The premise of Cat in a deep freeze is simple enough. A person lays down in the ice and fades away to death. Saskia Hölbling would like to take us on this journey. The piece opens and closes with beautifully spoken texts on mortality written by the artist inciting us to “melt the ice of power”.
In the cold, one’s head finally clears. Peace at last. The body contracts into what is most necessary. The heart beats tangibly. The breath is short and shallow. Something starts to move and leaves the body behind to its pleasant paralysis.
Cat in a deep freeze – Saskia Hölbling/Dans.Kias
Hölbling’s own interest in death by freezing arose when she learned last year that its eponym: “the sweet death”. Apparently one gradually fades away with no pain, just feeling slowly disappearing from the body and the breath growing fainter. Having spent a lot of time snowshoeing in cold climates like Manitoba, I’ll agree that this is probably how it happens. The real danger with death by freezing is belated rescue. If you don’t finish the job, you’ll end up with hands and feet cut off on account of the frost bite.
A full fading away in the cold is what Cat in a deep freeze investigates. It’s a curious enough premise for a dance piece. It has nothing to do with human interaction. The piece mirrors a biological transformation. Cold is the opposite of dance. One is generally moved to dance by the heat.
People dance more in summer. People dance more in hot climates. People dance more in hot night clubs.
Unsurprisingly given the chill theme, movement in Cat in a deep freeze is minimalist, at least for the first two thirds of the piece. For minutes at a time, a single foot circumscribes the air. Yet there is a tension in the movement. Saskia Hölbling describes the movement throughout the piece as intense. And so it is.
But concentration of movement can only take one so far. It is not a substitute for action. So the first half of Cat in a deep freeze drags for the spectator. We are there alone with Saskia Hölbling – she in her bright white flight suit on broken panes of glass – us in our seats in the dark.
While the dancing was minimalist, as in the last Saskia Hölbling piece I reviewed Labyrinth, multimedia was centre stage.
Throughout the piece, we intermittently get television static projected on a white background. Television static is a very tired video trope, more or less exhausted by video artists in the 1970’s and 1980’s. What television static has to do with one’s state of mind when freezing to death made no particular sense to me. Perhaps this trope works better for others.
There were some nice moments in the video. Many times Saskia Hölbling’s movements were projected live. Doron Goldfarb found a way to multiply her figure, as if she were in a set of mirrors to infinity. The ghostlike movement of Saskia’s projection behind her live dance blurred the line between reality and thought.
Most of the music – created by long time Dans.Kias composer Heinz Ditsch – was for me less successful than the video. The music was portentous synthesiser ambient symphonics, style Tangerine Dream. The combination of these synthethic sounds and the white flight suit and the television static felt like part of a discount 2001: A Space Odyssey. It made one feel that one was watching an avant-garde piece from about 1981 – as if one got caught into a time warp.
Later moments had a similar dated art video feel: magnified spermazoids squirming around the screen, a human heart pounding blood in red projection with throbbing audio. The human heart episode included much more vigorous dance and was perhaps the most successful section of the piece.
Were Cat in a deep freeze from 1981, this music, these video effects and this dance minimalism would have combined to striking effect. Twenty five years later, the overall effect was ho-hum.
My Polish dancer friend was delighted that her boyfriend couldn’t buy a ticket to the sold out show. “He would have lost his money – there was nothing to see.” She wasn’t alone among international dancers with this reaction. I counted at least fifteen dancers among the thirty or so spectators who fled the packed auditorium after twenty five minutes of this minimalism. Miraculously, at least five of the dancers recovered in time to return to the premiere party after the show.
Little do they know what we have to put up with in Vienna the rest of the year. For all the hard criticism above, Cat in a deep freeze did include substantial movement (the last third). There was original music (any kind of music is a luxury in Vienna dance circles these days). There were thought-out costumes tightly integrated in the overall theme of the piece (rather than haphazard ratty street clothes or plain black dance tights). There was an attempt to do something with video other than showing a blown up version of the performer’s face staring blankly at the audience. The staging was careful – the geometrically arranged broken windows – and fastidiously lit, by both visible onstage spots and the theatre lights. Whatever it may be, Cat in a deep freeze is not indolence pawned off as innovation.
So while I didn’t particularly care for Cat in a deep freeze, it doesn’t make one despair of Saskia Hölbling’s work. She is a prolific creator, making two original works per season. Some of it – the group pieces – I have liked in the past. Hölbling varies her work – between ensemble pieces and solos, between naked and clothed, between abstract and movement – so she is not stuck in a theoretic rut.
For Hölbling, Cat in a deep freeze represents an important part of a creative process which extends into the creation of her next work, a group piece.
I need the solo work to move my own language of movement further on my own body, before I can bring it to other dancers.
Despite her inadvertent role as a poster child for the current Vienna minimalism/conceptualist/anti-dance movement, Hölbling doesn’t feel any particular group affinity.
I make the things I make. I am on my own creative journey. Sometimes before premieres in Vienna, I too have faced strong feedback and demands from curators to change a piece. Generally I ignore them. If I find something useful in it, I might take something from what they say. Any choreographer foolish enough to listen to what curators say, instead of his or her own artistic instinct, is putting not only artistic integrity but his or her work at risk. To get to one’s truth as an artist one must ignore the theoreticians and critics. One must pick very carefully the voices one listens to. If my works as created does not suit a given curator or venue, they are free not to ask me back.
The words above are delivered with an infectious smile. The smile is important.
Photo copyright Saskia Hölbling/Dans.Kias.
Saskia Hölbling/Dans.Kias website.