CLEMENT LAYES / Public in Private – ONONON


ONONON is the second pop-up developed for explore dance – Netzwerk Tanz für junges Publikum. It is a mobile piece that premiered on April 4, 2019, at Neue Grundschule Potsdam. Choreographer Clement Layes and his team turned a cafeteria into the setting of an autonomous world of things. Plants dance in orange traffic cones and wigs crawl across the floor, as if moved by magic. In a world that is often too pragmatic and bleak, where confetti and the joy of chaos are barely given any room, ONONONseems like a cathartic trip to anarchy, an escape from the corset of control.

Written by Helen Naujoks, 2nd. of May 2019


It is 9:30 am, an hour before the performance begins. I am standing in the cafeteria of Neue Grundschule Potsdam. Very soon, ONONONwill be presented here for the first time. The room is still very empty. Just a few adults sit around the tables drinking coffee while the production team sets up the stage design. A box made from not more than a few pieces of natural wood measuring about two by two meters forms the basis of the mobile pop-up stage. The box is pragmatic and multi-functional. It will later be used by the performers, Cécile Bally and Nir Vidan, as both a stage and a hiding spot, and will at the same time also store the many objects used in the play. A small hatch with an attached door is the connecting element between inside and outside, between on and off.




There will be no external lighting moods. The cafeteria’s light suffices as stage lighting. The box will be set up in the center of the room. A few helping hands push and pull about 50 chairs and a few tables into a half circle, turning them into seating for the young audience. The functional and clean aura of the new building hosting the cafeteria hardly allows for the vision of stage magic that will take the children into a different world. On the other hand, there is hardly anything that could distract the children from the performance. A few pictures are hung on the white wall and some plants are supposed to make the space look more friendly. But other than that, you will find only things that are actually used: tables and chairs. Not really much competition for the new square “thing” in the center of the room. This is how the wooden box designed for ONONON becomes the most spectacular object in the room.

And yet the cafeteria signals, from floor to ceiling, that this is not a playground. All the more exciting that it is precisely here, in this space, where a performance with a ton of objects will take place. Will the performers be able, despite this sober atmosphere, to maneuver the children into another world?




The performance is scheduled to begin at 10:30 am. Slowly, children begin to appear in the cafeteria, they observe, some curious and others over-excited, the box and sit down on the chairs and tables arranged in a half circle. Here and there, a teacher shushes them, pointing out that the play is about to begin. A young woman and a young man, both wearing black clothes, stand in position, on the right behind the box. These are the performers, Cecile and Nir. They address the children directly, asking: “are you ready?” They answer in unison: “yes!” They have made a deal; the play can begin. Suddenly everyone is quiet as a mouse. The children watch as both performers step onto the box. They open the hatch and disappear through it. What will happen next? The air stands still. The first spark is lit.




Music begins to play. It probably comes from the box. The hatch opens. A hand appears. The music stops. The hand disappears. The hatch closes. The music begins to play again. This musical-choreographic pattern is repeated several times. Again and again, something is held out of the box: a head, a wig, a vase, a plastic hatchet, a big yellow tennis ball. The children laugh, they are captivated by the rhythmic disappearance and emergence of body parts and objects. The rhythm also keeps my attention in a loop that I don’t seem to be able to get out of. It is too exciting to wonder: what’s next? What will happen with the next thing? The box works like a giant magic kit, producing ever new objects only in order to make them disappear again or to perform magic tricks on stage.




Although all of the objects on stage are familiar to the children, remnants from their daily lives, they do not behave as usual. Plants can dance, a stack of cardboard boxes turns in circles, wigs crawl across the floor, as if moved by magic. How is this possible? What’s the trick? The secret is quickly unveiled. The flower is equipped with magnets. A remote-controlled car is hidden beneath the stack of boxes, and a small automatic dog makes the wig move. The interplay between illusion and disclosure, between magic and disenchantment becomes a suspenseful experience: the kids are obviously preoccupied with the task of figuring out the tricks. They try to guess the reason for the unnatural movements that the objects make. The fact that the performers then go on to reveal how the tricks work does not in any way lessen the surprise effect. On the contrary. Everyone is in awe.  The presentation of “how the trick works” seems to almost be even more fascinating than the illusion itself. The unveiling seems like a mirror in which the children can permanently compare their own imagination of “how it could be” to the reality of “how it actually works” and reflect on the difference between both.




A large white bowl wobbles dangerously close to one corner of the stage, soap bubbles float up from the hatch, a white rose rides on the tip of its stem, and a striped red-and-white traffic cone is turned into a flower pot. A stool, meant to rest, breaks under the weight of the woman sitting on it. The wooden box seems to hold an endless stock of requisites. As they begin to pile up on stage, the performers are forced to react to these objects in ever quicker succession. As the human and the material world meet, one automatically begins to perceive their objects as active and challenging counterparts.




