"AH|HA" by Voetvolk / Lisbeth Gruwez. Photo by Luc Depreitere
You know the drill: It starts with a few mojitos at the local bar, two turn into six, somebody suggests that you seize the night and go dancing and suddenly you find yourself at Berghain Monday morning, mechanically wobbling to the all-embracing bass. Whether Berghain and mojitos work for you or not (feel free to replace them with Soho House and Courvoisier), you recognize the feeling. You know you should go home but you just can't. Something in you wants to keep moving.
The involuntary corporeal reflex is the departure point in Belgian Voetvolk/Lisbeth Gruwez’s first group performance AH|HA. Five people are standing on stage. They're dressed in 1980s jumpers and denim suits. Anyone who has attempted to stand completely still in a fixed position for more than a few minutes knows how difficult it is. But these performers master their bodies in a way most of us can only dream of. A way that makes even a petrified body exciting to observe. The dancers stay still for almost five minutes. Then they start shaking. Slowly. On the spot, they carry out simple, more or less naturalistic movements, accompanied by the increasing sound of the floor creaking on every beat. Creak, creak, creak, creak. This goes on for 15 minutes. Until you realize that the sound waves aren't coming from the floor but a soundtrack. And now the dancers are moving!
With the shaking body as both a driving force and a prison they let themselves be ruled by the sustained creaking and the impulses they receive from each other. Become slaves to the automatic, spastic-like and often sensual expressions of the involuntary boundary-pushing body. Like laughter. Sneezing. Yelling. And the instant devotion to Lionel Richie’s 1980s hit “Hello”.
It's always a gift when a dance performance contains a bit of humor. It takes some of the pressure off of understanding the piece – making often abstract universes recognizable. Lisbeth Gruwez has with AH|HA enabled herself and her colleagues to turn the physical examination of a seemingly small, bodily gesture into a broader existential question. When Voetvolk screams out:
“Hello – is it me you're looking for?”
It is at once amusing, identifiable and explanatory. Because isn't everything – in the end – about the impulses we give and receive in the search for connectedness? To me AH|HA was about a group of people who have forgotten how to reach out but still carry the memory in their bodies, which insist on the compassionate connection with others. And in that sense the performance is incisive and socially relevant. As Lionel says:
I can see it in your eyes
I can see it in your smile
You're all I ever wanted, and my arms are open wide
'Cause you know just what to say
And you know just what to do
And I want to tell you so much, I love you
To tell you the truth, it suited me just fine spending my Friday evening with dinner and a movie. Covering a festival like Tanz im August can be pretty challenging, because – ideally – you want to give something back to those dancers, who, in each single performance, put all of their strength and effort into that 1 ½ hours it usually lasts, not to mention the hundreds of hours they've spent rehearsing. The least you can do is to give them your full attention – for your own sake too. It's like a conversation: if you don't give something of yourself, you don't get much (of interest) back. Sometimes though, you just don't feel like you have anything to say. Friday night was for me one of those times.
So after a rushed cheese and rocket pizza at the WAU cafe, I let myself collapse in the (not so soft) seat at the HAU1, ready to be entertained by Sidney Leoni’s feature film Under Influence. I had liked the trailer on the festival's website and was looking forward to revelling in Leoni's dreamy universe. But shame on me for demoting the film genre to a somehow less demanding form of art.
When I met Leoni for an interview the following day, he explained to me the way he's worked on the film: The scenes had for the most part – visually – already existed in his head. Like little glowing babies waiting to be conceived. He'd relied on the presence of his actors rather than on a narrative. He wanted his main character, Julia Gordon, to always be in motion – and the spectators likewise – never in the know about what happens next.
All of which is to say, that's probably the way you should watch Under Influence – like a dance. Forget about making sense of the many (!) scenes that turn and twist among each other, more similar to an ecstatic body improvisation than a tightly choreographed performance piece. At times it is very confusing.
Here's what worked for me: Halla Ólafsdóttir and Christine de Smedt are delightfully present and watchable as the psychotic actress and her frustrated director – impressive because neither of them have acted in a film before. The film is visually beautiful with its many close-ups, delicate range of colors and theatrical expression, and the conciliatory yet distressing music score by Jonathan Uliel Saldanha accompanies the scenes elegantly. The mise en abyme principle in which Julia Gordon confuses herself with the actress Kate Winslet is original and the Titanic parody is funny.
Perhaps I myself just didn't have much to offer that evening. To give back to the film so to speak. Maybe Leoni should have killed a couple of darlings in his highly intuitive approach to making this movie. Maybe he shouldn't have allowed all of his nightly visions to enter the real world. The world sees the birth of too many babies as it is.
The Berlin-based dance company Wang Ramirez' new performance Everyness, which follow the success of their 2013 peace, Borderline, was just a delight. Generous, skillful, elegant. Tight, beautiful, intense. As my companion at Radialsystem V said after the show: “They weren't afraid to be aesthetic”. That got me thinking: What is the role of the aesthetics in the contemporary performing arts? Have we forgotten about the value of beauty for the sake of beauty itself?
It's been a long time since the art world's break with classical beauty. Modern and contemporary dance have gone down many pathways in the search for original and authentic expression. A current tendency is, it seems to me, an insistence on the “authentic self” of the dancer: whether that self is queer or disabled or a refugee. Contemporary dance gives us the right to be “ugly”, to not fit in, to explore our bodies in ways that might be beautiful but might not be.
But does the outer expression always have to match the inner motivation? Can't beauty be the door through which we can understand the deeper currents of the self? All I know is, that the duo Wang/Ramirez's brilliantly executed mix of hip hop, ballet and martial dance was beautiful, even though the thematics of the piece – the many facets of human relationships – aren't always. And that that seemed to move each member of the audience who repaid the dancers with standing applause. One girl even cried during the entire performance. And that's what the company wants, reveals Wang in the following “Meet the artists” gathering – to move and touch the spectators, even if just for a moment. If that happens, they've achieved their goal. My deepest respect for that.