The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series continues with Ben Kulvichit’s evocation of an explosive dance work at Bristol’s In Between Time Festival.
Audio version by Hannah McPake:
Tarek Small and Amy Kutz make work that is both immense and tiny; cosmic and inconsequential; general and specific.
The Berlin-based dance artists’ work is perhaps best characterised by their use of philosophical and scientific concepts as choreographic impetus. 2013’s Small Matter used cellular biology to structure its dances, and interweaved autobiographical detail about Tarek Small’s difficult relationship with his father and his father’s cancer. It blew up the microscopic, and zoomed in on the tiniest detail of a seismic personal event, considering deterioration on the levels of biology, interpersonal relationships and choreography. Escape Velocity in 2017 used choreographic principles of gravity, momentum, polarity and orbit, while exploring the impulse to escape one’s life, and the gap between the desire to make change and enact it. Celestial mechanics sat against the earthbound stories of hermits and fugitives. Big and small.
Returning to the UK and In Between Time for the first time in six years, Small and Kutz take these dramaturgical principles to their extreme with their latest work Everything at the Same Time.
We start small: Kutz stands alone on Bristol Old Vic’s bare stage. It occurs to me how rarely we get to see this space unadorned, and how huge it feels. Wearing a head mic, she speaks plainly and directly to us, her tone rarely inflected with anything interpretable as feeling, or the pretence of it. It’s a lecture, dry at first, if nothing else because of its familiarity as a form.
But as she speaks I find myself being drawn in, or submersed. The subject of her talk is time, essentially, and its problems. How we measure time, and how measurement might destabilise our sense of it much as it defines it. She talks about her partnership (professional and personal) with Small, and how their young children appear in memories where they do not exist – the early years of their relationship, playing in the kitchen of their first rented apartment (it reminds me of a similar sentiment in Ali McDowell’s X – Gilda says to her daughter, ‘I can’t remember half of anything but you’re in all of it… all jumbled around’).
Around these personal reflections, the talk skips gleefully between references points like a fly amongst fruit, taking in the writings of Elisabeth Grosz and Henri Bergson, Back to the Future, classical Greek oracles and quantum mechanics – it’s dizzying, near impossible to keep up with, until an entirely unexpected emotional beat races up to you, hidden until it’s zoomed past, already disappearing from view. Within an hour, she touches on leaving a personal or artistic legacy, ‘measuring’ up to one’s own expectations, the scale at which the human mind is able feel and comprehend, and learning to reconcile oneself with the impossibility of being in control of one’s life. As I listen, I find myself checking my watch, not because I’m not enjoying it – it’s a habit I have. It makes me think about the way time becomes stretchy in the theatre, the way the duration of a performance can be a pause or tear in our regular perception of time. Theatres are often haunted places in which past, present and future exist in simultaneity.
Then Kutz leaves the stage, and 30 dancers enter. Set is brought on, lighting bars are lowered, the dancers get into costume. A timer appears, projected on the theatre’s back wall. What follows is every single piece of the material from Small and Kutz’ previous work, broken down into 10 minute chunks, each chunk assigned to one of the dancers and performed simultaneously. Some of the material is sped up, and what were originally group unison dances are generally given to one or two people rather than, say, six – but in essence everything is there in some form. It’s a startling flurry of frantic movement, a parade of costumes under rapidly changing lighting and crashing sound, punctured by pyrotechnics (from an early work, Cowabunga!). You’re so overstimulated that 10 seemingly structureless minutes feels like ages. It’s too much to take in.
There are anchors – I recognise, of course, stuff from the shows I’m familiar with. There’s the rain from Weather or Not which soaks through the dancers’ clothes (tennis whites and Renaissance ruffs) and wets the plastic they’re dancing on, rendering it impossible for them to do their demanding, synchronised choreography on what is now, essentially, a slip ’n’ slide. Except here it, of course, affects the other action as well. Dancers crash into each other where their individual trajectories overlap. The devastating final speech from Small Matter is rendered inaudible. At one point, two children run across the stage ducking and swerving through the chaos – and I’m convinced they must be Small and Kutz’s kids. But maybe I imagined it.
I’m watching parallel universes existing on top of each other, possibilities in flux, entangled events, ghosts from the past, all jumbled around. A life’s work that refuses coherence, sense, meaning, or shape, and yet is in some way self-justifying in its exuberance. There’s something really emotional about it, actually – its messiness and full-throatedness feels truer to those unspeakable, deep-down emotions than the carefully crafted ending, the sentimental goodbye. The conceptual elegance of Small and Kutz’s work is what has made it so appealing, but here they marry that neatness of form with genuine complexity – complexity of the threateningly uncontainable, irresolvable kind – and that makes it all the richer and more affecting. Big and small, all at the same time.