Childhood memories of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice come back to me. The memory of a freely turning broom that causes great chaos and can only be tamed with the help of a magic charm. Here, however, there is no magic charm. But there are a lot of eager kids’ hands that have only been waiting for the moment until gorilla masks, toy dogs, and boxing gloves are handed over to them. When the performers begin to throw the objects that have been piling up around them into the audience, the kids go crazy. They start shouting with joy. And when confetti is added to the game and thrown into the air, nothing can stop them. The line between stage and audience dissolves. No one stays in their seats any longer. This is anarchy based on mutual consent. In the common act of exchanging and throwing things an at once poetic and political moment of participation manifests itself.




“We asked ourselves: what can an object do? When we observe an object we look for its qualities, we watch it move. Every object has a unique potential. With the help of magnets and other tools, we can activate this potential.”

With the children’s active participation in the action on stage, it becomes clear that they are have shaped the artistic process of developing the play. Over a time period of four weeks, there were five meetings with students from the fifth grade. The children’s way of responding directly to the objects on stage and their transformation results from this phase of commonly conducted artistic research. When reflecting on working with the children, the performers speak, above all, about the objects: “we wondered about what an object can really do. When we observe an object we look for its qualities, we watch it move. Every object has a unique potential. With the help of magnets and other tools, we can activate this potential.”




For performer Cecile it was important to spend time with the kids in order to understand what works and what doesn’t. And not to be afraid that the kids might arrive and think that they, as adults, want to explain the world to them. She also did not want to simply observe how the kids respond to the objects and then think: we should keep going in this direction. Or to realize that their choreography is too complex.

At the same time, Clement sees great potential in this complexity: “whenever it became too abstract for the children, they asked: why are you doing this? For us, it was very important to teach the children that not everything can be reduced to some small meaning, that things are sometimes more complicated than that. We wanted to open up a space where they could freely associate and reflect on what they had seen and think about it.”

To meet the children on equal terms and engage them as partners in the artistic process posed great challenges for Nir: “it was also a question of how to develop a closer relationship to the children without becoming childish.” Did the artists manage to do just that, to not take them too seriously? To be adults but act like children without becoming overly silly or small?


“It was also a question of how to develop a closer relationship to the children without becoming childish.”


Although the children had a lot to laugh about during the play, the performers did not in the least appear silly or ridiculous. Even when they acted as clowns and made exaggerated gestures of surprise, tumbling and stumbling about, they always remained in close contact with the children in the audience who knew that they were addressed and who recognized themselves in the performers’ gestures. The actors enlarge their emotions of being overwhelmed by the world and the things surrounding them through their mimic gestures and engage the children through their sweeping gestures of emotional disclosure.

When asked whether they had thought a lot about the question of humor while developing the play, Clement responds: “there are so many different types of humor. Yesterday we went to a stand-up comedy show for a different project we are working on. In ONONONwe play with expectations, but mostly in an absurd form or in a way that diverges from normality. Objects usually stand still, but as soon as they begin to move, things happen that will make children laugh. It’s not so much about an actual joke as about their connection to daily life and their way of transforming before their eyes.”




What seems to be more urgent to the children than the question of humor is, however, the larger question of meaning. When talking to the artists right after the performance, a boy wants to know: “so what’s really the whole meaning of the play?” A teacher quickly asks whether everything always necessarily has to make sense, as a way to evade the question. The question of meaning in dance, or in art more generally, often makes artists slightly uncomfortable because it is not easy to answer. That this question is also dismissed in the school context surprises me a little. I find the question of meaning absolutely justified: it does not only address the desire to understand what the play wants to express but also speaks to the fact that the children noticed the difference between a traditional play with a linear narrative and an associative play that follows a different logic. This could be turned into an exciting moment to talk about how meaning is actually produced and where we discover narratives that go beyond linear forms of storytelling.




I assume that the fear that this play could lack a deeper meaning has to do with the fact that it offers so much to laugh about and that laughter is, in theatre, often falsely associated with superficiality, sensationalism, and a lack of depth. Yet luckily in this case, the artists are also eager to learn more about the core of their piece and play the question of meaning back into the group of children.


“…and then more and more objects appeared. When they began to move around on their own, it was like a nightmare!”


One child cannot wait to present an answer: “it was like a nightmare. There were so many objects, it was just more than the performers could take, more than they could handle in life, maybe it became too stressful and in the end you shouted “trade, trade” and we had to trade, but still more and more objects appeared. When they began to move around on their own, it really was like a nightmare!”




Another child says that the fun is in fact the meaning of the play. And indeed, everyone had fun. Everyone can agree on that. But why? Key to the fun was, for the kids, above all the play’s final scene, which was all about trading things and becoming part of a community, part of a group that is united in chaos in order to celebrate it with confetti and embrace it playfully instead of letting it get them down. ONONON allows for a positive outlook on a constantly changing and overwhelming world. Instead of reacting to our rapidly changing time with restrictions and control, Clement Layes, his team, and the children celebrate themselves by taking a cathartic trip to anarchy, escaping the corset of all constraints. In a playful act the performers and their audience counter chaos with yet more chaos.