Springdance '92: Strange Fish(Part One)

BLITZ 26 May 1992English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the Portuguese anthology. This text collection contains 100% of the writings of André Lepecki for the magazine BLITZ. Sarma could realize this project by the support of the Portuguese Institute for the Arts.
You can read more about André Lepecki and his poetics as a writer on the following link: http://www.sarma.be/nieuw/critics/lepecki.htm


Editor Sarma: Myriam Van Imschoot
Editor Portugal: Monica Guerreiro
Research in Lisbon: Jeroen Peeters
Coördination: Steven De Belder, Jeroen Peeters, Charlotte Vandevyver, Myriam Van Imschoot
Translator: Clive Thoms
Financial Support: Portuguese Institute for the Arts
Thank you to: André Lepecki for the contribution to this anthology, BLITZ for giving consent to republish the texts on www.sarma.be, Diana Teixeira (typiste)

Sixteen choreographers/companies from all over the world, 28 performances over nine days, divided between four auditoria and a corridor (!) in Utrecht, in the heart of Holland. It’s this year’s Springdance Festival.

BLITZ was there to follow the Voorland project, a festival within a festival, devoted to new talents, this year having its second outing. But we also saw Peter de Ruiter and a preview of DV8’s latest piece commissioned for Expo’92. So that’s what we’ll talk about today, and leave Voorland for next week.

1. Peter de Ruiter

“Peter’s principle” is that famous axiom which illustrates the stupidity (even when the intentions are good) of the workings of bureaucratic machinery: people who are extremely well fitted to a given post should be promoted to a higher post, causing, contrary to the intention, not an increase in competence at the highest level, but expansion of the potential for mediocrity, incompetence or simply the lack of technical preparation of the person promoted for the new post he is to occupy. We all know of a case which illustrates this principle. What is harder to understand is when someone displays a serious lack of competence for a task and then has his or her mediocrity rewarded by further promotion. Now, this is just what has happened with the Dutch choreographer, Peter de Ruiter, between Springdance’91 and this year’s festival.

In 1991, de Ruiter appeared with an unclassifiable piece as part of the Voorland project (the programme which the festival itself organizes for presenting the work of choreographers at the start of their careers). In 1992, the Festival produces a long piece of his for the main programme and pushes him as the “enticing revelation” of the previous year. I have to say I was dubious from the start, and came away astounded.

Peter’s (de Ruiter) (aesthetic) principles seem to be out of place in the general context of the Festival. EisenNerz is a dream piece for any repertory company: the academic language is sort of “good with distinction”, the technical demands on the dancers are “high”, meaning you need sound classical training (two of the dancers are members of the Dutch National Company). There is also just enough of a suggestion of a story to keep the audience interested. Well, I have to say that in principle there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Contemporary dance is multifaceted and presents pieces deriving from different traditions, on varied performance circuits. The narrative arts are right at the heart of revolutionary works of New Dance (they are one of its distinctive features), as in the work of Jan Fabre, just to give one example. The problem is in the way these traditions are treated and in the honesty of the artists. (Honesty is increasingly a term which crops up in discussions between artists and critics about the assessment of pieces. It was a central term in this year’s Voorland programme, and we’ll get back to it next week).

When we use a given language and a given tradition just because we’re looking for aesthetic respectability (and here the classicism is the protective shield), and mix it up with another in order to make ourselves really contemporary, innovative and provocative, all we get is something phoney, and the end result is a cliché-ridden mess ready to please both Greeks and Trojans. That’s the problem with EisenNerz. A choreography with no roots, with nothing but surface, where the visual appeal, the well defined movement, the nice bodies, the stage design – it all rings hollow. And it’s dull enough to send you to sleep.

On magnificent sets by Niek Kortekaas, which uses scaffolding to divide the stage into two superimposed planes, the dancers, all of them excellent, unpick in continuous duets the rudimentary and ultra-literal connotations which the choreography establishes between sex/underworld/violence/Nazism, to the sound of music by Bo Verspaendonk – percussion, voice and brass, live. The programme explains to us that the action takes place in a “gloomy underworld”. The lighting design certainly makes sure it’s gloomy, and once again Kortekaas’ sets and lights are the only elements used to intelligent metaphorical effect in the whole piece, as dramatically and choreographically the piece fails dismally to take advantage of them. It is also an underworld, as the dancers never leave the bottom bit of the set. You can imagine the rest. As what is “under” is by definition ugly, and is so because it is sexual, they are all bad and sexually provocative (or vice versa). But as this is a ballet, the provocation has all the edge of a teen-pop video. A lovely piece for successful young people. On the way out a Dutch colleague commented: beauty is a whore, she’ll do it for anyone.

2. DV8’s Strange Fish

Water everywhere, even on the stage, camouflaged, water which drips from the wash basin and fills a bedroom drowning the old lady inside, rocks from the river which flows through the stage set which recalls the spectral buildings of Max Ernst, a huge cross stage right. A Christ crucified with the voice of a mermaid and uncovered breasts (Christ is a woman, making explicit the essence of his nature), men and women desperate to be loved, the voice of Melanie Pappenheim punctuating live the key moments of the piece (she’s the Christ), delirious humour, a perfect amalgamation of theatre, dance and something else which is neither one nor the other, it’s movement and word: this is Strange Fish, the latest piece by DV8 Physical Theatre, commissioned by Expo ’92, and previewed in Utrecht on May 8th.

Two registers define the piece. On the one hand, the beginning and the end are strongly marked by the symbolism of the Christ figure, moments when the stage darkens so you can only make out the imposing figure of the cross and Pappenheim’s white and naked body, as her voice fills the auditorium with sonorities which evoke the chants of the Byzantine Church. The visual and metaphorical power of these two situations is overwhelming. Between these two moments, the stage is lit and given over to histrionics (Nigel Charnock is excellent in the party scene), the virtuosity of the actor-dancers (Jordi Cortes-Molina performs an absolutely brilliant dance of seduction), in an upbeat mood in shocking contrast with the tableaux which start and end the piece. I found this shocking transition a bit uncomfortable, as if somehow Lloyd Newson had decided not to explore too deeply his (intelligent) heretical suggestions and had turned back to a language where he has already proven his mastery, playing safe.

Now that I think about it, I think Lloyd Newson wasn’t avoiding anything and constructed a masterly parable on the passion, located somewhere between nonsense (the live sketches and gags on stage are worthy of Tex Avery’s cartoons), the dramatization of lonely desperation, and a poetics of solitude.

Everything is poetic. At the end, Christ/woman descends from the cross and dives into the waters (and the Fish, remember, is one of the symbols of Christ). The final image in Strange Fish shows Wendy Houston walking unsteadily over fragile wine glasses (real ones – glass, with dregs in them): nothing better expresses the fragility and loneliness of living in an increasingly shattered world.