August 29th – The Festival of the Imaginary Friend

There is something arresting and fantastical about the short piece of film. When they project it onto the stage today at the Mellifluous Theatre in Whight Hollow district, the room goes quiet, the audience enraptured. There’s no music or sound; it was made in the days when a pianist would play live at each film screening, and actors would shout out their lines from the wings. It’s the only film they ever made of Jielle Versant, she was a stage performer through and through; it was far more exciting to see the magical feats she performed with your own eyes.

Many children have imaginary or invisible friends, it’s very common. As a form of play, these pretend personages can prove very rewarding, comforting and funny for those involved, and in some instances when parents and other children play along, they can provide opportunities for interaction with others, and are not the sole reserve of children with no siblings or friends. In most instances, children will eventually grow out of their insistence upon the reality of their friend, admitting that they are made up, but in the case of Jielle Versant, she never did. Versant continued to talk to and interact with her imaginary friend well into adulthood, right up until her early death at the age of thirty three.

The film was shot about five days before Versant’s death, an apparent suicide as her body was found washed up on the banks of the Moway, the cause of death drowning. Versant had been heard arguing with herself, or rather, with her imaginary friend (now also her lover), back stage at the Mellifluous Theatre where she regularly performed, a day or so after the footage was shot. Some people say that it was the footage itself that they were arguing about, with Versant wanting to move more into the new world of film and her friend apparently finding the notion abhorrent. Others say that Versant had been seeing another man of flesh and blood, and that her silent, invisible friend was heartbroken. Critics of Versant who tell of invisible wires at her performances say that these arguments were either made up later or were part of an elaborately constructed myth with which Versant surrounded herself.

If it was deliberately constructed myth, and not a genuine belief in an invisible presence that could only be seen and speak to her, then it must have taken a great deal of acting skill to keep up the charade, and presumably a great deal of self-denial to live such a solitary existence. There were, however, great rewards to be gained – it was partly because of her seeming belief in the man she called Empter Drann that the crowds flocked to see the pair dance. The Theatre would regularly be packed with those who wanted to see the spectacle for themselves, who were on the lookout for wires and mirrors or other forms of trickery.

You can see what they came to see quite clearly in the old, grainy black and white footage: Versant has long, flowing hair that whips up around her, the long dress she wore billowing sympathetically. You can’t see in the footage, but according to contemporaries the hair was bright red and the dress the starkest white. She dances as if with a partner, performing turns and seemingly gravity-defying dips and leans. Her passion for this invisible other is clear, especially in dances like the Musrant and the Redang, but it is the Yattetenko with its long lifts that is most spectacular and unbelievable. Yet it looks real – even on the grainy footage that folk watch today.

Before they show the footage as the finale to the festival today, there will be various dances, some with men dressed in black on black backgrounds, others with wires and other such stagecraft, but none of them look as realistic as Versant’s performances did. There really is an atmosphere of awe in the stalls as they play the film in silence, and many of the watchers reach out a hand to the empty space next to them. The Guild of Artistic Dancers will send out a small contingent to the festival today; a mark of respect on this, the death day of one of Buentoille’s most famous and innovative dancers.

Perhaps thankfully there is no footage of Versant’s final performance. Apparently she was visibly distressed when she began, eyes puffy from crying. ‘Empter’s gone home,’ she said quietly to the audience at the start, ‘but you’ve all paid to see me dance anyway. I’m sorry but it will just be me today.’ Apparently it looked just like someone dancing on their own; she held out her hands in front of her, to where his hands would meet them, but there was no resistance – this time it really was empty air. She didn’t try any of the leans or lifts – how could she? She left quietly when the booing started. Today there will only be applause.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Judicious Conservation
  • The Festival of the Appliance of the Saintly Mistress
  • Dirty Feet Day