Tribute by Gary Carter

Posted on 3rd April 2019 Under Tributes

Johan Engels and I met in London in the late Eighties. As an actor working in the theatre in South Africa, I had of course heard of Johan, and seen his work, but we were eventually introduced by the late Richard Haddon Haines, who knew my partner. He came to see a dance theatre piece I made at Chisenhale Dance Space, and afterwards offered to design my next work. I was taken aback. His European reputation was on the rise, and at the scale I was working, there was barely a budget for expenses, let alone design. He brushed that all away, and a way which I came to realise was typical of his interest in the theatre, and his generous nature, he replied that he didn’t want money and he didn’t want a budget, and that he believed that the implicit scale of my vision of the theatre, as he called it, deserved to be fully realised, and if he could help me do that, that would be enough. I later understood that he also liked the termporary nature of my work, the fact that the performances were staged for maybe three or four nights and were never repeated. He believed that the theatre was and should be a kind of ephemeral experience, a gesture in real time, if you like, and this contradicted the long lead in times, the long runs, of his work as his success grew. Johan had experimented with a series of catwalk inspired events at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, one-off happenings, theatrical follies. He loved follies.

We worked on two pieces together, and he did far more than design them, he conceived them with me, and the collaboration was intense, challenging and inspiring. The first, A Social Contract, or The Birth of Venus, was commissioned by Chisenhale Dance Space, and the second, Muster, by the Institute of Contemporary Arts.   

A Social Contract was, in form, a kind of masque, a kind of allegorical theatrical narrative about power, inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade and built around the progress of a woman from naked, to dressed, marrying images of the sea, of caged birds and ice skating. Although we had no money, Johan called in favours, and since he was highly regarded and well connected, those favours delivered in the most extraordinary manner.  The legendary Pearl, the South African born corsetier and embroiderer who had earlier been Johan’s assistant, made a gold leather corset in the style of the Spanish late Renaissance, embroidered with cockle shells. Two female blacksmiths made an enormous panniered dress out of Victorian railings and the front of a car, rusted and gilded, into which the leading lady, Kate Seward, was bolted on stage. Everything was gold, except for the chairs on which the audience sat, which were covered with snowy white chair covers with enormous bows at the back. Johan spent hours in rehearsal with me, despite his other paid work, discussing, building on details, contributing costumes which inspired more movement and more action. It was glorious.  At the opening night, I remember looking at the single row of the audience seated around the space, and seeing entranced, slightly disbelieving faces. In a temple of what was then called new dance, Johan had brought a vision of Baroque beauty which flamed for three nights in candlelight and disappeared.

Muster was commissioned by the ICA on the back of A Social Contract. It was conceived by Johan and me as a meditation on naturalism, and one the impossibility of saying goodbye. Formally, it was kind of retelling of Chekov’s Three Sisters by three soldiers, in a Rubik’s Cube like structure which kept returning to the moment when Masha says goodbye to Vershinin. This time I made the material without Johan present much. I think he was designing the Marlene Dietrich show at the time. But he came to the rehearsal room to which the first assembly of material, and afterwards he looked at me, and he said, one must pay attention to goodbyes. On this slight, subtle structure, Johan gave a kind of Russian grandeur which I don’t think the ICA had seen or indeed has seen since. Birch trees fell from closets, snow fell from the sky, toy trains chugged through the audience and 2000 pairs of army boots made a kind of pyre of loss. The three men wore a parade of 19th Century costumes donated by the RSC, changing costumes in a parade of hats, coats, boots and gloves. It was glorious.

Johan and I lost touch when he moved out of London to live, and we moved to Amsterdam, in the late Nineties. A couple of years later, I was standing on the platform at Charing Cross, and as the tube pulled out of the station, I saw him on the other side of the station. He looked at me, and smiled, and pointed at the departing train in what I knew was a reference to Muster.  When the next one arrived, he stepped on it, and was gone.  But one must pay attention to goodbyes, as he taught me, and I know they are impossible, really.  Johan gave me what my career in the theatre did not afford me: he gave me two glimpses of what might have been.  

He was a great artist. A great artist. And I am so very very grateful.