Cherish Menzo, Darkmatter. Photo © Bas de Brouwer

review, article

Eyes on Tanz im August 2023

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Cherish Menzo, Darkmatter. Photo © Bas de Brouwer
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Tanz im August (TiA) – a stalwart festival in the German contemporary dance scene that was founded in 1988 in former West Berlin – seemed to take an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to its 2023 edition. The first year under new artistic director Ricardo Carmona, audiences may have expected a breath of fresh air following Virve Sutinen’s eight-year tenure in the role. However, Carmona’s ten years as a curator at Hebbel Am Ufer (HAU) – the dance house that presents TiA – seem to have acclimatised him to the festival’s pre-existing structures and approaches.

As a result, this year Carmona maintained TiA’s steady ration of local and international choreographers, bringing back several familiar faces to present work: while the likes of Kat Válastur and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker regularly show in Berlin’s theatres, Chiara Bersani and Trajal Harrell have both performed at TiA before, the latter for two years in a row. Carmona also maintained TiA’s socio-political preoccupations: while last year’s edition saw the conclusion of the festival’s three-year-long URBAN FEMINISM project that brought together female choreographers from the city’s hip-hop scene, this August saw the initiation of Dance & Ecology, a project inviting local choreographers to create works in Berlin’s parks based on exploring themes of nature and sustainability.

Considering the controversy some of the recent developments in Berlin’s visual art scene have provoked – an increase in DJ sets at gallery openings and the launch of new for-profit museum Fotografiska Berlin has ignited conversations about gentrification and the influx of private money and populism into the characteristically left-wing city – perhaps there’s a method in Carmona’s adherence to the status quo. That said, if he sticks around as long as his predecessor, I’m interested to see how, over time, he’ll make the festival his own… – EM

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Insel, by Ginevra Panzetti and Enrico Ticconi
Insel, by Ginevra Panzetti and Enrico Ticconi

Ginevra Panzetti & Enrico Ticconi INSEL, Sophiensæle

Ginevra Panzetti and Enrico Ticconi interpret the theme of ‘islands’ (the English translation of the German title) both literally and metaphorically in their latest work: while the opening of the piece is soundtracked by whipping winds and thunderclaps, to which their cast of four dancers launch themselves onto stage from behind the back curtain, gasping heavily like castaways on a desert island, the word also inspires choreographic explorations of isolation and depression.

Dressed as explorers, two performers stride around the stage lip-syncing to poetic, self-pitying lines in Italian – some of which, such as ‘here’s neither bush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all’, are direct quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest – that emanate from speakers attached to their leather braces. (For non-Italian speakers, there is a translation in hard-to-read cursive, overlapping handwriting on a screen hanging from the ceiling.) With dramatic facial expressions and pleading mimetic gestures, they indulge their emotions, so self-absorbed that they fail to notice each other, or the two sinister figures dressed in all black that shadow their every motion. Are these their alter egos, or physical manifestations of their sadness? Or are they friends going through their own troubles that the ‘explorers’ have mentally blocked out due to being consumed by their own sadnesses?

Eventually, the four cast members (Sissj Bassani, Efthimios Moschopoulos, Aleksandra Petrushevska, Julia Plawgo) collapse on the floor from exhaustion. When they stir, they’re more receptive to one another: to a pulsing, heart-beat-like sound, they take turns to perform solos to each other as if cathartically sharing their feelings. After a while, they form a circle around an elevated funnel that releases a steady flow of stand onto the stage floor. From here, the dancers descend into a series of repeated gestures to the increasingly intense beat of the sound score: in ritualistically circular pathways, they cover their eyes and shake their heads emphatically from side to side, flick their wrists, and produce white handkerchiefs that they thwack violently on the floor.

INSEL’s cast appears like a cult of depression, vehemently, almost aggressively, celebrating sorrow. On the one hand, I can’t help but think it’s a good thing that the characters have found a way to collectively process their pain. As they approach the audience with intense eye contact, however, I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable. It’s as if the dancers are calling us out on sitting by and doing nothing as they pour out their hearts and plead for help. It reminds me that while seeking human connection is well known as one of the best ways to combat depressive spirals, not everyone is willing to offer it. – EM

Agata Siniarska null&void, HAU3

Agata Siniarska’s null&void kicks off a few seconds before the supposed end of the anthropocene. Raucous droney sounds and flickering grey lights already shape my expectations: yes, we are in for another post-apocalyptic dance journey. Alone on stage, Siniarska is first hidden under a mass of angularly sculpted anthracite fabric. Her deformed quivering fingers and forearms appear, or rather grow, from underneath, like alien fungi; the fabric vibrates and moves, and the sound intensifies presaging yet another collapse. The landscape is tragic, death is imminent, the war is still ongoing.

