A darkened room. Illuminated in the middle. Raw wooden tables in a a grand oval. The audience seated in two rows, around the ring, the second row on a raised platform. Silence. Waiting.
As if in a court. As in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. As in a forum. As around a gladiator pit.
Many powerful associations with this ready circle for drama.
Gathered around this pool of light were almost entirely choreographers, curators and dancers. An exclusive audience of the highest professional calibre.
We were waiting for Sandy Williams and Jan Ritsema to present Blindspot at the Arsenal, home to most of the Impulstanz workshops.
This was perhaps the most heightened moment of anticipation of the festival. Simplicity and elegance in staging. Great concept.
Finally the two men arrived, taking out a leaf of the round table to enter into the closed arena they had prepared themselves.
Both were dressed down. Williams was in Addidas Stan Smith white tennis shoes, grey Levis jeans, a Benetton sweatshirt and Calvin Klein underwear. Ritsema wore dirty jeans, a pale blue t–shirt with a pair of eyeglasses stenciled into the front of the t-shirt.
I mention the brands as Williams was covered in brands down to the underwear and none were apparent on Ritsema. Williams is a young man around thirty with a full head of hair and in the prime of a man’s life. Ritsema is a neat-looking man in his fifties with a smooth bald pate and a ring of white hair around the sides. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and looks something like a university professor. While in reasonably trim shape for his age, there is nothing in his form or figure to give away a dance background.
Ritsema and Williams began with a somewhat incoherent dialectic where Ritsema mainly spoke about politics and Williams about an imagined love life which owed much to Leonard Cohen’s novel The Favorite Game.
Here is a taste of their discourse from the opening:
Jan: Dear Leonard Should we fill the space with politics and counter it with dance?
The greatest dancer to democracy will come from an angry army of the unemployed led by millionaires, preaching the sermon on the mount. George W.
George W. Bush.
11/9 I need some wine
11/8 I need some weight
11/7 I need some heaven
11/6 show some pics
11/5 I need a wife
11/4 will do a whore?
11/3 it is only me
11/2 and you
First lesson: A system is complex if a great many independent agents are interacting with one another in a great many ways…..
Sandy: I had hopes for all this. I used to be thin. I though I might live in one place and know one woman. I walked through….this morning. I made my way through…to… I had on my red apron and I had the woman I loved…..I am not talking about politics. I am talking about your bodies. the ones stretched out on the beach, the ones you’ve just smeared with sun-tan oil. Some of you are overweight and some are too thin, and some are very proud. You all know your bodies. You know your tits, your dick. You know what they look like. You have looked at them in mirrors, you have waited to hear them complimented, or touched with love.
This oblique conversation went on for about twenty minutes, more or less without dance. They do occasionally move and take poses. They do not look at one another but sometimes look at the audience, particularly Williams.
Of the two men, Williams was much the better speaker. His voice is clear and strong. While his stage persona was not particularly likeable, he projects a personality through his voice: a personality both insecure and conceited at the same time. Enchanted with his own prowess, dismayed at his inability to hang onto the object of his affections.
On the other hand, Ritsema has a weak voice and an unclear diction. It was very difficult to engage with his abstruse reasoning. Spoken abstract reasoning requires an absolutely clear idea of what one is saying at all times. As an English-speaking actor, one learns how to work with abstract thought through the direly complicated and imagistic monologues of Shakespeare’s plays. The audience must follow the thought process or it just becomes disconnected bombastic words – which go on for a long time. For the audience to follow the words, the actor must be perfectly clear in both his mind and his diction. It can take days to work successfully through one of these monologues, comma by comma. Ritsema did not manage this at all.
One does not expect dancers to be capable of this kind of rhetorical delivery – but then why ask them to attempt it? I have seen more shows fall down this year by expecting an actor’s verbal performance from a dancer than I can count. Tanz, Graz’s Metamorphosen springs to mind as the most striking example where Beate Arndt had to carry an entire evening work on a voice ready for short dramatic interjections but wholly unprepared for extended narration in English. A steady and convincing actor’s voice in this role would added infinitely to Metamorphosen.
