Directed by Petr Bohac, choreographed by Marketa Vacovska and performed by Veronika Kotlikova and musician Lena Dusilova, One Step before the Fall – which is dedicated to Muhammad Ali – uses movement, sound and image to explore the world of boxing.
A success at the Edinburgh Fringe and winner of a Herald Angel Award, One Step engages in a process of intimate examination; blending live music with embodied, extrapolated physicality, the performance foregrounds the visual as a theatrical strategy, as developed throughout the work of Spitfire and Studio Damuza in Prague.
As she stands, bathed in darkness through which shine shards of light, Kotlikova is the embodiment of power; we are drawn to her muscular body, her ability to puncture movement, to construct images in motion and test the boundaries of the body as an introspective, expressive material. At the same time, the stage becomes a scenographic tool; what started as a simple podium, the delineations of which we might conceive as a boxing ring, actualises into one – soft metal lines circumnavigate its edges, turning a visual metaphor into an actual place, albeit one that lacks the specificity of an actual boxing ring.
Composed of several episodes that explore different facets of boxing, occasionally interrupted by brief and almost unrecognisable interview extracts with an aged Ali, One Step Before the Fall provides both a portrait in motion, and a delicate exploration of different facets of the battling body.
Dusilova populates the otherwise silent stage with live-mixing and sound, providing an atmosphere of eeriness, softly spoken female voices, guitar sounds and digital noise. Sat in a corner of the stage is Bohac itself, who rings the bell to mark the end of each episode. Kotlikova herself goes from representational figure to a body that punches and is punched, to one that undergoes particularly violent physical processes, tempted by an impressive focus and desire to control the limits of her own body. The movement is sometimes authentic, at others highly stylised; it navigates between visual metaphor and actual exhaustion, though both are always interrupted by repetition and suspension.
For a performance that explores the dynamics and politics of violent movement, One Step Before the Fall seems to also collapse in its desire for poetry. Its essential and most intriguing aspects- the sparsity of its scenographic and physical language, the emphasis on the live, the dynamic movement, and of course two female performers – also become its noisiest. One Step Before the Fall constructs a poetics of principle, yet its communicative powers are shadowed by a lack of specificity, both physical and narrative; the female body is not of interest here, neither are questions of gender and body politics in relation to boxing. And though this might not be a central proposition of the performance itself, it also means an exhaustion of its own evocative powers and strategies of performance. Too often, the punch is an emblem without meaning; the exhaustion of the body is manufactured, and even the music itself seems to impose an atmosphere of otherness that is distinctly unsuited to the exploration at hand, too much in sync with the visual politics of the piece to provide affect.
Bohac attributes the evocative style of his choreography to Bausch’s own interest in the live experience, in non-verbal communication and the internal struggles that move people. There are beautiful tributes to Bausch’s work at play here, and Kotlikova’s skill is undeniable, though exhausted in hyperboles that don’t sustain their own meaning. There is a tenderness and fierceness to the movements she portrays that linger on; of course, we know of Ali as the man who revolutionised boxing, who held persona and physical power alongside each other, defining himself in and through the public eye. As much as this is rendered a presence in One Step Before the Fall, it is also lost in a sparsity that seems to place so much emphasis on the visual, without foregrounding the aesthetic. Image here might be evocative, even representational, but it is not enough to sustain the performance.
There are plenty of moments of evocative tension and visual poetry in One Step Before the Fall, yet the piece remains an under-exploration of a highly prolific physical and visual language. There are aspects here that are foundational to an impressive and confident theatrical style: the bareness, the confidence of the body in action, the intricacies of a complex formal structure. Alone, they cannot sustain the performance’s own politics, yet they remain the symbols of a potentially potent form of narrative, aesthetic poetry. What it necessitates is real exhaustion, a real curiosity towards these limits that are merely represented; thus the body becomes a material in collision, a character in the making.