Olivier de Sagazan’s Transfiguration Review

Dec 12, 2022

I was fortunate to have been in Athens when the performer Olivier de Sagazan offered a 3 day workshop and performance. Though there is much to talk about regarding the workshop series, I am focusing here only on his 50 minute performance known as Transfiguration which took place at Synchrono Theatre on Dec 12th.

Now after knowing some of Sagazan’s work through video and experiencing his workshop series, I had a peaking curiosity for what a Sagazan live performance would feel like. Before the performance, I was already anticipating something heavily visceral and artistically multi-disciplinary, where body is not separate from sculpture, mask, or scenery. And now I felt I was finally about to witness something bloody alive, something Artaud may have called cruel or essential theatre—a “hungering after life, cosmic strictness, relentless necessity, […] a living vortex engulfing darkness, […] a necessary pain without which life could not continue.”(1)

Half an hour before the official start of the performance, Sagazan was already in performance mode walking a large circle around his set installation in his formal suit. This repetitive walking and flowing into its steady rhythm to me was relatable since I have also engaged in circle walks for the purposes of meditation or trance-induction.

When the performance began, the lights went out and Sagazan set himself in front of his installation where he would mostly stay in place either sitting or standing with an installation of tools composed of a large half-sphere of clay, bowls of water, red and black paint, white powder, hay, and synthetic hair-like material. I could not help but feel we were about to witness shamanism in the 21st century under the medium of embodied sculpture, clay, and paint.

From the beginning, Sagazan was not only in tune with his body but his voice. He kept a steady stream of both clear and unclear glossolalia, mumbling, and divergent voice and breathing patterns throughout as if allowing different spirits to give him messages regarding what he was doing and what he was about to do. There were also instances where the body itself became a drum, further calling on the spirits.

Sagazan went through various wet clay mask transformations, and every time it happened, his entire body would also shift in resonance. A few of the characters were inspired by animals, while most of the characters felt unworldly, and they all seemed to carry with them their own message, some message deliveries more urgent than others.

The performance progressed into more and more degrees of absurdism and going beyond the prior act. At the beginning of the performance was a well-dressed man but by the end a savage who had entirely ripped out of his clothes exposing a savage body transforming via clay. By the end, Sagazan’s clay head was even on fire.

The critique of ego or identity appeared to be a strong theme since masks or face strongly denote ego or identity. In the case of Sagazan, these gentle to violent shifts of personalities, all either non-human or mockingly quasi-human from one identity to another expressed to me that we are more than what we think we are. There were several instances of violently splatting a face right onto the metal plate dangling behind him. These came with momentary cathartic releases.

The performance as a whole felt like it came with an urgent message and/or prayer to break from the confines of all the masks that bind us. Yet, I got a feeling that not even the out of this world personalities were enough. They too would need to go through the process of transfiguration. Only change seems adequate. But there is a futility in touching the beyond while residing in this world so very much full of confines on the body and spirit. Yet Sagazan chose to perform anyway, no matter how futile, not unlike Sisyphus and the rock.

Transfigurations I felt was not intended for sheer entertainment but soul journey. This might be difficult to accomplish with a sitting audience waiting to be fed with yet more stimulus in this over-stimulated tech society, but I feel that for Sagazan, this is a ritual and experiment in viscerally and grotesquely breaking, something very much needed in this world, which is also available in the world of butoh.

There were so many elements to this performance that left a strong impression on me as a butoh artist. Artaud notwithstanding, I’m sure that if Kazuo Ohno or Tatsumi Hijikata were to witness Transfigurations, they too would have left immensely inspired.

On an ending note, I found it quite appropriate for Sagazan to offer a 3 day workshop prior to this performance because now I feel a part of Transfigurations and Sagazan’s work beyond the stage.

(1) Artaud, Antonin. Artaud on Theatre. Edited with commentary by Claude Schumacher. 1989. Page 61 & 107.