Ritsema and Williams seem to have taken what is worst in Leonard Cohen’s poetry – incoherent politics and prose ramblings on quotidien breakdowns of relationships – but to have lost the exultant compact lyricism of his best poems.
At first hearing, one might think the dialogue more improvised than it is. Blindspot the performance is accompanied by a booklet called Blindspot: Text and Commentary. In this booklet one finds the full extant text of the dialogue, an informal essay from Sandy Williams “A Dress Rehearsal for an Even Darker Future or He Who Falls Becomes”, “A Possible Introduction” from Jan Ritsema and some extensive extracts from Brian Massumi’s seminal book The Politics of Everyday Fear. There is even a bibliography of Works not Cited, including (of course) Michel Foucault and (unsurprisingly) Martin Heidegger. The bibliography proper includes Leonard Cohen, Brian Massumi, Jacques Rancière and Cary Wolfe.
I mention in the booklet in detail as it is far more engaging than the performance itself. It ought to be required reading for coming to the performance. Which sets up an interesting dance model. Dance as lecture with required reading for the show. Not sure it will gain much traction with audiences but it does have its merit if the choreographer/creator would like the audience to see the abstract ideas which are being reflected physically.
Very abruptly the dialogue comes to an end when Ritsema pushes the button on an adroitly hidden CD player lodged under one of the tables. Johann Sebastian Bach. Partitas and Sonats, recording of Izthak Perlman. Very loud. This seems a tendency in modern dance. For the performers to control the music themselves. We also saw it in Philipp Gehmacher’s incubator.
The dance itself began with much walking around. Williams was the first to do some prancing, which degenerated into a stiff one-legged walk. Williams hands are large and very expressive and he knows how to use them like a magician.
Both seemed moved at the sort of half-speed one sees in workshops, teaching exercises, early rehearsals. Ritsema in particular seemed to be showing us the steps rather than taking them.
Watching Ritsema dance besides Williams, one becomes aware of how manifestly silly older people look when they dance. An older person lacks the suppleness and speed of youth. Perhaps a profound visual commentary on time here.
The relationship between the two dances was not clear. On the other hand, the relationship between the two monologues was not clear either.
Williams was self-conscious, jerky, sexual, grandiose, absolute and contorted. Ritsema was intellectual, abstract, hesitant and nuanced.
Gradually the elite audience fell to sleep. I counted at least six people fast asleep. Bach can do this to you, if the dance is not transfixing.
Towards the end, Williams worked through an energetic frenzy of I am/I am not movement with hard floor drops and rolls and painful twists which brought the audience out of their drowsing. Ritsema answered with some half-hearted jétés around the space.
Choreographically, the two men did not have enough material to cover the fifty-two minutes of music they had chosen.
Contemporary dance is at a nasty crossroads where it dreams of addressing issues of justice and peace and war and ecology. Abstract and political ideas. But such is not the natural province of dance. Feeling is dance’s own domain. Especially love. One feels that these creators are trying to use a hammer to do a wrench’s job. Simply not the right tool. So all of this adding of talk and video just takes us away from our natural strengths.
It can sometimes work – Isabella’s Room from Jan Lauwers is a brilliant tour-de-force of dance and theatre. But Lauwers begins with a core of theatre and adds the dance in as an accent (as classical opera often does). Moreover, Isabella’s Room is strung on a very strong chronological narrative line, just like a novel. In Isabella’s Room, the principal speaker is a brilliant actress Viviane De Muynck.
Ritsema is not able to perform a similar role for Blindspot. He has neither the natural gifts nor the training of the grand actor.
One could argue that a creator must always be free to fail. Fail they did.
Starting with the brightest, whitest piece of paper with which one could start and the best dance audience in the world.
If Blindspot prompts the audience of professionals at Impulstanz to take heed of the dangers of polluting dance with an excess of abstract ideas, it will have been a salutary exercise. If Blindspot only inspires more of the same, Williams and Ritsema’s bold experment will only have been a siren for further dance shipwreck.