And I still can’t, as manufacturing and mechanisation were the key topics I was confronted with when I arrived in Esch for Bengolea’s performance. Part of the city’s 2022 European Capital of Culture programme, La Danse des Éléments sought to respond to the industrial history of the Belval neighbourhood, interpreting it through the lens of danse libre (free dance), a movement that rejected classical styles of dance – as well as the increasingly industrial, rigid, and mechanical context of the early 20th Century – in favour of a return to sensory experiences and nature. Think Isadora Duncan prancing pixie-like in the waves, or Rudolf Laban dancing naked by a lake in Monte Verità, Switzerland, with his troupe of devout followers.
Originally home to Luxembourg’s economy-fuelling steel industry until its collapse in the late 1970s, Belval still boasts two out of three of its original imposing blast furnace structures, now impressively integrated into the new modern architecture of the town. Bengolea’s performance took place on the foundations of the missing third – which was dismantled and shipped to China – where a circular performance space named ‘Socle C’ has been erected.
La Danse des Éléments opened with its cast performing a range of trios and duets on the top of the stone walls that surrounded the sunken performance space. Dressed in multi-coloured, Cunninghamesque unitards, the groups joined hands to create ceremonial circles and floated their limbs through space in choreography that was floaty and unspecific.
Connected to each other by harnesses – presumably for safety as well as artistic reasons – the dancers also supported each other in a range of counterbalances and risky manoeuvres, such as holding each other back as they lent and swung their bodies close to the edge of the steep drop beside them. These seemingly perilous moments, aided by the visions of cranes and blast furnaces in the background, effectively made me think of the dangerous conditions Belval’s former residents would have worked under, and the necessity for support and solidarity in industrial communities.
As the performance progressed, however, Bengolea’s themes became increasingly unclear. Descending into the performance space on the same level as the audience, the dancers began to perform more set routines fusing together styles including neoclassical ballet (many of the female performers wore pointe shoes), contemporary dance, and hip hop to a score of electronic and rap tracks.
It was a perplexing mixture, and for a while I wasn’t sure how it all related to Bengolea’s initial intentions. Retrospectively, I thought that considering the dancers were students from CNSMD Lyon, by encouraging them towards new styles Bengolea liberated them from the confines of their classical training in the spirit of danse libre. Alternatively, the medley of cross-cultural styles could have represented how globalisation now allows us to use elements from across the world to smelt together new ‘products’, rather than just those we have on our doorstep.