The stage is marked out by light like a huge string instrument. Two performers roll around on the floor in response to the hand movements of a musician, playing a board like an instrument from a long forgotten culture. Next, performers make their way from the wings to the centre of the stage by only stepping on blocks on chalk of which there is a limited supply. They jog laps around the stage catching blocks thrown by other performers. The performers pose in a series of mock family portraits at increasingly ridiculous angles.
When I interviewed choreographer Joe Moran a few months ago, he quoted a line from a New York Times review of Jonathan Burrows’s The Stop Quartet. It went like this (and Moran couldn’t remember the exact phrasing of the review): “we don’t know the rules but we get the game”. In Wim Vandekeybus’s 1987 debut (being revived at the moment), the rules are clear enough but it’s also clear but, like any game, the magic circle that surrounds it is a porous one. He pushes his performers to the point that they struggle to keep up. The physical materials used like the chalk are similarly pushed to their limits so they start to break apart opening up new possibilities.
The movement is dictated by the rules and the aim is for the most part one of absolute urgency. It has more in common with that David Attenborough documentary with the two giraffes beating the shit out of it each other than it does with, say, Giselle. As the performers commit themselves to the rules imposed on them with the totality of professional athletes, aesthetic considerations fall away. This doesn’t mean that the aesthetics haven’t been carefully considered. It’s simply that it’s not something the performers have time to be concerned with. In this sense, they are more like players than performers.
In most of the sections, there’s a huge level of control that Vandekeybus has over what happens at each moment. It’s probably this aspect of his work that we most associate with him. I certainly did until I saw this piece in its entirety. These aspects are unavoidable and they are hugely impressive but there’s a tightness about them that start to feel constrictive, almost like military drills. That’s why I really enjoyed seeing how Vandekeybus counterbalanced this with sections that are more playful than game-like, where the outcomes are random and his dancers have greater space to express themselves as individuals. The clearest example of this is the moment where three dancers are trying to keep tiny feathers up in the air by blowing on them. We accept the importance of the act of play: the feathers falling to the floor becomes just as significant as the chalk blocks being caught was earlier. We know there won’t be a winner as there’s no ultimate goal and yet it’s mesmerising to watch, to see each inevitable failure when it finally arrives.
It’s easy to see the influence of this seminal work from 1987 in a lot of contemporary choreography since. Having the opportunity to see it now though, it becomes clear which of the aspects have been pushed to the fore while the piece’s lighter, more playful moments have perhaps been given less prominence. When I first started watching contemporary dance, it was very much work of this sort: muscular, urgent, athletic that got me excited. I still does absolutely but, while in 1987, it was very much the shock of the new, it has now become something of the dominant mode of expression in contemporary dance. Perhaps this revival will give us a chance to reconsider Vandekeybus’s work and remember that the feather is as important as the block. That it should be seen anyone with even a passing interest in theatre, let alone contemporary dance, is in no doubt.
What the Body Does Not Remember is at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury this weekend and is touring the UK until the 20th March to venues including Hall for Cornwall, The Lowry and Northern Stage.