Rollerblading performers of Alex Baczynski-Jenkins's Us Swerve

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[8:tension] at ImPulsTanz Vienna 2018

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Human ventilators on wheels: Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’s Us Swerve. Photo © Palais de Tokyo/Atelier Diptik
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Claire Lefèvre
Don’t expect the new to be comfortable: the [8:tension] platform for new choreography is provocative, plural, sometimes tedious – and often out of the comfort zone

First created in 2001, the [8:tension] Young Choreographers’ Series has since become a staple of ImPulsTanz’s colossal summer programme. Every year, up to 12 dance makers are hand-picked by a curatorial team with the aim of highlighting new formats and offering fresh perspectives on the field of contemporary dance. The emerging artists perform twice each, and all are nominated for the ImPulsTanz Young Choreographers’ Award.

This year’s winner was B.B. by Ofelia Jarl Ortega (Sweden), a multi-faceted duet exploring the eroticised young female as a queer figure. The jury (Johann Ebert, Lisa Hinterreithner and Astrid Kaminski) celebrated her ‘exploration of viewing habits and undertaking of the power dynamics of seeing and being seen’, which they qualified as ‘subtle, critically affirmative and ambiguously self-confident’.1 Ortega does indeed challenge our gaze, stretching the timing – and at times our thinning patience – as she and Alexandra Tveit grind languorously to Patrik Patsy Lassbo’s music, in self-defined sexualisation. The choreographic stance here is clearly audacious, banking on the provocative movement material – a valid way to confront the viewers. While the purpose of Ortega’s piece is to challenge the viewers instead of pleasing them, this statement-making approach makes it difficult for the audience to stay engaged.


Self-defined sexualisation: Ofelia Jarl Ortega and Alexandra Tveit in B.B.

Indeed, several of the selected works are provoking and at times tedious, but this may be an inevitable by-product of inventing new forms of performance: the unknown is not comfortable. Curators Christine Standfest and Michael Stohlhofer are conscious of this, seeing themselves as mediators between the artworks and the audience: rather than choose works that they audience will surely like, they aim to convince the public of their relevance, and look for proposals that say to them: ‘I wouldn’t know about this if it weren’t for this show’.2 And indeed some works undeniably gave the uncanny feeling of experiencing something truly unique.

I ride in colours and soft focus, no longer anywhere by British maker Jamila Johnson-Small is a stark example of this bold curatorial approach: the piece is an overload of the senses, a pluri-disciplinary take on ‘noise over silence, now over yesterday and pleasure over doing it right’.3 Johnson-Small’s music tracks are all originals with her own vocals, while she also dips into visual arts, working with objects and astonishing video work, juxtaposed with intricately crafted dances. She clones her silhouette on screen, reinventing herself over and over again. She keeps with this kaleidoscopic tactic as three female acolytes then join her in a softly joyful whacking rave, or by inviting the audience to accompany her on stage. It is ambitious and complex, and frankly does not make our life easy as viewers – but why should it? If I wanted a safely entertaining evening, there are plenty of (pre)historical crowd-pleasers programmed in the festival.


Ambitious and complex: Jamila Johnson-Small’s I ride in colours and soft focus, no longer anywhere

Still, in the midst of the biggest dance festival in Europe, a certain viewer’s fatigue can creep in, which is perhaps why stricter formats such as lecture-performances seem to offer a pleasing respite to the public. Two outstanding examples of the genre were created by Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere (Belgium) and Jaha Koo (Korea), both of which discuss catastrophic events. In Mining Stories Huysmans and Dereere give a platform to plural perspectives on a singular topic – the 2015 Minas Gerais mining disaster in Brazil – and show what being strong allies to a cause might look like in a performance context. Using her body and an ingenious installation of loop pedals and video-projected surtitles, Huysmans becomes the metronome and prism through which to orchestrate imaginary conversations between several protagonists – the real virtuosity here perhaps being her standing alone on stage and yet not making the drama about herself.


It’s not about us: Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere’s Mining Stories

Jaha Koo’s Cuckoo on the other hand is absolutely autobiographical: a solo with three rice pressure-cookers that tells story of the 1998 Korean economic crisis and its ramifications, which he cleverly subtitles as ‘a society under pressure’. Koo weaves personal memories of the time with the country’s fate via video and audio archive material: a recollection of his grandmother putting a plastic bag on his head before leaving the house to protect him from teargas, is layered with images of street riots. The Cuckoos – staple rice cooking appliances in Korean kitchens – also discuss the crisis (with subtitles), philosophically debating happiness algorithms, or revolting against ‘white American bullshit’. Koo is masterful at giving the right weight to his sensitive topic: it’s bleak but humorous, simple but efficient, and most of all full of information but easy to digest. Like well cooked rice.


A society under pressure: Jaha Koo’s Cuckoo

Finally, in the blazing heat of Vienna’s summer, there was an undeniable sensual pleasure in sitting on a cold concrete floor to watch the three performers of Us Swerve swirl across the room on rollerblades, brushing past us like human ventilators on wheels. As they embark on this three-hour epic by 2018 Frieze Artist Award winner Alex Baczynski-Jenkins (UK/Poland), we settle into the repetitive format of the work and let our ears tune in to their voices, murmuring fragments of poetry to each other. Words are tasted and reciprocated, sentences reconstructed, morphing over and over again, in a playful interpretation of poems by Eileen Myles and Langston Hughes, among others. Like siblings or lovers able to finish each other’s sentences, the skating performers invite us into a (safe-)space of ‘friendship, desire and queer alliance’.4

If [8:tension] is in fact an accurate representation of the future of choreography, then the next generation of makers is most definitely in touch with their times: the works are complex, thoughtful and queer, with an urgent search for alliance, pleasure and pluralities of perspective. Something to look forward to. 


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1. Jury statement by Johann Ebert, Lisa Hinterreithner and Astrid Kaminski.
2. Christine Standfest and Michael Stohlhofer in conversation with ATLAS participants. Special thanks to Philippe Riera for the invitation to join the meeting.
3. Jamila Johnson-Small, programme notes.
4. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins in conversation with Kathy Noble for Kaleidoscope Magazine 29, Spring 2017.