Curiously, after Sister, the retrospective piece from Belgian choreographic legend Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, her countryman Wim Vandekeybus has also come with a retrospective collage to ImPulsTanz. One could say that Vandekeybus and De Keersmaeker are the two most influential Belgian choreographers (Jan Fabre is missing from this list, but for much of his career Fabre has been more a theater director than a choreographer).
Vandekeybus and De Keersmaeker share a long standing collaboration with composer Thierry de May but otherwise have little in common. Vandekeybus’s approach to choreography is completely the opposite of De Keersmaeker. Vandekeybus does not seek subtle fluid moment or emotional nuance – but rather places his dancers in collision. The movement is almost always violent, even dangerous.
More Ultima Vez dancers have been severely injured on a per head basis than any other company – many dancers refuse an Ultima Vez invitation out of concern for their well-being. In the end, Vandekeybus has dealt with the health issue responsibly: Ultima Vez has a comprehensive insurance policy. Injured dancers remain with the company and on full salary until they heal.
Still, a year long injury does more damage than just the lost salary. A dancer’s career is short and dance form is fragile so losing a year of training and development and performance is a great risk. The rewards are substantial. Dancing in Ultima Vez is the ultimate performance high. You are working at maximum speed, in direct opposition to other bodies, in perfect timing. You will pay for your mistakes with at least bruises, so you don’t make any if you can help it.
And that is what we saw last night. Bodies moving at full speed. The approach to retrospective in Spiegel is very traditional. Spiegel is a greatest hits of Ultima Vez. We see the chairs from Wishing and Wanting.
We see the bricks from What the Body does not Remember. The stamping and chairs from Les Porteuses de Mauvaises Nouvelles. The slaughterhouse hooks from Inasmuch as Life is Borrowed.
The horse from In Spite of Wishing and Wanting played by Vandekeybus himself. Somewhat ironic in his own self-presentation. Not the clear unbridled passion of the original creation. At 43 one tends to do develop some perspective on the self. Clarity of passion wanes in favour of wisdom and irony. While wisdom and irony probably make a man easier to live with, they diminish purity of performance.
But the rest of the troupe are the long-haired sinewy European guys for which Ultima Vez is famous, along with a few amazing women dancers. Several are holdovers from Vandekeybus’s moody film Blush.
Ultima Vez dancers come from the most diverse backgrounds possible, whether French, Spanish or American. Imagine my astonishment when intellectual Slovenian choreographer Mala Kline turned up on stage in a small red dress, leading Ultima Vez through a large section of Spiegel. Her stage presence was always remarkable but in Kline’s year with Ultima Vez she has developed an astonishing physical side to her dancing which will hopefully turn up in some of her own projects (she is leaving Ultima Vez at the end of the Spiegel tour to return to her own work).
Kline brought a thoughtfulness and depth to her own performance which is sometimes missing in the physicality of long time Ultima Vez dancers. Kline never moves without thought behind the gesture.
But the most striking dancer in the company is the tiny Thi-Mai Nguyen who moves like a possessed fury throughout Spiegel.
The traditional Ultima Vez garb for women are ankle high boots and these strange mid-length dresses which hang tight on their figures but allow a full range of movement. The strength of their own performance – they regularly have to lift the men – is combined with a very feminine fragility.
The Ultima Vez women are thrown around the stage and against the floor like rag dolls. The violence is shocking and disturbing. But for all its explicity misogyny, Vandekeybus’s work is implicity feminist. Vandekeybus’s female protagonists strike back, giving as good as they get. They lift and even throw the men themselves. Vandekeybus’s subject matter is the psychological violence of relationships – the conflict between man and woman becomes physical. The usual subtext of the strained dialogues of modern love become corporeal. At the end of the day, this is a substantial contribution, moving women a long way from Sylphs in the Scottish moors or melancholy Willis.
Overall the costumes along with the men’s long hair and beards gave a strange feel as though one were walking into the late seventies or the middle eighties. As a whole the music took us on the same journey – it was kind of ambient stadium art rock – think Pink Floyd – complete with thundering sound effects.
A welcome change was a short excerpt from the middle of Spiegel where the men and the women came out in formal attire and went through the ritual of coupling. Against the formal look, some of the men ended up with other men, some of the women with other women – creating a cross-gendered stage.
In contrast to De Keersmaeker, Vandekeybus is not a choreographer of emotion and subtle divagations of feeling. His genius lies in his stagecraft and in ingenuity of movement. From just a bare stage, lights and a few props, he is able to create whole psychological worlds. At the end of the Spiegel, six meat hooks descend from above the stage. The dancers fill them in various poses of death, as a blood red back cloth waves its rich burgundy tone over the slaughterhouse atmosphere.
Any single section of Spiegel was astonishing and wonderful, whether the brick throwing or the stamping, whether the formal dance or the slaughterhouse scenes. But together one had the feeling of being overwhelmed.
The ninety minutes was too much. The volume of movment was at full almost all the time. By feeding us non-stop highlights of the violent Ultima Vez repertoire, the audience was quickly worn out. We had little chance to take a breath, no chance to recover between episodes. It was like nine portions of dessert, or of just the violent highlights from thriller films back to back.
In the end, Spiegel is like a Greatest Hits album for one of the iconic rock groups like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. The Greatest Hits are too much on their own – taken out of context, they lose much of their original significance.
More even than with music, Greatest Hits collections are always a problem for dance. Juri Grigorovich tried something similar with the Grigorovich suites, which provided cut down versions of Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible, The Stone Flower, Romeo and Juliette. Each was so much feebler than the original ballet, one always felt like one would prefer to see the original work with its full staging and not the highlights. Those endless ballet galas with the wretched Don Quixote pas de deux’s, gaudily interrupting a parade of dying swans and Indian hand maidens are built on the same principle and completely insupportable to a sentient being. Dance is an art and like other arts needs to be seen in proper emotional context – not turned into a silly and senseless highlight reel.
On the other hand, at Spiegel we were never bored. Vandekeybus has built a smoothly transitioning if somewhat overwhelming edifice. At the end, the audience went absolutely wild, in stark contrast to the muted reaction to Sister, the retrospective deconstruction of Rosas work. Volsktheater shook like the end of a rock concert for nearly ten minutes. Vandekeybus certainly knows how to play and thrill an audience. Spiegel is an exciting event.
Initially, I felt more critically towards Spiegel – it was just too much. But with a couple of days to live with my impressions, I feel much better about the experience. Vandekeybus’s repertoire, like any contemporary choreographer, is always in danger of disappearing. By presenting us with what he considers the choreographic highlights of his career, Vandekeyus is giving us a canonic piece to go into repertoire and lead future audiences further into his work.
As a choreographer of movement and invention, Vandekeybus’s technical innovations will perhaps be yet more important in the work of a future and yet unknown dancemaker.
Vandekeybus has unlocked the violence of the human spirit and body for European dance (some African dance captures that violence, albeit with a different vocabulary). Thanks to Vandekeybus, we now have a choreographic language for those extreme emotions, for open and hidden conflict between men and women. Vandekeybus has neatly condensed those innovations for us in Spiegel. It’s up to us and future generations what we want to do with that gift.
Still go to Spiegel prepared. My critical Polish dancer friend complained again after Spiegel (she is not easily satisfied), it’s too many orgasms in a row.