The lights come up on rough street space formed by two trailer homes facing each other and the space in between them. The ground is covered with snow, and somewhere a baby is crying. A woman enters. She seems to find the crying baby lying under one of the trailers. She hushes it and pushes snow around it, over it; pushing this baby back further under the trailer. The crying stops. The scene seems to reset itself as if there was never a baby at all.
Another woman stands centre-stage and begins an elaborate dance, at first rooted to the spot, playfully batting her head between her two raised arms, and gradually, elastically, rolling herself painfully about the stage.
32 Rue Vandenbranden is an 80 minute piece of choreography by Argentinian Garbriella Carrizo and French Franck Chartier, lead artists of the Belgian-based company Peeping Tom. I have literally no idea to what the title refers, other than very effectively signalling (in Manchester) “somewhere else – probably Europe”.
And this is perhaps the most immediately strange thing about the landscape that it offers; how distinctly atypical-for-Europe it looks. If I asked you to picture “32 Rue Vandenbranden” without having seen the show, I imagine you’d come up with some sort of old, picturesque, Parisian backstreet. What you probably wouldn’t come up with is some sort of unheimlich trailer park covered in snow straight out of David Lynch.
And David Lynch seems like an important reference point here. Yes, this is a piece of dance-theatre, and as such – with barely a single word spoken – it is potentially free to be as entirely abstract as it likes. Instead, however, 32RV seems very interested by the idea of stories indeed. Repeatedly, we see dancers standing inside the trailers – as couples? as neighbours? as lovers? as brothers? – facing each other or ignoring each other, looking out of their windows at each other. We are repeatedly given new ideas about who each of these people might be, and how they might be related to each other. When the dancers Hun-Mok Jung and Seoljin Kim first arrive on stage – one standing on the other’s back, riding him like he was both chariot and horse – we infer that they are new arrivals. Within minutes, they seem to have lived in their trailer all their lives; both, in one sequence, even suckling at the (still clothed) breasts of singer Eurudike de Beul.
Not just relationships, but causality and even identity are gradually called more and more into question. For much of the piece, the “character” “played” by Marie Gyselbrecht appears to be pregnant. She stands at the door of her neighbour (Jos Baker) and his girlfriend (Maria Carolina Vieira) as if she believe him to be the father. She hammers on the door, he opens the door, she hides behind it. When he closes it again she has disappeared altogether. The neighbour’s girlfriend goes outside, and, when she can’t get back in again, seems trapped outside while Gyselbrecht appears in her clothes, in her relationship with Baker. It makes plenty of stage-logic, you watch the trick itself – how does she disappear? But in terms of what it means for the narrative of the piece…? You gradually learn to not trust a single thing you see, or at least, not to take it in literal terms. Whose dream are we in now? the piece appears to ask.
The other major artist the piece seems to reference is pioneering German choreographer Pina Bausch. Imagine this told by an unreliable narrator, or like someone who can’t quite remember the order that a joke goes in, in order to deliver its punchline.
This feels like a crucial part of 32RV’s strategy. Rather than deliver one solid story on a plate, served up with no ambiguity – and probably a clear moral lesson into the bargain – instead it offers only a series of fractures onto which we cannot help project our own preoccupations. As such, it even feels rather exposing talking about what themes and concerns I thought I saw reflected in the piece’s myriad shards. (Exposing, but also deeply unhelpful in critical terms, since a lot of what I saw also reflected concerns to do with writing-about-theatre, which will hardly bother anyone else).
What is certain – opening a day after HOME’s first birthday celebrations – is that 32 Rue Vandenbranden serves as a perfect example of how and why HOME is turning out to be completely indispensable. As Manchester gradually gets a handle on the sort of work that Walter Meierjohann and his team are bringing in, you can feel an increasing buzz of anticipation for each new show, and no small amount of civic pride, in cases like this and La Mélancholie des Dragons, that we’re getting stuff up here that isn’t just touring before or after London. That Manchester has got its own thing, and a curatorial presence that’s properly interested in introducing new things into the ecology. It might be early days, but HOME feels like a bloody exciting place to be right now.
32 rue Vandenbranden is on until 25th May 2016. Click here for more information.