Unsurprisingly, Siniarska’s research revolves around non-human somatic practices. How would a plant, a stone, a chunk of moss, a fox or an ant react to bloodshed? And how can we, humans, discern and enact this movement vocabulary? Siniarska emphatically proves that she can: when she finally emerges from underneath the fabric, she is indeed by turns an injured beast, a rock, a plant or an insect. Seldom standing, and mostly crawling, always slow and cautious, and with a remarkable economy of choreographic means, she scans and tests the space, as if seeking a refuge or a deathbed.

While the overall concept and set would have benefitted from a more audacious take and a slightly less literal framing, Siniarska’s attention to somatic details is nothing short of outstanding. Such an eerie wounded animal, she slightly pivots her spine, and a hardly visible shiver runs down her neck. When she curls on the ground and brings her knees to her chin, her fading posture is full of resting grace, but quick muscle twitches and spastic breathing betray the state of constant alert. Interpretative yet anything but dull, ‘null&void’ is rich with such tiny gestural gems. They make this quiet and dark solo shine bright in an otherwise star-studded selection of this year’s Tanz im August. – EB

Trajal Harrell’s The Romeo. Photo © Orpheas Emirzas
Trajal Harrell’s The Romeo. Photo © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell/Schauspielhaus Zürich Dance Ensemble The Romeo, Haus der Berliner Festspiele

American choreographer Trajal Harrell rose to prominence with his series of solo works Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (2010) which asked: ‘What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the Voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?’ Now, as the artistic director of the Schauspielhaus Zürich Dance Ensemble, he’s still posing questions, and engaging with the idea of speculative history to inspire his choreography. Harrell’s latest work for the company, ‘The Romeo’, is no exception, as it aims to imagine a folk dance ‘that is danced by all people of all different generations and genders, of all temperaments and moods.’

It’s an interesting concept, and one that’s initially central to the choreography: after a opening in which a 14-strong cast, including Harrell himself, each confess to everything from liking to give oral to having crossed eyes and not speaking Spanish, they exit stage and re-emerge through an arched trellis walkway. As the dancers spread across the stage, they begin to ripple one of their arms, their spines undulating in agreement with the gesture. It appears to be the root motion of the folk dance Harrell has imagined: over the next few scenes, it is repeated and varied into different iterations. In one particularly pleasing moment, the dancers join hands and ripple into a circular formation, their raised arms and skipping feet reminiscent of existing circular folk dances that can be found across various cultures and countries.

The Romeo’s engagement with its starting point quickly melts away, however, as it descends into a milieu of Trajal tropes: in the latter half of the performance there are incessant costume changes into increasingly outlandish outfits, and a runway style section in which dancers strut continuously up and down the stage to an intense, beating soundscore. Other trademark moments include a prelude in which the dancers casually chat and mill about onstage as the audience enter the theatre, and scenes in which the choreographer sits on a piano stool at the side of the stage to watch his dancers performing around him.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a stylistic signature, here it feels unreflective of the work’s professed inspiration. By contrast, Harrell’s earlier works such as Showpony (2007) engage with the fashion world and the performativity of catwalks more deeply and directly – elements that were also used, arguably to better effect, in The Köln Concert (2020), presented at TiA last year. With The Romeo, though, style seems at odds with purpose. – EM

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Yasmeen Godder, Practicing Empathy #3. Photo © Tamar Lamm
Yasmeen Godder, Practicing Empathy #3. Photo © Tamar Lamm

Yasmeen Godder Company Practicing Empathy #3, HAU1

While Practicing Empathy #3 is the first solo Yasmeen Godder has created for herself in her 25-year career, it’s the third and final instalment of her project exploring the act of empathy in a performative context. As a result, there’s a lot of contextual information for the Israeli choreographer to impart before she even starts to move. Stood at the centre of an in-the-round stage wearing jazzy leggings and heeled boots, she addresses her audience, explaining the roots of her project and how covid forced her to work on her own body for this concluding chapter, while also philosophising about the nature of performances as meeting places between strangers.

