to the stage directions. Chekhov’s play turned out to be a gateway into new territory.

During one of our journeys we sought out a basement in a house where Andrei Sakharov had lived. This house had the tallest archway in Moscow. Moreover, there were legends that KGB officers had tortured people there. In a socio-cultural sense the main point of The Orchard was to purify the world by means of art. So, we entered this impossibly horrible, frightening, infernal basement and began to establish our own orchard, our own garden. We called this strategy our “gallery-greenhouse.” And since The Orchard was bound up with universal strategies, we made the stage settings ourselves, we tailored the costumes ourselves, we took every opportunity to place ourselves in the environment of Chekhov’s characters, and, moreover, we crafted art objects on behalf of the characters. Peter Trofimov busied himself with translations, or, for example, Ranevskaya created an art object in which her son Grisha constantly drowned and came back to life, drowning and coming back to life.

One day a woman entered our basement with an ageless girl. The girl beamed, she simply beamed. I watched her and sensed her radiance. The woman was Yelena Nikitseva, and the “beaming girl” was also Yelena. Lena, a child with Down syndrome. The first Yelena was a psychologist, perhaps a PhD, but at that moment she was not practicing psychology. She lived with the girl, the young Lena with DS. Yelena had taken her in. That was no easy thing to do.

Yelena brought her to me with a purpose. She felt somehow, that I should work with people with DS. Like you, I knew nothing about them. But I was struck with the starry radiance of that girl, Lena. I said, “You may be right. Apparently it must be incredible.’ I became interested in this issue as if I had heard the call of a distant star. She took me to a school where people with DS studied. When I arrived they came to me and began to hug me… I realized right then that I would work with them. But I immediately said I would not engage in art therapy. That was not my profession. I understood nothing about that. All I could do, and what I probably would be interested in, would be to embark on a kind of art project together with them. But first I had to find a way to communicate with them. They seemed to me aliens, with whom you’d have to make contact. I didn’t want to seize them ontologically, but rather to treat them as I would anyone else. Many years later I learned that everyone uses a different approach in working with them, one based on the tenets of tolerance as exercised in Western civilizations. This is a very worthy approach. It is productive, as is the entire European system of relations with people who are not like us.

But I did not take that approach, largely because I had no reason to do so. At first, I communicated with them as if they were Others, trying by no means to disturb their otherness, but also to avoid falling under their influence myself. Oddly enough, we discovered that balance while playing a game called “Searching for golden birds.” We simply formed a circle and began fantasizing that we were flying somewhere. Birds, you see, fly to an island, but what happens there? I had very little to do because their imaginations tuned in with such vibrant and incredible intensity that it seemed it was high time we made our escape from that island. So I said, “Let’s go! Our flock now flies to the next island!” Once again they began fantasizing with incredible intensity. These flights from island to island, along with the various adventures that constantly arose purely intuitively and spontaneously, were incredibly exciting.

Thus did we begin interacting until after awhile it occurred to me that, since I worked at the Studio of Individual Directing, I could create the same kind of Studio of Individual Directing for them. And they slowly began making their own performances. I analyzed them just as I did performances created by other participants. Slowly they were drawn into the theatrical process.

In short, I quickly began including them in my own artistic movement, that is, The Orchard, which was then undergoing its fifth regeneration. The Orchard is a specific kind of mystery in which Orchard creatures emerge from a tunnel of being/non-being - that’s where the text begins - followed by a seeming catastrophe until, eventually, they are convinced that catastrophes are impossible. After that they return to the tunnel of being/non-being from whence they surface again in search of a new regeneration.

Our performers with Down syndrome went through the fourth Orchard regeneration and entered the fifth along with us. How did we work with them? We didn’t work with them. We just played and lived, and they joined our games any way they wanted to. I never insisted on them playing anything specific. I didn’t offer them any texts. Nothing.

We simply lived and rehearsed together. They came with their parents, with whom they lived in a certain symbiosis (that’s a problem of another kind). The children listened. They reflected what we said, never adapting it to themselves. They were simply a part of our home. Especially because the manor house and the orchard are important mirages for Chekhov's play as well as they were for us.

Meanwhile, an idea for a project slowly came together in my mind. In it I would become a person with Down syndrome, I would make my way toward the world of Down. That became the second stage of my work with these children. I wanted to do it myself: to enter their world, their territory, to achieve insight into their internal ontology, without imitation, from within. In some sense, we might say that I’ve done that. In part, anyway.

