A pregnant woman in a glittering, blue dress opens the creaking door to her trailer and falls flat – smack – on her belly into the snow.
Silvia Calderoni stuffs wigs into her armpits and crotch, the shaggy acrylic hair spilling out from her neon shirt and underwear.
The stage is black when Valda Setterfield enters, with electric-white hair and a white suit. Everything is black and white and beautiful.
It’s Monday and the first weekend of Tanz im August is now the stuff of memories. Weird, isn’t it? These images can be so alive and present one day and then a series of impressions and memories the next. Here’s some of what stuck after a packed weekend of funny and exhilarating and thoughtful and challenging performances. I can’t believe there are three more.
People watching before the opening performance on Friday night, four girls stand out. They’re wearing matching plaid shorts, black boots, and white shirts with black ties. They look like heavy-metal schoolgirls. This, it turns out, is JUCK, a Swedish dance collective. What begins as a pastiche of girlish femininity, dancing around as though unobserved in a bedroom (with bubbles, no less) becomes an aggressive formation of focused hip-thrusting. You might think that dancing young women are something to look at: this is a dance festival, after all. But the girls of JUCK are looking back, and they’re not blinking.
A balding white man has already begun filing on his phone as the four young women cluster around him. The dancers don’t break eye contact with the lens of his phone as they thrust away, powerfully. Then they pose, sweetly, as though for a school photo. “Snap away!” They seem to say, “We dare you.” And we’re off.
I don’t have much to say about Emanuel Gat’s and Awir Leon’s SUNNY – I’ll leave that to the artists themselves. I do think I was more generous to the piece’s compositional looseness and the focused, in-the-moment work of the performers after talking to Gat and Leon. The strongest part of the evening was when the dancers’ constraints were made visible – dynamic combinations repeated until a member of the group cried out “Stop!” The movement equivalent of a record skipping – and quite beautiful. I was grateful for the repetition because without a clear beginning, middle, or end, with some unproductively random costume choices, and also, I have to say, some seriously gratuitous, American Apparel-style leotards, I didn’t have much else to hang my hat on. As I told Gat and Leon in person, maybe I’m just one for structure.
A glass of champagne in the rain and off to HAU 3 – the Italian group MOTUS’ MDLSX. Dear reader, I am not so good without vowels, and did not put it together that this was an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ brilliant novel Middlesex until Saturday morning, when it dawned on me. The mermaid scene, when the protagonist, hermaphrodite Cal, opens his eyes underwater. The crocus imagery to describe a dawning, pubescent awareness that the label “female” might not fit an intersex body. Of course.
So I’m sorry you heard me talking loudly at the opening party, taking what are obviously-in-retrospect plot points from a popular novel for autobiographical facts about the performer. Actually: sorry-not-sorry: I think you’re are supposed to feel a certain amount of gender trouble looking at Calderoni’s home movies and androgynous, nude, whippet-thin, quicksilver body. The sections of text borrowed from Judith Butler and Paul B. Preciado point to a fundamental concern with the ambivalence of gender. Ambivalence is too docile a word, actually – I think you’re supposed to feel a kind of “don’t box me up” riotousness set to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Knife. I’m glad I didn’t do too much research, glad I stumbled out into the night in a bleary state of unknowing and exhilaration.
And exhaustion, too. I can only compare the adrenaline and noise and sheer sexual energy of MDLSX to some kind of deeply queer monster truck rally. All I did was sit while Calderoni wiggled and shimmied and leapt and screamed onstage, but afterwards, I felt like I needed a cigarette. It’s funny, too, of course – that puberty montage with wigs, which Calderoni takes out of her armpits to use as pom-poms in a twisted cheerleader routine. And theatrical, non-stop: a green laser cuts through the air, which is thick with hairspray. It shoots right into what I don’t, at this point, dare assume is her vagina. So many – too many – perfect stage images like this. I haven’t even talked about the video. Oh well.
I had a brief moment of hand-wringing, more on behalf of an imaginary interlocutor than on my own. IS THIS DANCE? But who cares. At the opening party, Hanson’s “Mmmbop” was playing, which felt exactly wrong to me: too straight, too bubble-gum, too flip. I felt, actually, like taking a walk by myself in the dark and damp with the city lights dancing on the canal. So that’s what I did.
Monument 0.1: Valda and Gus. Am I going to make it through two hours of this? I wonder, as Valda Setterfield stutters, with effort, through the opening anecdote. She is 81 years old. The second performer shuffles the perimeter of the stage with a cane. What kind of a sick spectacle is this? Am I that slick spectator who requires virtuosity? And then Gus Solomons Jr. comes downstage. He speaks with an American accent and is utterly charming. He describes his exercise routine. It is much more robust than my own. Touche.
In the Meet the Artist talk, Eszter Salamon was asked several questions about history – but it seemed to me that this piece wasn’t really about history, about the record, about America in the 1970s, even about the institutions and personages of the modern dance movement (though Cage-Cunningham fans might appreciate the peek behind the curtain). By bringing two elderly dancers onstage, and setting up and subverting expectations about their ability to speak or move, Salamon and Wavelet make a powerful statement about the nature of experience. To steal from Yeats: “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” But seriously, though. If dance lives in the body, where does that dance go when that body can no longer do that dance? How can we value, frame, share or celebrate that experience? Monument 0.1: Valda and Gus is a powerful answer to that question. “I shall always remember, I shall always remember, I shall always remember how I learned to do this step” chants Setterfield as Solomons marks it, counting out the pattern. We don’t need to see them dance the steps: these bodies onstage carry an archive that lives, somehow, in their presence alone.
I’m late to the Haus der Berliner Festspiele to catch Peeping Tom’s 32 Rue Vandenbranden on Sunday – there’s JUCK again in the foyer – so fall into my seat as the last bell sounds. It’s a bit abrupt to enter the surreal, fantasy world that Belgian company Peeping Tom provides. Surreal, but specific – the stage of the Berliner Festspielhaus has become a snowy trailer community at the edge of the world, where the only strangers ski past, cross-country. In this small world of six inhabitants, lives begin and end and fall apart. The weather in this tiny world is extreme – made manifest by intense performances of bodies caught and tossed in the wind. Breathtaking is a stupid adjective but during these sequences, you could actually hear the packed house gasp. Marie Gyselbrecht and Seoljin Kim, y’all. Dang.
In this extreme world, human relationships are fragile, it seems, as cheap trailers. Contortionist Maria Carolina Vieira begs for her partner’s love in an abject display – which culminates in a sadistic pas-de-deux I can only call terrifying. My deep thanks to the company for putting graphic sexual violence on stage in a way that felt horrific, not exploitative. Viera’s neck snapping, shoulders popping, dragging herself on the ground with elbows hyper-extended into grotesque, obtuse angles – this is powerful, moving, hard-to-watch but utterly unmissable stuff.
Because the piece has the grammar of a nightmare, there are elements which are both sublime and unjustifiable, like when the mezzo-soprano Eurudike De Beul belts “And I am telling you” from the musical Dreamgirls. On the other side of the coin, certain things left unexplained might fall in the grey area between archetype and stereotype. Need Asian men be lovesick losers or gay prostitutes? On the other hand, performer Hun-Mok Jung’s auto-erotic solo is so kinetic and so magnetic that it’s hard to take it for anything other than enchanting. I woke up this morning thinking about the performance – not sure what images I had seen on stage and which were from my own dreams. Perfect.