Regaining equilibrium

Jana Perkovic: Tanz Im August, Berlin

TAO Dance Theatre, 6 7, Tanz im August

TAO Dance Theatre, 6 7, Tanz im August

TAO Dance Theatre, 6 7, Tanz im August

The 27th edition of Tanz im August, the second year under the artistic direction of Finn Virve Sutinen, started with an announcement of a significant budget increase to its main presenter, performance house Hebbel am Ufer. Good news for Berlin’s independent performance community, often left at the doors of the venerable theatre houses. HAU (as it is usually abbreviated) is the biggest, most respected and most internationally connected performance space for independent performance in Berlin, if not in Germany.

Likewise, Tanz im August this year placed particular emphasis on new works by emerging Berlin-based artists. The other main lines of inquiry were the intersection of performing and visual arts, and dance in Asia—and it is a pleasure to report that the festival was particularly strong on the last theme.

Tao Ye’s TAO Dance Theatre

Asian dance in Europe is often programmed blandly: blockbuster shows in oriental flavours taken out of their contemporary context. Nothing like that with Chinese choreographer Tao Ye’s TAO Dance Theatre, whose double bill 6 & 7 was one of the most interesting dance works I have seen in a long time. Contemporary and modern dance have not had much success in China, where local traditions predominate, and Tao Ye’s career has been built directly on international, rather than local, stages. Ye trained in classical Chinese and ethnic dances at Chong-qing Dance School and started his career at the Shanghai Army Song & Dance Ensemble, before founding his own company at the age of 22.

6 and 7 are abstract pieces in a longer series, with the titles referencing the number of dancers they involve. Perhaps because he has developed outside of a ‘scene,’ Ye’s work is unlike anything I have ever seen, and his concerns, although minimalist, are hard to adequately describe. Both 6 and 7 are primarily exercises in minimal, repetitive, synchronous movement, located mostly in the upper body, with very little lifting of feet. The movement is so asexual and un-figurative that it leaves almost no reference points for description: there is skirt-pulling, twisting shoulders, bending, rocking, tilting heads. The choreographies retain an anonymity: there is no thematic description, no profiling of individual dancers; focus is shifted away from faces or individual bodies towards group movement and individual body parts.

Ye’s interest, however, is neither in referencing quotidian gestures nor in the inner, spiritual experience of dance. Rather, it appears to be sculptural. The interest is in composition, massing, the rhythm of shifting weight, tension between body and negative space. The hypnotic rhythm and abstract, anonymous movement vocabulary combine to give the impression of an avant garde minimalist take on the aesthetic of mass games—those athletic displays that opened sports events and other public manifestations across the socialist world.

Rosemary Butcher, Pause and Loss, 1976

Rosemary Butcher, Pause and Loss, 1976

Rosemary Butcher, Pause and Loss, 1976

Rosemary Butcher, SCAN

A retrospective of the work of Rosemary Butcher offered an insight into a choreographer who brought an American postmodern aesthetic into British dance. Butcher’s SCAN has four bodies, two male and two female, moving inside a tight grid of light. The choreography is that of constant, low-level pressure applied to bodies in intervals just short enough that the bodies cannot fully recover to regain equilibrium. Like the incessant rub of a megalopolis, a bureaucracy or systemic violence, the bodies are stretched, lifted, pushed down, contorted; they lie down and rise, walk on their hands, forward, backwards.

The grid of light slices through, like an MRI, producing a striking visual effect of dismemberment. Butcher herself has admitted that in another life she may have preferred being a visual artist, and the strong focus on the visual experience in SCAN threatens to overwhelm the choreographic. The work loses energy in the final part, which features a film projected onto the square performance space. While the film zooms in on body parts of dancers in rehearsal, the audience is left rising on their tippy toes, frustrated, trying to see the film over each other’s shoulders.

Isabel Lewis, Occasion III

It was, finally, a great privilege to attend one of Isabel Lewis’ events titled Occasions. Organised in various cities since 2013, most recently at the Frieze Art Fair in London and Kunsthalle Basel, Occasions are gently structured events at the intersection of performance, philosophy salon and party. In a carpeted performance space, with scattered seating, lush plants, masterful canapés and unlimited drinks, Lewis takes on the combined role of dancer, DJ, lecturer, party host, story-teller and interlocutor. For her, the format is an attempt to reconcile her various practices as performer, choreographer, theorist and DJ, and much of the event is a discussion of the artificial separation of mind and body and practices that bring them back in balance.

I did not intend to stay the entire four hours of the Occasion, and it surprised me how addictively lulling it was. Lewis starts with a complex musing on happiness and its Greek equivalent eudaimonia, which translates fully as “life lived in accordance with virtue.” Challenging us to name the great virtues in Christianity, Lewis brings the body into discussion, relating her Berlin clubbing experiences with the more spiritually aligning practice of gardening. Often, she breaks the monologue to have conversations with audience members, the length of the event allowing these not to be tokenistic participation but dialogues of genuine exploration. At other times, Lewis plays music, or dances, or encourages us to dance, or drags around a little scent machine, describing the components of the scents she has assembled (the most droll being, undoubtedly, the scent of the notoriously excessive Berlin club Berghain, which for Lewis is emblematic of a physical experience that locks out the mind).

We are allowed to walk in and out of the performance space, Occasion happening just as much among the smokers on the steps of the building outside. As the evening unfolds and de-formalises, friendships are forged, people lie down among the plants, make out, converse. The caterers lie down too. At one point, Lewis dances among us, coming excessively close between our resting bodies while a small child follows her through the space, imitating her sensual dancing with both joy and confusion. The spirit of the event, restful and sensuous, resembles a kiki—a relaxed social gathering, often after clubbing, developed in African-American and Latino gay subcultures—a reference I cannot imagine was lost on Lewis.

Contemporary American choreography-without-choreography, like the work of Isabel Lewis or Miguel Gutierrez (Deep Aerobics, RT 128), functions well at dance festivals like these because it provides a generous space to contemplate the meaning of the event. It is easy to get lost among the performing bodies. Occasion III grounded not only its audience, but the entire Tanz im August.

Tanz im August: TAO Dance Theatre, 6 & 7, choreography Tao Ye, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, 26-27 Aug; SCAN, choreography Rosemary Butcher, HAU1, 2-3 Sept; Occasion III, host Isabel Lewis, HAU1, 4 Sept; Tanz im August, Hebbel am Ufer and other locations, Berlin, 13 Aug-4 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 32-33

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2015