Michael Benson
22 December 1999

A week ago today, what has to be one of the most radical theater experiments of the 20th century--and it just barely made it--took place in the skies above Moscow. Slovenian director Dragan Zivadinov's Noordung Zero Gravity Biomechanical theater unfolded in a Russian cosmonaut training aircraft owned and operated by the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training facility, which is based in Star City, just outside Moscow. I managed to film the thing, and cranked out the following text about it--which I thought might be of interest. Cheers, MB


"The Earth is the cradle of mankind. But mankind can't forever remain in the cradle."

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

How to write weightlessness? It's impossible. All the preconceived ideas and notions about the placement of the body in space-the orientation of the self and everyone else-are suddenly rendered moot. It's as if a magic wand is waved, and the most fundamental physical rules are suspended. What was up becomes something "over there". What was down becomes the place you once were-a place equal in every way to what used to be the ceiling, and the walls. The camera, which just now weighed twice as much as it does on Earth (and I'll explain why in a minute), suddenly weighs nothing at all, and leaps from the hand like a bird, though it flies away without any bird-like sense of effort at all. Chasing it, you collide with a kind of angelic cloud of twisting, laughing bodies, human bodies that also weigh nothing at all, and which have therefore somehow gotten all tangled up together in the ether, in the veritable oxygen, and then somehow disassemble, and spin off, all untangled and in all directions, laughing. The camera, meanwhile, has migrated-not up, or down, but away, over there-where it's recording the bizarre scene all by itself, like a slowly-spinning autonomous satellite without any need of ground control.

You chase it over to a corner of what was once the ceiling, and grab it just in time, and just as your "trainer"-a likable Russian paratrooper by the name of Vladimir Kalentyev-grabs you, and the three of you, who just now were floating in pursuit of each other, now drift down like autumn leaves to the aircraft floor, which has again become a floor. You are laughing, you are breathless, and immediately after this drifting landing, gravity increases again to two times what it is on earth, and you are mashed into the rubber mats that cover that surface along with a splayed-out, flattened pile of other people who once constituted the angelic cloud floating in the middle of this paragraph (you know the one I mean; you can also see it in innumerable Renaissance oil paintings, for example Domenichino's The Assumption of Mary Magdalen into Heaven). What had been three-dimensional, and kinetic, and weightless is now being pushed down like sculptors' clay on the floor, immobilized, denting that foam-rubber in an overpowering roar of turbo-jet engines (as the immense Ilyushin cargo plane again climbs up towards the vertiginous top of its parabolic flight; from which virtual precipice it produces yet another 30-second episode of free-fall, and another scene of this amazing zero-gravity theater).

How, then, to write about weightlessness-let alone a theater piece that takes place in that state? Or film production in weightlessness (the reason I was in that plane in the first place)? I repeat: it's impossible. Still, weightlessness itself might have once seemed impossible-something reserved for those on their way to heaven. But now I can say with gut-level conviction: it is possible. In fact, I've experienced it. And yet I've returned to earth. Not so long ago a woman I am close to told me, breathlessly, about her friend who is interested in Indian religions and who has been trying to levitate. I said something scornful: levitation is impossible. It's a great idea, and Andrei Tarkovsky actually managed to depict it quite well in his films, but to actually try it in real life, I said, is a waste of time. Interesting how one's statements of utter conviction can come back around with a different spin. Yesterday, as I was excitedly describing my zero-gravity experiences to her-eleven parabolas of thirty seconds each-she interrupted, and reminded me of that skeptical comment. I paused for a minute. "I was wrong", I told her. But the reader probably needs the earth-bound tyranny of who what where and when.

On December 15 1999, a massive high-winged Ilyushin-76 aircraft, which normally serves as a training plane for the Russian cosmonauts, took off from the Star City airfield with a cargo of fourteen Slovenians, myself, and about the same number of Russian trainers and crew members. At the back end of the plane an intricately designed set had been constructed-one component of what director Dragan Zivadinov calls an "inhabited sculpture". On each wall of the aircraft four strangely designed seats-more like slings with back-rests and strange padded folding tables which double as seat-belts-were provided for the audience of eight, which mostly consisted of people from Ljubljana capable of recording or writing about the event. In the back of the plane seven actors, all wearing the bizarre, brightly colored Russian constructivist-style flight-suits designed for the occasion, prepared for the onset of zero gravity. The audience also were wearing costumes, in this case yellow flight-jackets, and each also had a kind enveloping wrap-around piece of head wear that can't really be called a hat-it was something more like what cosmonauts or astronauts wear under the fishbowl helmet, complete with a chin strap and velcro attachers to keep a pair of headphones glued down on the head during the upcoming zero-gravity episodes.

