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Going for the burn

Jana Perkovic: Foreign Affairs, Berlin

DEEP Aerobics DEEP Aerobics
photo Pekka Mäkinen, courtesy of Finnish House of Dance Association
Berlin’s youngest major festival, Foreign Affairs, has ambitions to become a definitive statement in cutting-edge contemporary theatre, but its identity keeps shifting, just like its calendar dates. It seems not quite sure whether it wants to be a really big festival with retrospectives of important names, a curated statement or just to show really good contemporary work. This year’s edition was well-timed, closing off the German theatre season just before the summer holidays, and its programming tended towards the retrospective and the definitive: the complete Tabletop Shakespeare by Forced Entertainment was sold out far in advance, Angélica Liddell was the artist in focus with four major works in the program and Jan Fabre’s Mount Olympus, if a single work, was 24 hours long and covered most of the Greek dramatic canon. (I missed Mount Olympus, later reported to be a masterpiece, and Fabre’s best and most mature work in a long time.)

Angélica Liddell, You Are My Destiny

After seeing You Are My Destiny (Lo Stupro di Lucrezia), the considerable reputation of the controversial, provocative Spanish performer Angélica Liddell remains a mystery. Liddell re-stages the Rape of Lucrezia and her suicide to restore the honour of the men in her house. In her interpretation, the “rape trauma is a love story,” the rapist a lover. This would be an extremely problematic interpretive key even in less progressive locales than Berlin in 2015. Liddell’s performance should require leaps of at least Žižekian intelligence to persuade. Instead, unfortunately, Liddell presents an overlong show (two and a half hours) that mixes and mashes—without a clear structuring logic—screaming women, a choir of semi-naked drummers, Christian imagery, Ukranian church songs, little children and Venetian architecture.

In the most successful sequence, the male drummers lean against the back wall in a half-squat that soon becomes uncomfortable to even watch, let alone endure. Liddell, the director of the piece, gently wipes their brows, kisses them and in other ineffective ways pretends to alleviate their suffering, all the while berating a female performer for forcing this ordeal. The manifestation of brute power is stark and chilling. Mostly, however, beer is poured over female bodies, panties are tossed into the audience, burly men sing. All is interminable, visually stale, dramatically imprecise, intellectually unconvincing. The final bow was followed, in the foyer, by a number of patrons selling off their tickets to Liddell’s subsequent shows.

Hofesh Shechter, Barbarians

Hofesh Shechter’s Barbarians was divided into three parts, of which the first two had already been shown in the UK while the third was a world premiere. The first, Barbarians in love, opens with already expected Shechter fare: strong lights, noise, earplugs freely distributed. Six dancers in white, Star Trek-like uniforms move to a blend of François Couperin’s “Concerts Royaux” underlaid with a metallic drone. Over the top, a gentle female robotic voice tells them that “they are one.” Ostensibly, it is the mermaid’s song of civilised society. Suddenly, the voice calls on Shechter himself, the dancers stop and an argument erupts, during which Shechter’s voice explains nebulously that he has turned 40 and wanted to talk about innocence, loss of innocence, love.

The first part foreshadows the struggle between Baroque and club music that is fully let loose in the second part. Now, eight dancers in extremely tight golden bodysuits move, with very fast cuts, from Baroque ballet to folk dance to classical ballet to urban club dancing, always again referencing the animalistic, masculine vocabulary so recognisable in Shechter’s style. The music cuts from Baroque to electro, industrial to jazz, “Pussy Crook” by Mystikal to the Sound of Shechter, dubstep to courtly dances and sudden silences. While choreographically tight and performed to perfection, dramaturgically it is about as sophisticated as Shechter’s jejune speech. This tight remix of courtly sophistication and the urban jungle may invoke a struggle between social form and pure hearts, but at 40 one expects slightly more nuance.

The last part, the shortest, unexpectedly saves Barbarians. Shechter’s habitual crowd disappears and a man and a woman, she in glamorous white shirt and trousers, he in full Bavarian lederhosen, do a monotone mumbo shuffle to Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Maraba Blue,” an easy jazz piece. A fight follows. Distance. Finally, she stands in front of him and performs an oriental-ish dance, light and seductive, later joined by the rest of the ensemble. Rather clichéd, but completely unexpected from Shechter, this statement resolves the nonsense question of whether it is better to be a member of the Borg or of a wild horde, by remembering that, even when we make clichéd life decisions, we remain individuals. After an evening of nebulous semi-politics, this gesture is elating.

Miguel Gutierrez, DEEP AEROBICS

Finally, Miguel Gutierrez’s DEEP AEROBICS (DEEP an acronym for “Death Electric Emo Protest”) snuck into the program as a late-night free event and floored me with its intelligence. It is a progressive political performance with an extraordinary capacity to both heal and mobilise. Gutierrez employs every weapon in the arsenal of immersive performance to create a collective dance experience: obligatory costuming (with a range of outrageous clothing, make-up and glitter provided), music, dancefloor/bar setting and aerobics-like instructions that soon have us rather un-self-consciously dancing, touching walls, rolling on the floor, fondling each other and undressing to a serious level of nudity as the space heats up. “Remember,” roars Gutierrez, an exceptionally skilled master-of-ceremonies, “self-consciousness is the illusion that this is only happening to me!” However, once the tidy theatre audience has transformed into a sweaty semi-naked mob covered in floor dirt and glitter, Gutierrez slowly starts introducing political anger—at lack of health insurance for the poor, at oppression of minorities, at the traumas of hardship.

The emotionally liberating experience of dance thus becomes a collective cleansing of pain. Instead of succumbing to the dangerous neo-liberal panacea of docile self-improvement, Miguel Gutierrez reminds us of our own political struggles, which we can, paradoxically, see more clearly in this elated state. We are made to chant, “I am alive and I’m not afraid to die!” and, towards the end, “This spectacle is becoming predictable. Turn off the internet and get on the streets.” In between, saving the Earth with sex, channelling the forces of the benevolent universe into our bodies and spreading love to one another are all enacted without an ounce of irony. We practice consent by screaming “Yes! No! Maybe!” with fist pumps; or “you can do my hair, but you can’t get married!” while on our backs, kicking our legs in the air. The effect is politically enlightening, yet empowering. We leave the theatre fully charged for the revolution.

Foreign Affairs: Angélica Liddell, Atra Bilis Teatro, You Are My Destiny (lo stupro di Lucrezia), text, direction, design Angélica Liddell, 30 June; Hofesh Shechter Company, Barbarians, choreography, music Hofesh Shechter, 3-4 July; Deep Aerobics, Miguel Gutierrez, 25 June; Foreign Affairs, 25 June-5 July, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 40

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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