Essays, Reviews


Gates of Time / In the Depths of the Moment

When I think back on theatre performances, in most cases I recall images. Images of gestures, motions and actions. I remember distinct tableaux which condensed into a moment all that one specific night in the theatre meant to me. These “memorimages” preserve fleeting time. They preserve encounters that have a human impact of importance; performances of actors complete with personal messages; images and moods that from memories lead back to the live present of a particular theatre experience. Out of what is past they help keep what is beyond time. They make what is past shine with what is of eternal interest.

Good theatrical photographic images open alike gates of time for me. They bring back the theatre performances which I may not even have attended and preserve the experience of someone else watching. Here is the army officer, who in an impersonal fit of rage with his sword still up in the air but ready to stab, finds himself facing the awkward sobriety of a frightened maid servant. In the next moment the birthday cake topped with whipped cream meant for the child is landing on the army officer’s face. The farcical gesture gives something very deep and human to the tragi-comic moment in the staging of “Soldiers”. Or here is the Spanish gipsy girl, who with her head twisting and turning to the sky, with her open arms stretched helplessly high, is trying to reach the ecstasy she is hoping for. This female body that has lost touch with the earth is being watched by a man who is standing firmly attached to the ground. Without being able to follow the girl, he might provide her with a footing so that she can take off But this single moment caught by the photographer possesses all that is essential in Robert North’s Carmen” choreography. It tells of the title role’s tough feminity and demonic charms, which enchanted by the hights of possibility forces the attracted men to share her passion. This is how Carmen draws strength to strive for the completeness of life, while her lovers after just seconds of giddy ecstasy will fall into the depths of darkness.

In another photograph you can see Isaac Stern, the violin player, whose otherworldly performances cause even the walls of the concert hall to begin a vibrant dance. In two different pictures we have the two pianists, Zoltán Kocsis and Chic Corea. One face expresses spirited sorrow; the other is that of a gleeful rascal. Still, these spirited and playful eyes focus on the same inner sounds which will be transferred to the piano keys by the fingers ready to move so that music can resound at last. Or hidden in colorful clothes, here is a crooked and tense female figure bending towards a mirror. Her arm is stretched and her hand is poised a few centimeters from the mirror as if it were performing spells over its surface. And at the bottom of the huge mirror, under the outstretched fingers a face is actually appearing. In the photograph taken of the Budapest Dance Theatre performance it is the memories and images of fantasy visions which she draws forth from the depths of emptiness that give the crooked and faceless body looking into the mirror an embarrassed uniqueness.

So here we are faced with moments in which all of a sudden, everything can reveal itself in an unlimited space and time: the player, the dancer and the musician who lend their faces to the vision; the play and the piece of music, the situations, the motions and melody patterns which create the conditions for the photographs’ poses and situations; the scenery, the props and locations which serve as a background and furnish the picture with objects; the director, the choreographer and the artist whose message is taken and put down on a  light-sensitive material by another artist’s empathy so that he can become a personal interpreter of what he has discovered in pieces of art created by others.

The very fact that it can take a respectful look at others’ creative work proves that theatrical photography is an independent art. Though it seizes moments opportunely, it does so with an act of magic that gives the unique and the individual the touch that makes them unmistakable. Theatrical photography, like play-acting, dance and performing art whichare its sources, is a rendering art. The methods it employs share in this rendering for. It relies on the emphatic power of expression and movement, which are able to express personality and the human condition fully. Theatrical photography utilizes the dynamics of man and his surrounding objects along with the dynamics of space and human bodies in motion. It desires the same aim as its sources, that is to grab exceptional human moments. The moments when suddenly the layers on the face of time become visible. The ones when, in familiar bewilderment we are given the chance to take a closer look at the orld around and are able to see the irrationality of objects and relations and the soaring human aspiration to set the world to rights. When, in a single look, in a meaningful gesture or motion, a whole life history can unfold: isolation and expectation or belonging to and repelling each other. When the paradoxical nature of relations becomes perceivable; when one is seeking to find the path leading up to the other person and shivers with the icy cold of the universe; when one is struggling with passions and vices trying to find justification.


