Features Q&A and Interviews Published 5 March 2018

Ultimate Dancer: “It’s liberating to let go of the limitations of being human”

Performance artist Ultimate Dancer makes work that mingles choreography and spirituality. Here, she talks healing rituals, movement, and the power of darkness.
Diana Damian Martin
YAYAYA AYAYAY by Ultimate Dancer. Photo: Abigail Denniston for Live Collision

YAYAYA AYAYAY by Ultimate Dancer. Photo: Abigail Denniston for Live Collision

My last experience of a performance by Ultimate Dancer (otherwise known as Louise Ahl) was two years ago, when my body was surrounded by thick layers of smoke, by incantations and a choreography of movement and sculptural sound. I found the work both healing and magic; amongst sonic architectures and reverberating voices, I became part of a ritual that did not settle. I encountered questions about the place (and politics) of shamanism in contemporary cultural practice, and about accessing landscapes internal and ancient.

Increasingly, I am encountering performance practices that draw on rituals of healing, that seek new territories of experience at a time of planetary confusion. We are increasingly understanding how we might not only care for each other against structural oppression, but also access forms of consciousness beyond a human-centric approach. We are hearing more about ecology as a way of understanding different processes of being and listening, across species, and beyond the planetary – and Ultimate Dancer’s work probes that territory by means of a return to the body, the voice and its sounds. Ultimate Dancer tells me about her devoted efforts to “tap into something “other” and through that, shift the experience of reality and how we make sense of what we see. It’s way more liberating to let go of the limitations of being human, whether it be the physical body, or language itself”.

Ultimate Dancer is Swedish-born, Glasgow-based Louise Ahl, whose work spans experimental and choreographic performance work. In 2013, Ahl started The Non-Institute for Choreographic Enlightenment – visualised as a choreography, and structured in the shape of an MA in Choreospiritual Practice, the project unpacks choreographic enlightenment, making visible a commitment to connections across bodies, matter and artistic form. My first encounter with Ahl was on stage as part of her work Intercourse, a solo performance that invites critics into a choreographic process which shifts from pleasure to trauma, and asks questions about the gaze, critique, participation and the theatrical frame. Ranging from explorations of choreographic authority, to a modular performance of transmutation, Ahl’s work is slippery, searching, inviting, playful, flippant and mind-bending.  

‘I have often found that in trying to describe what it is that I do in my performance, it is more useful to use words that either entirely new, or just a word that plays with itself’, she tells me. We’re talking about the language surrounding her latest piece at Southbank Centre, YAYAYA AYAYAY, a collaboration with Robbie Thomson, ‘an ultraterestrial temporary dance proclaiming the historic chant: tnahc eht gnimialcorp ecnad yraropmet lairtserret-artU’. Or, alternatively, ‘a neo-ancient display of natural high-inducing lights, sounds and echoing voices that move in hallucinatory, ritual dances.’

Holy Smoke. Photo: Julia Bauer

Holy Smoke. Photo: Julia Bauer

I experienced this cross-temporal state in her earlier performance Holy Smoke (Southbank Centre, November 2016)- this sense of a space in which sound is as much a body as that which generates it; that there is presence, but travel too; that a ritual is unfolding and as some point, you begin to fold in it. Ultimate Dancer probes at this stretching of time and matter: “the usage of neo-ancient speaks to me as something which is familiar, like it’s existed for a long time, but nods and honours the future”. Language is a kind of re-learning, and in Ultimate Dancer’s work, it delineates an event of suspension.  The contradiction which neo-ancient sustains, is also one that the work itself constructs: it washes over you, as much as you travel through it.

The journey of YAYAYA AYAYAY is internal – ‘a dream scenario’ that offers the audience, in Ultimate Dancer’s own words, the ‘experience of a hyper-sensorial existence.’ The piece uses choreography as an enabling structure for body, movement light and sound- it’s tech heavy, and in the midst of this, Ultimate Dancer seeks to find a consciousness that is ‘blooming in all the tech.’ Movement is a word that returns again and again in our conversation, as a means of probing scale- the micro and macro-, time and sensation.

