The body rests, the dream in frantic

Wim Vandekeybus unsettles Aleks Sierz in Italy

Wim Vandekeybus & Ultima Vez In Spite of Wishing and Wanting

Wim Vandekeybus & Ultima Vez In Spite of Wishing and Wanting

Examining sleep too closely in the theatre is risky—it can lead to shallow breathing, heavy eyelids and a drooping head. But, although it’s inspired by the idea of sleeping as a state of being, there’s no danger of dropping off during In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, which I saw one hot August night in Italy. Directed by Wim Vandekeybus for Ultima Vez, the dance explores the paradoxes of that place where we spend a third of our lives, contrasting the body’s rest and the mind’s frantic dreaming; the relaxation of the muscles and their involuntary movements; lethargy and energy. In Spite of Wishing and Wanting may be inspired by the paradoxical qualities of sleep, but the experience of watching it is as lively as a chase dream and as unsettling as a nightmare.

It begins quietly, with a bare stage and the cast strolling around the wings, banging boxes and kicking trunks. Vandekeybus comes on, prancing. He paws the ground, neighs and raises his head like a horse. For a moment, we’re back in the playground with horsey. Then, under the stony gaze of a grim task-master, the music suddenly kicks in and the dancing begins. For the next 2 hours, the fast-moving dance first raises the temperature, then winds down as one of the dancers comes to the front and talks directly to the audience in Italian, French or English. You begin to chill out, then the frenzy begins again. The music, by David Byrne (once of Talking Heads), is meta-rock. Yes, it makes you stamp your foot, but it also reminds you of world music, jazz, even classical melody. The mix of music and the theme of sleep gives the show an ambitious feel: with an all-male cast of about 10, Ultima Vez reaches out for the big questions: how can we go beyond clichéd conceptions of the male body? Can the crisis of masculinity be expressed through childhood scenes? Do lads dream of testosterone sheep?

Near the beginning of the show, the softness of sleep is subverted by a joke. A large, white cuddly pillow is cradled and handed around. In the middle of the stage, it looks innocent, peaceful, safe. Then it explodes, throwing up a huge cloud of down. Feathers flutter everywhere—for a moment it looks like a winter wonderland. During the rest of the evening, the down is trampled by a dozen male boots. Dreams can mean mystery and pleasure. At one point the dancers hold up lanterns in the dark. Dreams can also mean pain. Ultima Vez’s dancers convey mania and derangement by becoming animals, throwing themselves around, barking mad and hectic. All the time I’m struck by their utter commitment: these boys really mean it. But if some sequences are full-on, aggressive and disturbing, others are much more tender and humorous. A dancer stands still and puts one hand to the side of his face as if resting his head on a pillow; his other hand is between his thighs, vulnerable. But dreaming can also be wild: a series of awkward contortions, with the dancers off-balance and falling with a thump, reminding us of how sleep pulls the body around and how we sometimes wake up with twisted sheets or bent into the strangest shapes.

My only doubts about In Spite of Wishing and Wanting come from the universality of its theme: after all, almost anything can be seen as a dream. And the show does sag at times, especially when the 2 short films are projected. At first, film seemed like a good idea, another way of opening out the stage, a further glimpse beyond the mundane. But during each filmed short, I felt the cool, distracted daze typical of passive viewing—how different from the heat and amazement of live dance. Both films are magic-realist fairy stories about dreams and riches and symbols and last words, populated by characters such as the Scream Seller and the Bungle Tyrant, hooded executioners and fey women. Their brightly lit colours and outdated hippie feel clashed with the greyer stage world and its pulsating life.
Sleep has its own aesthetic tradition—from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to symbolist and surrealist poetry. At its best, In Spite of Wishing and Wanting powerfully suggests a world where the body could break loose from its physical limitations and twist and turn into serpentine forms and angular dislocations, where reason has to face irrational fears and deep, dreamy desires. A place where the child in us sleeps next to the adult, a show which shakes awake our perceptions.

Ultima Vez, In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, directed by Wim Vandekeybus; Castello Pasquini, Tuscany, Aug 10 http://www.ultimavez.com

RealTime issue #33 Oct-Nov 1999 pg. 6

© Aleks Sierz; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1999
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