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ImPulsTanz 2012: Benoît Lachambre – Snakeskins

For years I’ve been hearing about Benoît Lachambre and how splendid and illuminating his work is. From the same crowd who love Jerôme Bel and detest Anna Teresa de Keersmaker and passionately loathe ballet.

Hence Lachambre’s work has always appeared conceptual and fairly painful to me. In the best case, instructive or prophylactic, like a trip to the dentist. The tangy taste I had of his work with Clara Furey at the Franz West Tribute did inspire me to attend a full show. What impressed me there was his intensity. Lila, under Lachambre’s mentorship for the summer, told me that his main speech to DanceWeb was all about intensity on stage. A very good point to make.

Benoit Lachambre Snakeskins photo Christine Rose Divito
Benoit Lachambre Snakeskins: LaChambre is bottom left, Albanese is bottom left
Rowe is on top of the rig pounding a thunder sheet
photo Christine Rose Divito

In “Snakeskins”, Lachambre begins by hanging upside down in a harness under a vast set of cables which dip four metres out to the audience. On the left of the netting is a guitarist with some computers and sound decks. As Lachambre waves his arms and the cables move, he appears to be flying like a giant bird. As he flies the music soars.

Throughout the piece Hahn Rowe’s sound is incredible. The closest equivalent which comes to mind (without Frip’s vocals) would be King Crimson. Or the Canadian band Black Emperor. Rowe for extended passages even plays his guitar with a bow like a classical violinist.

Lachambre removes his harness later and through the piece changes his clothes several times, each time taking layers away like a snake. Occasionally he has a mask on, occasionally his face is naked. At points the guitarist dons a frightening green metallic mask to keep everyone company.

There is a third man on stage (Daniele Albanese), who is wearing a silver mask and sweat clothes from the beginning. In the one spoken dialogue of Snakeskins, Albanese’s main role is as a sack of potatoes type drunk.

Rowe’s relentless music finally stops. A masked Lachambre bullies Albanese into giving him all his money. “Give me some money,” Lachambre asks. Albanese complies readily enough. The clang of change.

“More,” demands Lachambre with the desperation of a junkie and the touchness of a hood, giving Albanese a sharp kick.

With the money of Albanese in his pocket, Lachambre isn’t interested in Albanese anymore who goes to spend the rest of the show lying in front of a wall sleeping it off.

This wretched scene from the dregs of modern society is a kind reminder to us all: there but for heaven’s graces go I. Each night someone in every city is getting a few sharp kicks a local tough, forced to cough up his last earnings. There are tired broken women wandering around who for the price of a couple of drinks will do whatever anyone wants. Even for the most punctual, homelessness and superfluity are only a natural disaster, a civil war or an American invasion away.

At one point Lachambre is shaking his butt at us and convulsing in latex pants. It’s as if Lachambre feels the audience will be pleased or excited to be offered his butt. A similar offer did work for a long while for Paris Hilton.

Somehow Lachambre manages to put a basketball on his head and a microphone up his nose before springing into his net where he struggles before he breaks free. Now he is on the floor crying like a lost and injured child. Some women left the theatre unable to reconcile Lachambre’s wailing with their expectations of an evening of dance.

Lachambre stops now to tell us a story of “a game the ancients played”. The Mayans apparently played basketball but with vertical hoops. It reminded them of the eclipse. Nice story if both convenient and incredible.

Lachambre when he doesn’t have his mask on, looks very unwell. His hair is long but lifeless, his eyes demon blue and red, his cheeks drawn, his shoulders bent, his skin pasty as the crypt. The only real sign of life, the frenetic energy he radiates from those piercing eyes.

At this point, I’m wondering what drives Lachambre on. For all its intensity, his work is cold, methodical, even soulless. There is little love and no family in his world. Just colours and sounds and nearly random moments. How far we have come from Giselle, surrounded by family, fellow villagers, fiancé before she is seduced and destroyed by the local prince.

Lachambre seems a man who has sold his soul for art. There is no hope, no greater plan. There is just the black box to be adorned and the audiences and festivals to be importuned for ready cash. Another airplane, another crowd. The sun moves in the sky and with its motions Lachambre has drinking money and rent money. This is not a critique: many esteemed denizens of capitalism do far worse. Lachambre is making something and providing divertissement: far better than the brokers who pour mindlessly into stock exchanges daily in to collect from the ebb and flow of financial tides in packs like piranha fish.

But we didn’t come for naught but a bit of music and a homeless skit. The lights go down again as Lachambre divides his net into two halves before starting to swing it. While he whips the nets around faster and faster, laser type lights create will-o-the-wisps patterns on the ropes. The music goes higher and higher, it’s like entering a kind of twilight zone where anything his possible. A small masterpiece of visual stagecraft.

Albanese finally pulls off his own mask. The men take their bows. The audience goes mad for Lachambre. Lachambrism must be some kind of cult – they scream and scream. Even through a dozen false exits and returns. Rowe’s music plays on finally serene. Albanese shows some dance moves too. The men collect their gear and dance around together to show us, they could have said it with movement if they wanted to, they could have danced had they wanted to. Somehow movement and dance are an estranged part of the past in these waters, just as peculiar to these anti-formalists as menuets are to you and I.

The exit scene lasted at least twenty minutes. I think the idea is to exhaust the audience into leaving. At least one tenth of us stuck it out the additional half hour until Lachambre, Rowe and Albanese finally gave up wandering in and out and Rowe shut down the music loop.

Lachambre himself wonders himself if he’s on the right track in his notes about Snakeskins:

I touch the excrement of the definitions I deconstruct. Like a one-man orchestra, with no limits or boundaries, I exist outside all logical description. Am I in the process of regressing or am I in fact highly evolved?

While our aesthetics may be opposed, Lachambre’s politics are perceptive. He spoke in a recent interview about the photograph used on stage of a first nations man in a dark corridor at the end of which we see a small boy with a basketball:

First nation ancestors have not been respectfully recognised in terms of their personal histories and the former nations of the Americas have not been properly dignified by society either, be it in a historical perspective or in contemporary discourse. The rejection of what was the outcome of colonialism created a great deal of pain, anger and lack of balance in and among ancestors and families and in society as a whole.

Yes, it’s an interesting question. How do you live among the people who killed your ancestors, destroyed your nation and took your lands? It’s nigh impossible.

I find stranger and stranger though the word Lachambre used many times: “the Ancients”. There are no ancients. Humankind exists all of a hundred or two hundred thousand years. This earth is in its fifth cycle of life and over a billion years old. We are as fleeting as the moths flying at our porchlights and perishing every night.

Lachambre has no answers. No one has.

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