Configuring commemoration

Philipp Gehmacher premiers ‘like there’s no tomorrow’in Brussels’ Kaaitheater

Corpus 15 Feb 2007English

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Two men and one woman are standing at the edge of the stage, their backs turned toward the audience. They take time to observe the space, a bare stage apart from stacked and scattered loudspeakers. Then, one after the other, the dancers Rémy Héritier, David Subal and Clara Cornil enter the stage and propose a trajectory, as if they were dropping into a scenario, into a space charged with memories and projections. The first steps are hesitant, a heavy gait that wavers then launches into a rambling exploration of the space. With their arms about, the dancers measure the space, trace the absences that surround them, write in the air, or carve out negative spaces, moulding possibility. The gestures are fast and precise, dense and idiosyncratic. All three dancers collapse and end their course on the floor. Then resounds a list of words, recited by a female voice and doubled in surtitles: "... the cant, the gaucheness, the bumptiousness, the longueurs, the beauty...". Eventually, the dancers stand up and resume their positions downstage, their backs to the audience. Within a few minutes’ time, the space is thick with energy and meaning.

like there's no tomorrow is the new trio by Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher that premiered in the Brussels' Kaaitheater on February 9, 2007. As the programme sheet mentions, the title references “to the carefree life when one refuses to think about what is to come, but also speaks of the anxiety in the face of loss and a world that seems too much to handle.“ Critical of dominant cultural ideals that shape the visible body, human interaction and social behaviour, Gehmacher has always sought to include absence and loss in an economy of immediate fulfilment and presence. The opening scene of like there’s no tomorrow reads like a “crash course” in Gehmacher's poetics: the wavering, stumbling and collapsing, the mapping of absent people, memories and desires, the sounds that permeate the stage with hints of civil culture. All these operations challenge the alleged unity and stability of the visual imaginary, turning it into a shattered mirror. Beyond self-assured, enlightened notions, Gehmacher works on an altogether different imaginary to ground identity and the social.

The three dancers propose a series of scenarios, in which many operations that were developed in Gehmacher's earlier work in lengthy explorations appear now as a shared language and are pushed in new directions. As the dancers always start their trajectories observing the space, the gaze becomes very much part of the choreography and takes on a gestural quality. The dancers' eyes follow their arms, get distracted or address other elements in the space, whether visible or not. And they’re most meaningful in the interactions. In the first encounter that happens in the piece, Cornil touches Héritier’s chest with two fingers, a cautious yet awkwardly perfunctory touch. Héritier’s insecurity is palpable in his eyes, that melt, run astray, are closed and opened again: a whole drama on micro-level. Throughout the piece, looking is part of small experiments with distance, proximity and composition.

Now that he isn’t dancing himself, you feel Gehmacher's choreographic gaze at work. like there’s no tomorrow stands out as a compositional work that is articulate throughout in its gestures and postures, group configurations and the treatment of space, but resists reading, as it embraces the unruly, the idiosyncratic and even the literal. Concrete though they are, it is hard to point out the complex dynamics at work in the gestures. As in Gehmacher's other recent pieces, the incorporation of absence in gestures, bodies and interaction is paired with a centripetal force, a movement of appropriation. A huge ghostly realm is not only re-symbolised in gestures, but also brought close to the body, with the arms running frenetically over its surface, betraying inscriptions, overwriting them or covering them up. Encrusted with signs, a commemorative, “emblematic” body comes into being and marks the threshold to the possible.

Although like there’s no tomorrow isn’t exactly a potlatch, this dynamic wonderfully propels the compositional invention on different levels, eventually addressing the social body of a group. To make things all the more clear, Héritier starts to assemble the dispersed loudspeakers into three poles, standing firmly upright as single bodies. They now symbolise a multitude of voices, text fragments and temporalities, as the sound track connects personal stories on loss and goodbye with a memorial speech and accounts of activism. At the same time, Cornil and Subal are standing together at the rear wall and form one body with four arms, creating totem-like figures: it’s a beautiful, outlandish dance that brims with imagination and even humour. Several explorations follow which negotiate the leap from duo to trio.

Is it possible to look at these bodies meeting as if they were inventing a language of social communication rather than failing to perpetuate the existing ones? The rich, whimsical quality of the movement material of like there's no tomorrow seems to answer that question positively. Yet, the dancers stay as much locked in their own worlds, overwhelmed by an indebtedness to the absent, as they are able to engage in a gay encounter. Much of their looking, touching and bumping is pretty crude. Gehmacher's sensitivity for the boundaries of human expression and agency is strongly present: take the long near black-outs, or the posture that exposes the dancers’ backs, the blind space that thwarts their gaze and doings, carries inscriptions and symbolises their past. In the end, that very condition is what we all share, though not the awareness of it.

Gehmacher’s staying outside and his meticulously composing a parallel world seems to have a price. Beautiful, inventive and radical as it is, like there's no tomorrow is almost too contrived, composition and a strict poetics tend to override the potential of human action, interaction and the social body it seeks to explore. The piece would profit from breathing, from allowing the performers to live in that space and its lingering emotions and humour to exist at the surface.