I first encountered shamanism by means of Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade, who spoke of ecstasy; I later understood how in itself, shamanism holds problematic roots in its attempt to capture a multiplicity of cultural, religious and magic practices from a wide variety of ethnic groups spread across Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. It carries the oppressive histories of colonial knowledge-quest and racial oppression. I ask Ultimate Dancer about the ethics of engagement with spiritual practices that hold so many cultural thresholds. The cosmic, temporary space she seeks is one of healing, deliberately ungrounded and searching. “Speaking about shifting ideas around consciousness and reality is difficult”, Ultimate Dancer tells me; it is inherently a dialogue with “religion and spirituality.”

Ultimate Dancer speaks about her experiences with various forms of therapy and medicinal practices of over twenty years, stretching from “the alternative to the pseudo-scientific”, in an attempt to “understand why the mind and the body work the way they do, and how to feel well and enabled.” She is a hopeful sceptic in this ecology: “I’ve felt dissatisfied with the very little connection and recognition of healing practices and beliefs that go beyond the mainstream religions, hence the relentless search of something to believe in.” She conceives of her practice as a mode of finding a connection “between the development of presence, creativity and some sort of consciousness connected to the meta-physical and physical at the same time.”

The process behind YAYAYA AYAYAY involved a darkness retreat for five days in an isolated, purpose-built room in Berlin. There was no exiting the space during the five days, and no light and sound. It is a space built for therapeutic purposes, and comes with guidelines of how to be in the dark, practically, how to navigate it, how to re-introduce light. The space as it is described to me is quite small, fitting two single mattresses and a chair, with an adjacent room connected by a door with a toilet, shower and sink. “The whole idea”, Ultimate Dancer tells me, “is that you decide yourself how long you want to be in there and then you lock yourself in with all the food you need for this time, and nobody can enter the space.”

This was an experience that fuelled most of the ideas for the piece. “I was interested in how we could sonically, and with the absence of light, mess up the experience of time and space.” This also played out choreographically, in finding ways of translating such internal experiences. “There was not a lot of movement in the dark room, but the movement that did happen felt like a lot – like the body was busy and extremely engaged.” What developed was a practice of movement and voice that Ultimate Dancer refers to as glitching: “which is a really busy thing to be doing as the body is never still. I work with very short sequences of movement, or a short sentence that is then stretched out to longer sequences.” Ultimate Dancer refers to this as minimal time-travelling vocal work. The piece itself “reverses and loops, and it’s very repetitive, making it sounds chant-like at times.”

What is movement in darkness? How was the experience of being in the dark for this period of time? “A sort of dissolution of what I usually experience as the reality”, Ultimate Dancer tells me.  The lack of visual cues makes for a kind of expansion. “In my mind I knew what the room I was in looked like, I knew it was very small, and where different things were placed, but this knowledge seemed irrelevant. I often felt like I was massive, like a giant with huge long limbs.” She contrasts this with feeling small and thin in everyday life. “It was also a nice feeling to exist in a space that felt endless and without boundaries, as that feeling is also very different to everyday existence. The experience of time is of course also out of whack. I lost all sense of time after my first sleep and didn’t know when it was day or night, or which day it was. I had fun sometimes trying to figure out if I was dreaming or being awake as I would also be having dreams that were totally in the dark. Sometimes that was also creepy and overwhelming. I couldn’t figure out sometimes if my eyes were open or closed, as everything just looked the same. Then there were hallucinations and light shows happening in front of me, which was fascinating. I didn’t know that the body itself can start producing light, I thought that light was something that always came externally and into the body.”

The complexities of that experience had a physical effect too; isolation is both therapy and torture: “The first few days definitely felt like torture and like my body started to shut down, like it was prepping to die. I had incredible pain in my body and started to get blisters on my fingers and in my mouth.” Despite the option to leave, Ultimate Dancer stuck to the experience: “and by the end it felt incredible. But to experience that physical pain in order to feel mentally strong is a concept I’m not keen on. I think there are other ways to get there.”

This sense of movement, of contraction and expansion, is a key part of YAYAYA AYAYAY : she says that “both sound and light move around physically in the performance space. It’s a bonkers environment, but something that people have enjoyed and found fascinating.” It is a kind of searching- a mode of healing that sits with and within performance, and leaves and returns to the body.

YAYAYA AYAYAY is on at Southbank Centre between 20- 23 March. Book tickets here.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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