More guided tour than stage performance: Mette Ingvartsen in 69 Positions.


Hack me tender: Mette Ingvartsen’s Red Pieces

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More guided tour than stage performance: Mette Ingvartsen in 69 Positions. Photo © Fernanda Tafner
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Orgies, utopias and joyful existence in Mette Ingvartsen’s Red Pieces

Sunday evening, 21 July 2019 – the densely packed hall of the Akademie Theater in Vienna burst into an applause that did not subside for almost ten minutes. Twelve half-naked dancers of Mette Ingvartsen’s 7 pleasures were coming back for a bow again and again, having performed an acapella vocalisation of a collective orgasm. This intriguing musical number turned out to be the last ‘pleasure’ of the 100-minute piece by the Danish choreographer, who is famous, among other things, for a series of works on desire and sexuality called The Red Pieces. Usually featured separately, this year the whole series was presented by the ImPulsTanz international dance festival. Evidently these shows, however weird and disturbing, hit right into the heart of the international audience – and perhaps even got into their pants.

Organising orgies

The Red Pieces currently comprise four works. 69 positions (2014) and 21 pornographies (2017) are solos by Ingvartsen herself, while 7 pleasures (2015) and to come (extended) (2017) are collective performances for twelve and fifteen dancers respectively. In various ways, the pieces question well-established images of sexual practices, explore how desire and sexual energy are appropriated by capitalism, investigate the affinity between the public and the intimate, and try to invent new modes of erotic relationship.

One of the most powerful images in the pieces is the orgy, which appears most prominently in 7 pleasures and to come (extended). In both works it serves to question patriarchal and couple-based sexual practices, but the critique unfolds in different ways. In the first part of to come, an orgy is a means to depersonalise and de-identify the dancers, as they perform pornographic scenes in tight blue suits that hide age, gender and national differences. Penetration, a symbol of male power and supremacy, is replaced here by mutual frottage. The imagery, thus, stays sex-positive, but loses its binding to aggression against women, which has historically been in the heart of mainstream pornography.

Uncoupling pleasure from penetrative practices... Mette Ingvartsen’s to come (extended)

7 pleasures consists of seven scenes where a group of people embody non-standard ways of reaching a collective ecstasy. It starts with a huddle of naked bodies in the far corner of the stage, which then gradually transforms and moves forward through the scenery, looking like a huge lump of soft dough. In the following scenes a table, an armchair, a carpet, fancy lamps, as well as meditation balls and quirky straps become equal participants of the human orgy. The borders between the bodies, as well as between the bodies and the objects, completely disappear. A woman, putting a houseplant between her legs, starts to lick its leaves, as if the plant asked for it. Another performer is wrapped in a carpet, so that it seems to grab and devour her on its own… The objects in 7 pleasures, whether sex toys or interior furnishings, seem to acquire a will of their own and the ability to desire.

Archives and utopias

Even a cursory glance at these three scenes reveals Ingvartsen’s focus on sexuality in relation to social and political issues. This is even clearer in 69 positions which, unlike the other Red Pieces, is not a stage show but a guided tour. Ingvartsen invites visitors into the exhibition space showing documentation of 1960s performances such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964), Dionysus in 69 by The Performance Group, and Yayoi Kusama’s manifesto ‘Stock is a fraud!’, which served as a press release for Naked Demonstration at Wall Street back in 1968.

During those years, the naked body was a means and symbol of protest against wars and expanding capitalism. As usually happens in times of social upheaval, this was a period of rethinking the limits between the public and the private. Free bodily and sexual expression, taken from the repository of the intimate sphere, was supposed to be one of the routes to a new social order. In 69 positions and in the later Red Pieces, Ingvartsen works with the artistic archive of the 1960s to observe how everything has changed through the years of neoliberal turn in politics and culture. She reflects on how eroticism and seduction have been captured by marketing strategies to impose excessive consumption, how aggressive pornography established itself instead of new joyful social order. This critique partly appears in 7 pleasures, where capitalistic eroticising of objects is taken to the limit, so that objects themselves seem to start having desires. You can see it too in the last part of 69 positions, when Ingvartsen licks the lightbulb and the table, and intensively rolls a meditation ball along her spine.

