A set made of a central slab with three layers and a backpiece, plus stpes to one side, and benches around it. Five figures in blue dresses and white stocking are arranged across the set. Sheets of white paper are strewn all over.

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What makes a performance contemporary?

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Three works at Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels take forms that articulate complexities of the world today

For some years now I have been interested in how artistic form responds to the complex realities we’re living in – how can it outwit them, and expose them with critical distance. Naturally, this was a lens through which I watched the dance programming of Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. I was following how artists intervene in the form, how they twist and turn it, how they challenge assumptions and stereotypes, how they continue traditions with both respect and subversion.

Often a formal approach includes a recontextualisation and reconsideration of styles and techniques from different times and places, their appropriation or emancipation, the reclaiming of practices and identities in a rich and often confusing mix of cultures and influences that the city of Brussels so well represents. During the intensive days of the festival, I found myself asking the same question repeatedly: what makes a work of live art contemporary?

Here I focus on three major works from the festival, exploring how their approach to form responds to current pressing global issues: political, social and ecological.

Mal – Embriaguez Divina Marlene Monteiro Freitas

In Mal (literally ‘evil’), Marlene Monteiro Freitas creates a philosophical movement fable that addresses the structures of power and how humans are shaped by them. The soldier, the judge, and the king – the figures where state power concentrates – keep reappearing in different parts of the performance. Employing the vocabulary of dance, visual and object theatre, and rehearsed to perfection, with strong contributions from dancers, and little space to leave the carnivalesque form, the world Mal creates is a dark (and fun) wonderland. It unfolds as a nightmare which cannot be interrupted.

The work may be physically tiring but the characters on stage aren’t really fleshy. They function like categories, like the cards from Alice in Wonderland, like chessboard figures, like dolls and puppets, and the grimaces on their faces often resemble masks. Carnival literally means ‘goodbye to meat’ (it was a moment before fasting), and it was a ‘time outside of time’, a medieval dream-like festivity where social norms were temporarily suspended, and the prince and pauper could switch places. Through the political forms of the march, the manifestation and the testimony, Mal explores how reality can turn into a grotesque nightmare, a whirlpool of rearranging power dynamics and positions.

Following its premiere at Théâtre Varia, a social media post compared the piece to The Green Table by Kurt Jooss – a work similarly mixing its contemporary political reality (the inter-war period) with the medieval imagery of danse macabre. Mal is long and overwhelming, insisting on its aesthetic decisions, and in a way it looks like it wants to be a totalising work that captures l’esprit de l’époque. However, I wonder – do universalising narratives work today in a time of fragmented social and political realities? Though it’s true we are all under the power of conservative politics and global capital, their effects in different contexts differ widely.

Yet the political turbulences reverberating throughout the globe, driven by the irrational impulses of power struggle, are captured brilliantly in a sequence where the nine performers are sitting amphitheatrically on desks three by three, making paper cities rise and fall in a frenetic trance. The sequence resonates strongly as our geopolitical architecture is simultaneously unravelling.


Woman in dark dress, white facepaint and red lips looking at her own hands, held before her. Behind her another per of hands can be seen. In the background are audience members seated in the room, which is a kind of formal drawing room, with chandelier
Trajell Harell’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Photo © Anna Van Waeg

The House of Bernarda Alba Trajal Harrell

Trajal Harrell continues his flirtation with vogueing – a house dance practice invented by the trans community at the Harlem ballroom scene in the late 80s, made mainstream by Madonna’s 1990 single Vogue. It was a practice of liberation, emancipation, empowerment and self-expression, of claiming space in an unapologetic way, inspired by catwalks, fashion magazines and the power poses of superstars. It has today spread internationally and is taught, performed and enjoyed as a style, somehow stripped of its political and emancipatory potential.

Once again Harrell makes a collage, creating unexpected links between times, geographies, and practices. Using Lorca’s Spanish play The House of Bernarda Alba as his starting point – referencing ‘house’ both as a collective in the vogue scene and the Schauspielhaus Zürich, where he is currently in-house artist – he then mixes vogueing with Japanese butoh. Born in the aftermath of the second world war, butoh is ‘a dance of darkness’, aestheticising the ugly and the repulsive. Why this combination?


Blue Quote Mark

Our bodies have become territory for extraction

Blue Quote Mark

In Harrell’s choreographic reading of Lorca, the characters of the play pass one by one along the catwalk of the lavishly designed stage – a simple but effective dramaturgical structure – but the sexy is replaced by the grotesque, and self-expression by oppression. Looking at the sickly faces, trembling hands, shaking torsos, drooling mouths and empty stares, one cannot help but ask – does this form mirror our contemporary political and economic reality? We are pushed to perform identities and to be constantly sharing our lives publicy, but we are exhausted ‘sad bodies’ (in the words of Nina Power) and barely coping with the pressures of late-stage cutthroat capitalism. An online meme sums it up: ‘if you work hard enough you can replace depression with exhaustion’. In Harrell’s culminating scene all the performers go on stage – including for the first time Harrell himself – for a slow-motion sequence with a palpable physical tension; but this new contemporary tension is not the sexual repression that both Lorca and the vogueing scene had to deal with in the 20th century, it is a new form of oppression we’re currently subjected to, as our bodies have become territory for extraction.


Against a very dark space, four screens are suspended showing computer relays of climate panels, computer filins and folders. Below and in front, two performers sit at a mixing desk with their backs to us
Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere, Out of the Blue. Photo © Loes Geuens

Out of the Blue Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere

Though not formally credited as ‘dance’, Out of the Blue by Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere, the last of a trilogy around mining, can be seen as a carefully crafted choreography alert to spacing, placing and pacing of its stage element and effects. The two artists sit in front of their laptops on the stage of Beursschouwburg with their backs to the audience during the whole show. The laptops are connected to two screens. Throughout the piece we go down the rabbit hole of folders and files, holding a mass of collected data comprising video, audio, pictures, and various cross-references, all related to the phenomenon of ‘deep-sea mining’ and its ecological, economic, social, political and poetic implications. The blue of the title refers both to the deep and unexplored seabed that holds metals the industry desires and life forms we don’t know enough about, and to ‘feeling blue’, the sense of sadness and helplessness in the face of man-made climate catastrophe.

This extensive research, we find out, was done online throughout the pandemic from the artists’ flat in Brussels, where they interviewed subjects on three different ships: a Belgian dredger searching the seabed for resources, a ship of scientists exploring and documenting marine life, and a Greenpeace boat protesting against deep-sea mining. While the artists remain completely detached from us, delivering the material in a cold-blooded documentary manner, the intimacy and honesty of the interviews, their approach, structure and arrangement evoke emotional reactions, pushing us from surprise, through anger to despair, while giving enough time, credit and trust to each of the subjects, without taking sides or making easy claims.

The overwhelming and paralysing complexity of our current economies and their potentially destructive influence on the environment is experienced as a series of deep dives into powerful countercurrents – scientific, activist and commercial – intercepted by collected artistic artifacts such as poems or songs. The brilliant form the artists have found educates and moves us, illuminating unknown territories both in the ocean and in ourselves, and exposing a complexity that forces us to think and makes it very difficult to act.

 

Through and beyond its dance programming, KFDA presented a series of performances that, apart from creating their own artistic worlds, also served as a thought-through line of questioning, allowing festival goers to reconsider their own blind spots – about contemporary dance and about the contemporary world. 


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