Dominating this electrifying scene, a bald-headed and intensely nervous (but equally focused) theater director by the name of Dragan Zivadinov strode around on the bouncy foam-rubber mats, ensuring that everyone was prepared, strapped in, out of the way, in the way, standing, sitting, praying with the right words, doing the right thing, and in whatever other way preparing for launch. He was augmented in this by a group of similarly focused Russian airforce cosmonaut trainers, who among other things had strapped parachutes onto everybody just before takeoff, and instructed us very briskly on how to clip the static line onto a cable running along the length of the fuselage in the back of the plane (the cable ran towards a collapsible wall standing in front of the rear cargo door of the aircraft). The audience, crew, and actors, it was explained with in-your-face shouts-the sound level inside the plane was deafening ould have to jump, on command, if there should be technical trouble. Another, very un-rehearsed kind of zero-gravity experience, in other words. The kind that comes when you jump out of an airplane falling from the skies over the frozen countryside around Moscow in millennial December. Not the kind I had signed up for, but on the other hand, not very likely either. And at least we had the chutes! So this, then, was the scene in a theater where the air was pulsing not just with the shriek of high-performance turbojets but also with palpable excitement and nervousness.

I myself was aware of a pounding heart, as I scrambled around the aircraft with my TV Slovenia colleague, cameraman Andrei Lupinc, plugging in and checking equipment (two digital video cameras, one my own hand-held one and another strapped to a railing near the ceiling; two film cameras, both attached to tripods locked to the ground-although one would be under Lupinc's control; and a DAT sound recorder). Behind the imposing control-board structure at the front end of the padded audience area, flanked by hulking uniformed Russian military types, directly opposite the set and "stage", a headphones-wearing Marko Peljhan adjusted sound levels. Peljhan and his Atol project served as co-producers of the performance, and he also performed several acts of last-minute financial wizardry in pulling large sums of money out of the air in order to allow two expensive flights of the huge, gas-guzzling aircraft. (Clearly, the Noordung Zero Gravity Theater wouldn't have been possible without Marko's energy and organizational ability-let alone his sound designs and control of the complex of electronic components to the performance.) At the other end of the plane, the actors and audience were instructed to sit down with their backs to the fuselage walls. When this entire assembly started bouncing and jolting towards the runway, I realized that this was, without a doubt, the most electrifying start to any theater event I'd ever experienced (not to mention any day of film production). It was the takeoff roll to the first zero gravity theater event in history.

We didn't have to wait very long before the theatrical event itself started up: multiple figures assembled in front of the set, preparing to float free of the ground. But the fascinating thing about this theater is that a century of striving to break down the experiential barrier between audience and spectator-attempts made in multiple ways, and in multiple media-was validated so effectively, at one stroke, when the zero-G kicked in. This shared feeling was so strong that the sensation of weightlessness itself took precedence, during the dramaturgy of the eleven parabolas flown, over the actions of the actors. My memories of the zero gravity theater only allow a real focus on what the performers were doing during two thirds of the scenes of the performance-in other words, during the two-G part and the normal gravity part. When it comes to the zero gravity "scenes", my "identification" with the situation of the actors was so total that I became an incontrovertible part of the piece of art myself, in the sense that I lost a good part of my ability to follow what they were doing. (I should say, though, that unlike the audience, I was free-floating with my camera. So I was in the privileged position of being able to move around. The audience itself was only released from its seats for the last three parabolas.)

At this point it's necessary to describe, a bit, why these three gravitational modes-zero-G, two G's, and normal gravity-exist in the first place. In order to create zero gravity conditions, it's necessary for the aircraft to fly in a parabolic arc not dissimilar to the trajectory a rocket makes as it escapes Earth gravity. With a rocket launch, however, the arc extends to the point where the rocket ends up falling around, rather than back to, the Earth. In this case, the aircraft makes a much smaller parabolic form, which has to be arrested at its low point with another burst of power from the engines. During the first part of its upward trajectory, gravity is effectively doubled; the sensation must be similar to a rocket launch (thus the reason behind my camera weighing twice as much as it does on Earth during those twenty seconds). During the 25-to-30-second traverse across the upper shape of the arc, weightlessness prevails; and as the plane recovers at the bottom of the arc and roars up the invisible slope of the next one, two gravities are again experienced by the people inside. There is also a two to three minute period where relatively normal gravity reigns; this occurs just before the next, and just after the preceding, two-G episode. During this three part regimen, the attention directed by the audience towards the actors-and here I can speak about my own subjective experience, though I know it was one shared by some others in the plane-varies from something approximating that of a "normal" audience watching avant-garde theater to, again, total identification with the event and situation created in that theater.

