One of the most awaited productions of the ImPulsTanz season includes co-artistic director Ismail Ivo in the lead role. Mesmerising posters and entrancing video previews have worked there magic. The public hungered for the late premiere. Here at last, Francis Bacon is a complex tormented work. The subject is the imaginative world of Irish visual artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
We begin in a prison cell with metal walls. There are flashing lights which recall something from the film the Matrix. It’s good to see a choreographic production challenging (if in miniature) the opera productions and the main stage theatre productions in production design. Great to get away from the empty black room at last. Fantastic work from production designer Penelope Wehrli.
Ismail Ivo is naked in a blanket, bare naked. The bottom of his feet are painted red, reminding us all that he and we are made of blood. The other dancers’ feet are also so painted. Mortality visualised on the soles of the feet.
Ivo struggles out of his blanket and against the closed walls. No exit is to be had.
Here a man enters (Giuseppe Paolicelli). Ivo’s Bacon first fights with him and then moves to love. Their love making is violent. Here sex is no gentle caress but a lashing out against mortality, an attempt to subjugate and own the other.
The stage is a kind of triangle: the long side has three doors in it which flip up and down and also serve as beds for the lovemaking.
Later women appear. One with huge breasts rips one out of her bodice and force feeds Ivo’s former lover her breast (Elisabetta Violante).
Another woman with no legs, just a spider web where the legs should be is carried crawls out (Valentina Schisa) . Under a huge mane of hair, the most beautiful bosom you’ve ever seen is revealed. Our strange mermaid/harpie is picked up and suspended in every possible position over the course of the next half hour, both witness and participant in the tortured debauchery and tormented self-interrogation.
The two men cheat on one another with women, the women like accessories, a barrier between men, a barrier from the truth. The women often enter with large butcher’s knives which they wave around before using against themselves. Violent women with knives and naked men brings forth images of castration. Strangely that didn’t happen.
One of the strongest image is of Ivo hanging upside down like a bat, naked. He shivers and shakes, his arms become free he lifts himself up and down in a strange upside down dance. Ivo’s power and grace entrance in these moments.
The underlying theme is about about the powerlessness of of even greath strength and beauty. No matter how strong or beautiful you are, if you fight the tenets of society, you will face imminent evisceration or imprisonment. The consequences are enough to break anyone. And the attempt to break Bacon’s spirit does not end for the one hour and forty minutes purgatory.
There is no end to the brutality. At least no mothers brought small children to this show (Vandekeybus’s Medea), nor should they. There are live insects behind one of the doors.
Traditional choreography as such is nearly non-existent. There are only theatre episodes and fight scenes (apart from the hanging bat). Curiously there are four credited choreographers: Ivo, Mara Bobo, Tero Saarinen with director Johann Kresnik. The art direction (costumes and the splendid decorations is the work of Penelope Wehrli).
An unnecessary weak point in “Francis Bacon” is the music. In itself, the music is a highly atmospheric of industrial noise and violin solos and dark arias. While going with recorded music widened the musical possibilities in individual episodes, this piece would be extraordinary in the accompanied by live music.
We bathe in horrors. This is Dostoevskian existence, a kind of dance Notes from Underground.
As the stage darkens finally around Ismail Ivo, we hear a final voice: “iI you love life, then you love death. they are like two sides of the same coin. Like you, I’m always surprised when I wake up in the morning.”
Ivo’s performance is memorable and he is well-supported by the surrounding cast. I’m amazed that Ivo has the emotional strength to perform this role for nine days straight. “Francis Bacon” just misses genius but is first rate movement theatre done on a grand scale. If you can find a ticket, grab it while you can.
The original version of Francis Bacon was staged in 1994. Such magnificent productions were people then creating.