This opening, as well as other spoken-word sections in which Godder describes the twists and turns of her creation process – at one point she even leads a guided meditation, asking the audience to notice our physical sensations and the images that emerge in our heads after having watched her perform for 45 minutes – could feel didactic if executed differently. Yet, Godder’s naturalistic, fourth-wall breaking delivery fittingly invites viewers to empathise with her as a human rather than ‘just’ a dancer.

In between these monologues, Godder performs choreographic studies based on different starting points. While the first is inspired by how she took up jogging during the pandemic as a way to connect to her emotions – there’s a mixture of circular runs, body slaps, heavy-footed stamps, fingers pulling at her jaw, and intense eye contact – it’s the scenes in which she manipulates a series of fabric sculptures by artist Gilli Avissar that really bring Practicing Empathy #3 to life. Covering her joints with colourful cones and tangling her limbs up in crochet-like webs, Godder appears to be creating a protective layer for herself that fluctuates between being comforting and restrictive. ‘During the pandemic, we all had to create our own personal cocoons,’ she says later.

Godder’s corona ‘cocoon’ consisted of her partner and daughter, who she evokes on stage using life-sized puppets, also created by Avissar. She activates her fabric family – attached to her body via a contraption of metal poles – in a joyous conclusive dance to Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round. As she skips playfully around the stage, the figures to her front and back cleverly come to life, bouncing in response to her movements with their own unique personalities. It feels like the ultimate symbol of empathy: even though technically alone on stage, Godder carries her nearest and dearest around with her wherever she goes. They are literal and metaphorical extensions of herself. – EM

Cherish Menzo DARKMATTER, HAU2

There are shows that make you hold your breath from the beginning till the end, and yet they evaporate from your memory the next day. And then there are those that test your sensibility and give about as much as they ask in return – but stay with you for quite some time. Cherish Menzo’s DARKMATTER is the latter kind.

The second part of a trilogy that had started with a black video-vixen solo, Jezebel, DARKMATTER explores materialities and political implications of darkness and Blackness. Together with her onstage partner Camilo Mejía Cortés, Menzo looks into ways in which physical and ontological features of dark matter can inform our perception of a (Black) body. Quite a programme! The show begins with a startling scene with both dancers sporting ovoid mirror masks. With ceremonial care, one paints the other’s torso with black viscous liquid. A sudden long blackout marks the scene shift, interrupted by a glitchy break: the performers’ faces are revealed and promptly strobed. The first scene illustrates well the Chopped and Screwed technique that Menzo borrowed from the 90s hip-hop and DJ scene to devise the distorted reality of DARKMATTER. The movement patterns are diced and never lead to a logical ending, the dance style patches intermingle, a drawn-out arm sweep suddenly stumbles only to be followed by a quick medley of shrugs and neck twists. The footwork slows down to explode into a fast-paced series of hip swivels that immediately overlap with lengthy undulating spins. The dancers hurl themselves around the stage, rewind to earlier portions of the show, then fast-forward to the end of an only cursorily suggested voguing sequence. Menzo also purposefully obfuscates the show’s dramaturgical ark, blurs the literal and shrouds most, if not all, references, allegories and nods. Elsewhere and with a less crafty handling, such a cathedral of a show would crumble into pieces, but Menzo keeps a firm grip on the rich dance material and the overall tempo of the show.

Pace-wise DARKMATTER is stamped by a series of short and vigorous rap interludes that Menzo delivers downstage. In one particularly startling moment she spits vehemently: ‘Onyx in a trance, who’s the puppeteer? Who’s the puppeteer? Who’s the puppeteer?’ with her arms aloft. Her whole body jiggling as if suspended to the wrists, she is the puppet and the puppeteer. This (extra)bodily in-between might be a clue to the symbolic dimension of DARKMATTER, just like another rap anthem: ‘Fictional bodies blur out the boundaries. Body is a planet, body has migrated. The future can only be for ghosts and the past.’

DARKMATTER requires utmost attention and does not sell all its secrets easily. In this oddity of a show, sinewy strangeness comes at the expense of immediacy, but this is how the best works of art operate: you feel them without always being able to explain them. – EB

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Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany
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