By the time of The Orchard’s sixth regeneration, I decided I would do a project called People with Down, Commenting on the World. I asked the kids to retell the Gospels and they did so from the point of view of people with Down syndrome. Then they began to play at “internal TV.” Later they began commenting on society, philosophy and music. I possess a lot of archival material, but life’s hurried pace won’t allow me to turn to it in order to make the whole set of films that are buried there. My work with these individuals lasted for nearly a decade: there is a huge archive left.

A person with Down syndrome is a miracle. Buddhists say that they spiritually purify the air around them and return the fragile body to its place. Steiner wrote that they exemplify the structure of a moral body, that is, of love. In fact, they are the source of the future, so we must be very attentive to them. I am convinced of that. Their moral movement is cyclical, rather like a record on a turntable. Although in terms of energy, contact with them is very difficult. After two or three hours you are ready to lose your mind. If they are many, and if you work with them properly – it takes a great deal out of you. That is taking into consideration the fact that they live in symbiosis with their parents, which means practically that you work with them as well. In order to describe and understand what happens between them, I developed a theory of communicative connections. I won’t go into that in detail right now. I’ll just mention a few key issues.

People with Down syndrome, in fact, animate the world. The universe is inside them. You may think they are talking about themselves, or that they are focused on themselves. But, no. They address the world and unwillingly talk about themselves. People with DS talk about the whole universe that exists within them. And here a question arises: how do you perform any action together with them? For example, how do you tear them away from their world, and should you even do that?

I believe that people with DS command a kind of proto-speech. It can be identified, recorded and seen. How does it awaken in them? Obviously the environment primarily forms the human consciousness. This happens with people with Down syndrome, but the extent of the impact is incredible. It is quite different from the typical person. People with DS possess incredible “absorbency” and “responsiveness.” Take, for example, Lena, the child with DS. She was a star, our first little star. She become Vasilyev’s intercessor, and then mine. She made that choice herself. One time on the escalator in the metro she began swearing a blue streak. Yelena Nikitseva was there, as were Lena and I. She started to lambaste Vasilyev, calling him Vasya the Cat. She called me “kitty cat.” “Ooh, that Vasya the Cat!” – her expression even changed - “that Vasya the Cat, ooh! That Vasya the Cat swears! He should not!” She tried in some sense to exert control over this Vasya the Cat, who, incidentally was in Weimar that day working on an opera production. We learned later that on that very day Vasilyev, a true champion of swearing, had lashed out at everyone there. Apparently, Lena somehow sensed that and tried to neutralize his anger. On the escalator, in the Moscow metro. She began speaking at that very moment. I witnessed it. She had not spoken before that. She did not speak at all. She only used separate words and intonations, but she never spoke.

I was studying various types of speech at that time. For instance, informative speech, demonstrative speech. Improvisational speech. What is improvisational speech? What is your state of consciousness when you begin improvising poetry? When you’re working a great deal with rhythm and poetic styles? And what is the state of mind when you start to improvise narrative? And how, when improvising, do you express what is already known? And how do you free yourself from the well-known in order to create, for example, a fairy tale? What is the highest form of speech? I call heuristic speech the highest; that is speech which leads to revelation as it expounds upon the “here and now.” New ideas emerge; they find their expression in speech. That is what I call the highest manifestation of speech.

By studying these various kinds of speech we can create a field in which our consciousness may develop. The children with Down syndrome have very different types of speech – Misha may have one, Dima may have another. Like a moralist he may begin declaiming moralizing verses, arranging them in different rhythms. These children are no less diverse than anyone else.

In this sense, what is unique about theatre? This is a place where the soul is ready to embrace another soul, as if inhabiting it. When that happens you achieve a special kind of contact that, within the confines of art and all the properties that are characteristic of it, may indirectly aid a person’s personal development Yelena Nikitseva asked me to go to Europe. There I witnessed great humanistic experiments. There was, for example, one Canadian man. He was like Mother Teresa. He created arks all around the world where people lived together with madmen. I visited such an ark.

While we were in Europe I realized it was time to finish this project. In France Yelena Nikitseva and I were strolling somewhere on a boulevard and it came to me. I yelled, screamed and shouted that I could not continue, I could not go on. I had taken on an enormous amount; my soul was highly agitated by everything associated with my friends with Down syndrome, and by my behavior towards them. I felt I was in debt. The confluence of events at that time was very complex. I felt very pressed-upon. After all, for me it was not an altruistic or humanistic act. I am no humanist, I am a humanoid. For me it was an artistic act. And the territory of the artistic act cannot possess an ideology, even if this ideology is as high as Orthodoxy, for example, or anything else. I began to think someone was trying to remake me into a teacher of life. But that’s not who I am.