The heroes and heroines depicted here are mostly lonely creatures in these theatrical, dance-theatrical and concert hail photographs taken by Ivan Benda. In a picture both the murderer and the magistrate are alone. Their bodies are tensed by different pains and passions. While fighting with each other, they are struggling with themselves — this is what the photographer could perceive under the surface of their conflict in “Crime and Punishment”. In another picture we can also see Tevye, the milkman on his own. But, turning the pages we can understand what makes the cart that he is pulling so heavy. His isolation, which is now a kind of presentiment will meet reality when all of his compatriots set off in a forced march for the unknown after having lost their villages, homes and friends. We see Blanche in her isolation, never to change as in a catatonic panic she is squatting by the wall submissively leaning her head against the back of the easy chair. Her younger sister is no longer able to help her. Her desperate eyes are making a useless effort to wake up Blanche, but her distant look remains unresponsive. The two players in “People and Mice” are also facing each other but the huge precipice between them is for ever unbridgeable. The photographs of “The Phantom of the Opera House” also show that desire cannot find its way between two people. In still another picture the two players in “Rigoletto” are seeking refuge and peace in each other’s arms, but their faces mirror the mutual pain that is to be suffered separately

The figures in Ivan Bendas pictures almost always turn their attention inwards. In “Steaming” the two female figures holding on to each other are also smiling inwardly. The elderly brother and sister in “The Cherry Orchard” are also focusing on the inner world. The woman is looking at the man but her smile reveals that in fact she is observing an inner reality. The man is looking into the distance as if he were prying into the world of nothing. They think of the same memories and the same recent losses. Their thoughts roam across a world brought alive inside themselves. The panic in Macbeth is also burning somewhere inside. He becomes aware of his power to kill and destroy and when all is done, he runs his empty eye over his ill-gotten realm with the same indifference to the world as he is being watched by the death- mask on the wall.

Agony and distress induced by passions and emotions are another recurring topic in Iván Benda’s photographs. A very intense moment in Andrea Ladányi’s evening tells of the pain locked inside, which is expressively referred to by the costume winding around the body of the dancer like a rope. The flexible and tense figures in “Carmen” photographs show strength, rage and rapture. They show women and men in a threatening need to cling to and a hysterical need to get rid of each other. In “Stabat Mater” the stretched, bent and tense arms of a group of female figures speak about the grief and affliction of the abused woman’s heart, demanding an explanation from the world. It is also the merciless phases of emotions that are represented in the photographs taken of “Splinters”.

The confronted participants of the eternal triangle in one of the photographs, take up a cross-like pattern amidst the battle of emotions and senses in another one. Turning to a different picture we get a glimpse of the exceptional moment when woman and man meet in a tender look. Nevertheless, we can see that this is unexpected suspense in an asymmetrical and difficult relationship since the interlocking and forgiving exchange of looks are being closely watched by the third participant at their elbows.

Iván Benda’ s photographs also prove that rare as it might be, joy can still be born due to human endeavor and perseverance. In “Soldiers “ this is the message of the married couple laughing at each other in an embracing waltz. Caught up in the enthusiastic wave of a self-confidently controlled inner fire, the Spanish dancer’s manly yet graceful gesture speaks a similar message. This is what filters through when we see the female figures who, as if having sprouted wings, are almost soaring. This is what we can see in the faun and nymphs close embrace, as the two bodies seem to melt into one inseparable reflection in a mirror behind their interwoven hands. Iván Benda’s photographs also provide a flashing inkling of the intuitive knowledge that we can more deeply and fully experience the world than merely perceiving it. This is why, by placing an emphasis on special visual elements so rarely used on the Hungarian stage, Iván Benda’s photography seems to take on visionary qualities. In “The Crimson Coach” the lonely and dry tree in the background helps us catch a glimpse of the hidden fate of the embracing couple. In “The Phantom of the Opera House” we are offered an insight into what is ahead of the ballerina watching herself in the mirror when we notice that behind the mirror there stands a masked, desire - driven man. The picture where Rigoletto’s gigantic shadow creates the impression that reality has been torn into parts is overcast by the presentiment of an imminent disaster. In “The Cherry Orchard” Liobov Andreyevna is looking into the closing mirror door of time. She will disappear behind it end we shall see only her silhouette just the way in which we see anything lest alive only in our memories. This is what makes pointless the three rascal’s efforts to produce, as if by magic, the woman now gone with the wind. Each man was attached and related to her in one way or another but none of them is now able to tell what has become of her. The objects in their hands - a guitar, a silken dress, a contrabass case - might well be important and precious relics of the past, however, they are not enough to revive the female figure whose journey they are trying to trace in their memories. While they chase elusive time, mellow shadows of the night are cast across their bodies.

We, who are taking a look at these theatrical photographs, are in the same situation. We can see something that is not existing anymore, we can move closer to something that has already vanished into nothingness. What gives the numb poses a new life is our perception. It is not reality. It is more than that. It may be the act of framing an ultimate essence, an essence which lies peacefully in the depths of a never-ending procession of mortal moments


István L. Sándor