When I flew up to join the spinning, kinetic, angelic cloud of turning, shifting people, there was no question of difference; it was pure shared experience. (No doubt this effect of overwhelming surprise, and as I said therefore of shared experience, will play less of a factor in projected future theatrical or dance works in zero-G. This is because presumably they will take place in Earth orbit, where the zero gravity isn't episodic but constant, and the audience will have had more time to adjust to its effects.) When it comes to the experience of filming this theater-an experiment unto itself-my most vivid image is of holding a camera up, letting go, and watching it float. The autonomy of the camera in these circumstances comes from the fact that it can move through its own trajectory. At one point I lost my grip on the camera and watched it float into a mass of airborne actors. Dragan Zivadinov caught it, floated towards me, and returned it, even as we both slowly collapsed, laughing, on the floor just before the two-G part of the parabola. (Laughter was an integral part of this performance-a kind of awestruck laughter.)

Clearly, it's impossible to imagine a similar circumstance happening in Earth-bound film production. You could almost say that the camera itself also sought to become an actor. An autonomous astronaut. In connection with filming, it also needs to be said that during zero gravity an untethered cameraman would do well simply to "park" the camera at the right angle and let it go; if no momentum is imparted, it will stay where it is placed and record the scene. On the other hand, if any degree of kinetic energy is imparted, it will fly off. And if it's hand-held during weightlessness, and if the camera-person is moving and spinning in space, the footage can be chaotic and hard to follow for the earth-bound observer watching the results later. So the overwhelming experience of weightlessness is not necessarily conveyed best by a camera attached to an untethered human operator. (Still, this text is written too soon after the event of December 15 to know how the footage of the two fixed film cameras looks. My supposition is that the experience of the weightless participants in this theater experiment will be conveyed better by cameras fixed on a tripod.)

I once heard from a particularly cynical person (whose task in life was to teach dramatic form in narrative cinema) that when he hears about "experimental" film, his reaction is always: what's the experiment? And the same could probably be said about experimental theater. In this case, however, the experiment is clear: how to move the actors' bodies into a space of three dimensions-a space where up and down lose the meanings they've always had, and physical rules that we take so much for granted that they are practically chipped into the granite of our foreheads are miraculously suspended. The amazing thing about Dragan Zivadinov's theater experiment this week was that it was also a fully-formed, completely realized work of art. Maybe this should come as no surprise: the man has been researching the situation of the body in weightlessness for years now. It's just that, previously, he had to be content with trying to simulate zero-G on Earth with dancers, or with complex spinning sets, or various other transparent devices. It should be stated clearly that Zivadinov's Biomechanical Zero Gravity Theater, while experimental, was also an outstandingly successful experiment. The man has finally out-done himself.

With this work, Zivadinov goes so far beyond Baptism Under Triglav, which previously could be said to have been his (and all of NSK's) masterpiece, that in retrospect the latter is almost diminished. Baptism could be accused of being reliant on Robert Wilson's vocabulary-though of course this doesn't take away from its achievement as an outstanding work of theater. Zivadinov's zero gravity work, on the other hand, suspended between four roaring Russian military turbojet engines, created a completely new theatrical vocabulary. It's entirely original. Candidate cosmonaut Dragan Zivadinov, one of a handful of people contending seriously to be the first artist launched into space (Zivadinov went through the full training program in Russia) likes to talk about Meyerhold, and he lists other 20th Century directors who sought to break through the barriers erected by traditional theatrical forms. His accomplishment this week was to take these many experiments and ideas, synthesize them, reflect, retool-and come up with an art so radical that it lights the way towards a future we couldn't imagine possible until this work came along to illuminate it. He did so at the very last moment when it was still possible within the same century as Meyerhold and company. And yet Zivadinov's ethereal parabolic arcs also span the turn of the millennium, and they do so with the force of an unprecedented artistic breakthrough. This work doesn't just render two decades of Slovenian theatrical experimentation comprehensible but also retroactively gives the NSK art movement a dramaturgical structure leading to an impossibly lyrical, free-floating climax.