Lately, that certain sense of excitement of waiting for the lights to go down in the theatre has been replaced by a different kind of excitement: that of connecting your laptop to your TV and getting your internet connection work on time before the stream starts. A substitute? Yes. A valuable one? Definitely.
Not only for audiences, but for companies as well: Hands do not touch your precious Me, by Belgian company Ultima Vez, was cancelled twice in light of the pandemic before being premiered as a ticketed livestream from the stage of KVS in Brussels, available for 48 hours. A collaboration between choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, sculptor/performer Olivier de Sagazan and dancer-turned-composer Charo Calvo, the piece centres around stories of the Sumerian goddess Inanna (the enigmatic title, in which Me is the Sumerian word for ‘quality’, comes from a hymn dedicated to her). Inanna is a goddess of contradictions: the embodiment of both the bright and dark sides of existence. First, she steals the so-called Mes (the divine decrees on life) from the god Enki, which makes her a powerful and rich ruler. But later she descends to the underworld to meet her sister Ereshkigal, and has to renounce all her possessions before being able to be reborn.
Those two spheres of existence are represented on stage by two different artistic worlds: Vandekeybus’s nine dancers, who almost fly through the stage with their jumps and rolls (the choreographer himself dances Enki with a camera in his hand, magnifying and freezing certain moments on a wall used as a screen); and de Sagazan’s slowly progressing performance art that aims to transform his body by his frequently used materials of clay and paint, and includes setting his fuzzy blond wig on fire. At first these two worlds don’t collide, but gradually and almost undetected, de Sagazan (who portrays Ereshkigal) captures more and more dancers like a spider captures its prey in its web. He smears them with thick layers of clay and splatters them with red and black paint, forming them into dripping, muddy creatures: somewhat inhuman, somewhat threatening. After Inanna loses the last of her lot to the underworld, she has no choice but face its ruler, her sister. Their embrace is turned into a living clay sculpture, and Inanna is brought to a new existence in a hypnotic circle dance.
Watching a stage performance on screen is a tricky thing: the camera drags you into the middle of the action, and yet you always remain an outsider. You’ll miss out on things, you will never get the whole picture, and most importantly, you will not be able to feel the energies, risks and vibes that make theatre what it really is. In exchange, you get details that you wouldn’t see if you were sitting in an auditorium. Perhaps this is why I found most of the beauty in the details while watching this stream: in Lieve Meeussen’s portrayal of Inanna – a wise, brisk woman who faces life’s ups and downs with the same resilience; in Anna Karenina Lambrechts’ sensual and feminine warrior-moves; in Maureen Bator’s breathtaking transformation from anxious human being with shaky hands and frightened eyes to a wild and weird clay-covered entity.
I could go on, but the point is: while the sight of the familiar acrobatic, gravity-defying Vandekeybus crowd is also pleasing, it is the individual performances that can keep us on the edge of our sofa. It’s hard though, in these viewing conditions, to judge the complexity and depth of the piece as a whole – that’s to be checked live in a theatre, once the time is right.