So I finished this project in the late 90s.

I am still friends with one girl. She does not have Down syndrome, but she is a wonderful, ambitious girl. Her name is Ksenia Velikolug. She was in that group, too. There were many different people among the children I worked with, not only those with Down syndrome. There were children with mental disabilities. But love as an organic property was characteristic only of children with Down syndrome. For example, I have never worked with persons with autism spectrum disorder. I may be autistic myself. I generally do not consider autistic individuals as Others. My suspicion is that they are the most “natural” among us. They have the most natural reactions to the world.

I do believe that the ethics of the Other are the ethics of the XXI century. Everyone is an Other. Everyone. We learn that especially from those who are obviously Others, and with whom we need to establish contact. But you need not embrace them with your own ontology. We must learn to support dialogue. This is a complicated and difficult path, where you must free yourself of the power of the representational, as such. Escaping the representational is one technique for achieving Otherness. Otherwise, they will be the same as you, there will be no dialogue, and there will be no intense, complex, unique ethical act of coming together. It just won’t happen. But you must remain true to yourself. Only then can you discern the Other. But if you do not discern yourself first, it seems to me that you cannot discern Others. You cannot encode others’ Otherness or they will appear to you merely as Different.

There is a principle. I can share it. It is the principle on which I base my pedagogy. It's very simple: there are two approaches and many borderline states between them. The first is when a student becomes a medium for his teacher; the second is when knowledge is placed between a student and a teacher and is then inspected. One option is the East; the other is the West (quite the university model). There is also a third way; it is simultaneously the simplest and most difficult of all. In it the teacher becomes a medium for the student. This medium-like presence in you of a disciple, this third bundle of "mother and magician" allows you to distinguish what is unique. But this kind of work cannot be transferred to another. It cannot be repeated. You withdraw from formatting itself, even when talking about a textbook, a set of very proper rules, and so on.
Under the first principle the student himself chooses his path, as if he is using himself to maintain tradition. In the other case there is no tradition to be set, only the inspection function and the transmitting information are needed. It is obligating, incredibly skilled labor. A whole field of interactions arises between the one and the other, which is why these days we observe so many different approaches to pedagogy.

Nobody follows the third path. I have been studying it since the late '80s, and, in this sense, my work with people with Down syndrome did not differ greatly. The teacher is a medium for the student; that is, he is no longer a teacher, he is something else. I am not a teacher; I do not take on this function. That’s impossible. Everything changes. For example, the nature of a conversation with people is such that controlling, repressive functions must be abolished. When working with people with Down syndrome, I never went beyond the limits of the Studio. I never created any special foundation for my work. I did not change myself for them, but rather I included them in my life and discovered myself alongside them. This is why the principle of the ark, where people live in a small community, is so important for me. I earlier mentioned those arks where people live with the insane. There is nothing representational there. There are no PR services, nothing of the sort. People’s lives there are hard and diverse, but very strict. They wash dishes, scrub feces, and do nothing but hang out with unhealthy people.

That is hard work, very hard. And there are a lot of young people there. I’d like to say a word about them. Few can stand more than a year there. Very few can stand two years. Many come because there is a modicum of material support offered to help them survive. Some are there because they are very rich and have decided to change their lives. Their eyes, like the eyes of angels, are blue. That really amazed me. I don’t understand why the eye color changes. It is some new type of human, a new humanity. There are only a few of them. But the principle of these arks is that we do not need clinics or hospitals. We must live as a family. But what if there is no family, what if the family refuses to treat them? Then an artificial family gathers ’round... The word “artificial” is not quite correct. It is a specially created family, one that may unite people from all over the world. In my opinion, this is a very valuable practice from a social point of view.

We clearly face many problems, but they must be solved using very small, homeopathic steps. This requires special skills or a specific life choice. But if you are an artist you cannot tackle social issues, you cannot sacrifice your mission, you can’t, you see? You need to do one or the other. Otherwise, you may maim your destiny, and that injury will affect everything you subsequently do. I am not capable of doing social work. I am not a social worker, although I treat this kind of work with great reverence. As an artist I could only work as I worked, and only for so long as it did not become unbearable for me. Very lovingly, gently, without any break-ups, I stopped the project and went off in another direction. Basically, I could not have continued. I had to stop when the time was ripe. That is also a part of the process of interaction, don’t you think? I learned a great deal from these young people and I have kept much of it with me.
Such is my experience.

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