Neil Cooper

IN A dimly lit rehearsal room, a troupe of performers are slow-walking the way into the performance area as mournful music plays. Led by actresses Pauline Goldsmith and Cath Whitefield, the other 12 people seem to be clawing their way onstage, cutting loose as they go in some undefined quasi-religious ritual. At moments the choreographed stage shapes they throw look somewhere between the video for Michael Jackson's song, Thriller, and a line dance. While some of it can't help but look silly, it is the sight of a company cutting loose in order to explore what their performance, in its early stages and still largely formless, is about.

This may be standard for a theatre company such as Vanishing Point, whose artistic director and creative visionary Matthew Lenton is sitting in the dark, shouting words from a text at the performers as they go. With the musical accompaniment, it's a hypnotic and oddly moving spectacle. The best thing of all is when you remember that, other than Goldsmith and Whitefield, the slow moving ensemble aren't actors. The other 12 performers are actually classically trained musicians who make up the Scottish Ensemble, led by artistic director and violinist Jonathan Morton.

It's late July, and Vanishing Point and the Scottish Ensemble are coming to the end of their initial development week for Tabula Rasa, a unique collaboration between the two companies that is Vanishing Point's latest exploration of the relationship between performance and music. This follows on from Bluebeard's Castle and The 8th Door, a double bill produced earlier this year in collaboration with Scottish Opera.

Tabula Rasa is also the latest venture by the Scottish Ensemble in fostering collaborative work. The series began in 2014, with a programme accompanied by bespoke work by visual artist Toby Paterson. Collaborations with Swedish contemporary dance company, Andersson Dance and contemporary classical composer Anna Meredith working alongside visual artist Eleanor Meredith have followed. For Tabula Rasa, Morton and Lenton looked to the composition of the same name by Estonian composer Arvo Part to help create a show that looks, in some way, about care.

“Arvo Part's music had always meant a lot to me anyway,” says Lenton, sitting with Morton at the end of the day's development, “so the next thing for me was, OK, we've got this music, but what do I do with it? Do I just make images to it, like Robert Wilson might, and it doesn't matter what they mean? Or do you try and find a hook? I always have that need to find my way into it.”

Lenton read a 2002 article in the New Yorker by music writer Alex Ross, which highlighted the use of Tabula Rasa in palliative care for AIDS and cancer patients. Ross highlighted how AIDS patients would often ask those working with them to play what they called the 'angel music', the name those dying gave to Tabula Rasa's second movement, Silentium.

“The article talks about how if it had just been one example, it might have been sentimental, but when there's lots of cases of this, there's maybe a different kind of phenomenon at work. What is it about this music that they took such solace in when they were at the end of their life, and its ability to connect them with the people who are caring for them?”

More serendipitous synchronicities also seemed to be in alignment.

“I cast two actors purely out of necessity,” says Lenton, “but one of the things we kept discovering this week is that in the music there are these two lines, these two voices. In an interview with Part, Bjork describes Tabula Rasa for her as being like Pinocchio and this little cricket. Pinocchio is trying to be human, and is causing pain for himself and other people, and the little cricket is kind of admonishing, helping and supporting.

“Then today, Daniel the violinist said that the violin is the human element, whereas the piano is this more cosmic element. Part talks about it as being one of his sins, and the other is forgiveness for those sins. By only having two actors, there's the possibility that one represents someone who's dying, and the other represents the person who is caring for them.”

This isn't new territory for Vanishing Point, whose 2016 show, Tomorrow, looked explicitly at what it means to grow old inside the care system. The company's earlier show, The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, looked in part too at the iconic poet and storyteller's move into old age.

As a title, Tabula Rasa sums up Vanishing Point's aesthetic perfectly. It means blank slate, or blank canvas, that scary starting point of emptiness for artists to colour in as they see fit. This in turn points to theatre director Peter Brook's notion of the empty space, which applies the same zen-like notion to performance. There is too the notion of the blank page and its hi-tech equivalent which can scare wordsmiths into writers' block. As for Tabula Rasa the show, Lenton and Morton recognise the phrase as a double-edged sword.

“I found a book by Marcus Sedgwick called Snow,” says Lenton, “which talks a lot about how maybe why we have such an attraction to snow is because it's white. He talks about the colour white, and how white is many things, but for a writer it's a blank page. For a child, a blank page is exciting, because you can scribble loads of stuff on it, but as you get older, for a writer it can be terrifying. But he also talks about how the blank page is full of possibility, and how it means that the future can be written.”

Morton takes this idea further. “There's a bit in the book where Sedgwick talks about how beauty is hard wired into our DNA,” he says. “I think that's a really interesting concept, and not one that resonates with a lot of people. People think beauty is a luxury, a bonus, and something you can live without, when actually there's evidence to suggest that we respond to beauty, almost from an evolutionary point of view. Maybe it's like a representation of something that deep down is within us as human brings and goes back thousands of years. It manages to pull out of our subconscious all these things we don't realise are there. It opens it up and shows it for a moment and then it's gone again.”

The text that Lenton was reading out loud in the rehearsal room was taken from Dennis Potter's televised interview with Melvyn Bragg three months before the playwright's death from pancreatic cancer.

“Potter spoke about how he could see all the beauty now, and how he was able to see all the things he couldn't see before.”

This sits well with how Tabula Rasa might turn out. Several months before Potter discovered he had cancer, his wife Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite his own deteriorating condition, Potter cared for Margaret until she died, nine days before his own death.

In terms of sheer human reliance on each other, Lenton looks again to Sedgwick's book. Whether this ends up in Tabula Rasa remains to be seen. As with so many things in Vanishing Point's world, it's a beautiful image anyway.

“The only thing that stops a snowflake from melting is other snow,” says Lenton. “That says a lot to me about how we need each other to survive.”

Tabula Rasa, Platform, Glasgow, November 3-4; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 8-11; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, November 16; Tramway, Glasgow, November 22-24.