O Death, where is thy spring?

Everyone noticed it. Death cropped up all over this year’s Spring Forward festival. It was almost as present as the performers. It was there in the empty, will-of-the-wisp spotlight that trailed the ghost of Pavlova’s dying swan in Martin Hansen’s Monumental, and in the kill-me-now depressiveness of Hege Haagenrud’s The Rest is Silence. It was there in the disembodied nihilism of Luke Baio and Dominik Grünbühel’s Ohne Nix, in the white shroud of Mithkal Alzghair’s Displacement, and in the mummy’s-dead agonies of Kuan-Hsiang Liu’s Kids. And nowhere was it more centre stage – or more indistinguishable from the live performer – than in Renata Piotrowska-Auffret’s matter-of-factly titled Death: Exercises and Variations, in which she takes up the grinning, grotesque postures of the Death as depicted in medieval woodcuts of the danse macabre, then jiggles about with pointed jointedness until we can all but see dem dry bones rattling inside her, and ends up slow-dancing with a skeleton.

So much for springtime.

Still, it made me a happy bunny. I found the fixation fascinating – especially in Piotrowska-Auffret’s solo-with-skeleton. At this point, I should mention a conversation I had with one of the participants in Springback, the writing-and-interviewing programme that runs alongside Spring Forward. It went like this:

Springbacker: Have you seen the skeleton dance?
Me: Not yet.
SB: Let me know what you think afterwards, because the reaction in our group was unanimous.
Me: Okay.
SB: By the way, if you think differently we will lose all respect for you as a critic.
Me: No pressure, then.
SB: Hahaha!

It turned out that I thought differently. What to do? Well, I figured that for a critic, loss of respect (which at least assumes you have some in the first place) is just an occupational hazard. And having already been there a few times, I can tell you this: it won’t kill you. So here goes.

Piotrowska-Auffret’s solo had me hooked because I had never seen a dance link death and the female body like this before. Of course, dance has a deep and historic association with female death. From Giselle to The Dying Swan and beyond, classical ballet – so often intent on separating the feminine spirit from the female body – strews its stages with the corpses of beautiful women. Female death is portrayed over and again as beautiful, tragic, romantic, and often virginal – or at least in the honeymoon period (a loaded term indeed). As well as narratively desirable, perhaps even necessary.

But these are dead women; what about death as woman? That figure appears, though less frequently, in the guise of La Morte Amoureuse: the siren who lures men to their death. Perhaps the most direct example is in Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. Balanchine’s Serenade, meanwhile, has one of each type: a tragically dying woman, and a feminine angel of death.

In her danse macabre, Piotrowska-Auffret is neither dying maiden nor femme fatale. (Of course, she does not use the ballet idiom, which helps.) She is more like the Grim Reaper, a figure usually personified, implicitly or explicitly, as male. The female body on the other hand, and for obvious reasons, is commonly use to symbolise birth, not death. By playing the Grim Reaper, Piotrowska-Auffret can override the usual dualities to embody her fundamental idea: that life and death are inseparable. We all have dem dry bones, she seems to say, and dancing makes us feel their rattle.

On stage, Piotrowska-Auffret introduces the skeleton as a version of herself. She lies supine (in yoga, the “corpse pose”), then lays the skeleton down in the exact same place and posture she has just vacated. She tenderly picks it up, faces it skull-to-skull, wrapping its arms around her neck, cradling its cage of ribs and resting its pelvis against hers so that we see a tender embrace, a mirror image and an X-ray body double all at once.

In this position, the pair move into their smoochy slow-dance. At first it feels protective (the image of mother and child comes to mind), then more sexual as the pelvis gets grindy, and finally, as the skeleton begins to fall apart and Piotrowska-Auffret to fling its bits about, more destructive. I wasn’t so keen on that destroying-death bit, but I loved the rest of this final dance. It seemed entirely apt that it should embrace love, sex, life and death within a single coupling – and refreshing that those were not split along the usual gender lines. If the body is female here, the skeleton (death) is neuter. The bones on which all our flesh is built. Mortality is the condition for vitality.

Whether Piotrowska-Auffret’s solo hit the right register or pacing or sequence are another matter (and perhaps that is the conversation the Springback group wanted). But for these reasons, and for the record, I found Death: Exercises and Variations morbidly and irresistibly fascinating. It left me with a spring in my step.

Note: For more on dance and death, I recommend Madison Mainwaring’s stimulating and poetic article The Naked Skeleton: Some Notes on the Danse Macabre

Sanjoy Roy