Having observed the histories of the 1960s and 2000s, Ingvartsen insists that today the naked body is a costume, not a manifesto; yet it remains the battlefield for and against traditional sexual identities. For decades, this battle has been taking place under our skin, on the level of pharmacology, affects and desires. That’s why, in the third part of the guided tour, she reads extracts from Testo Junkie, a book by transgender activist, philosopher and biohacker Paul B. Preciado. That’s why 69 positions ends with imaginary erotic practices, with special devices which stimulate and sex up bodies in order to ‘hack’ our common notions of pleasure. Freedom today has nothing to do with ‘free’ bodily expression, says Ingvartsen in an interview with Tom Engels, but it has to be continuously constructed – through collective or individual subversive practices.

Joyful resistance and dark imagination

Though Ingvartsen seems to be a good cultural theorist, her works stand away from ‘conceptual’ dance pieces. Instead of presenting dull choreographic concepts, she prefers capturing our attention with powerful images and vigorous music. Thus, she borrows pop-culture emotional strategies, which have usually been more engaging and seductive than the methods of theatre. This is very clear in the last scene of to come, where naked performers spin in crazy Lindy Hop dancing, exchanging partners, leaders and gender roles. Familiar tunes and infectious movements energise the audience and, together with Ingvartsen’s critique, create what she calls ‘joyful resistance’.

Another Red Pieces’ battleground is, of course, imagination, which is so crucial for marketing, politics, erotica and theatre. It is the very sphere where we can conceive utopias, train our sensitivity, succumb to temptations and nurture desires. Exercises with imagination arise, more or less explicitly, throughout all the series – but most of all in 21 pornographies, the darkest of Ingvartsen’s cycle.

Mette Ingvartsen in 21 Pornographies
Seduction violence and – crucially – the imagination. Mette Ingvartsen in 21 Pornographies. Photo © Jens Sethzman

21 pornographies takes place mostly in the spectators’ minds, and begins with a voiceover recounting a story set in an old mansion. While nothing is happening visually, the audience’s attention is being absorbed by a narration, in which seductive scenes intertwine with those of violence. In a few minutes, Ingvartsen comes on stage and stays there as a narrator and a performer. She tells the stories, sometimes portraying their fragments – always appealing to the viewers’ ability to imagine.

Thus, in the first part, she tells of a young girl in a white dress – a symbol of innocence – who is enforced to satisfy the desire of a pervert and eat his shit. At that moment Ingvartsen addresses the viewers and asks them to try a chocolate sweet, hidden under their chairs. Later, we have to imagine an erotic video shooting, in which chocolate is poured over the actress until she faints. The imaginary film director then works on a military movie, trying to make it more and more brutal. Although spectators can see almost nothing, Ingvartsen’s performance is shocking – mostly because of how delicately she fuses seduction and violence. In 21 pornographies there is no morality and no clear ethical statement – you can be shocked by the dark side of pleasure, and enjoy it as well. And that’s what makes this piece intimidating, disgusting and, at the same time, enticing and extremely powerful.

For the first time throughout The Red Pieces, we see clearly the value of Ingvartsen’s orgies and joyful existence. We explore the dark side of pornographic pleasure, which, after all the old feminist debates of the 1970s, is still mostly about consumerism and violence. We see how common sexual imagery is related to the history of media, and this history, in turn, to the needs of war. In the end, we see that our imagination, usually captured by the politics of consumption, is a battlefield, where alternative ways of living can appear.

Sounds too much like what was buried in the 1960s? But it doesn’t seem that Ingvartsen wants to wake the dead: she wants theatre to remain a place where we can together work on the political imagination. 

The orgy as collective, not coupled, ecstasy. Mette Ingvartsen’s 7 Pleasures.
The orgy as collective, not coupled, ecstasy. Mette Ingvartsen’s 7 Pleasures. Photo © Marc Coudrais

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Akademie Theater, Vienna, Austria
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To find out more on The Red Pieces, listen to Mette Ingvartsen’s talk at the Kaaitheater, Brussels, in April 2018:

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