Diverse or drab?

A festival, showing new dance across Europe: what should it look like? What is it supposed to represent? In the beginning of April, we witnessed an attempt to answer those questions during Spring Forward, an annual festival staged by Aerowaves. This time Spring Forward was part of the Biennale de Danse du Val-de-Marne (region south-east of Paris), and presented 21 works by emerging choreographers from France, the UK, Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands.

If you described the programme to someone who was not at the festival, it would sound highly diverse. All kinds of important, critical and entertaining themes made appearances: nudity, older performers, musings on national identity, maternity and issues of power, pop music and ready-made choreography, feminism, disability, gender fluidity… So how is it possible that from the inside, the line-up felt somewhat boring and even in some ways conservative?

Let`s take a quick trip through it all to see the bigger picture of the festival, and try to find out where diversity turns out to be dull. But don`t be scared. There is also space for admiration, since some performances used precise concepts and dramaturgy to stand out from the crowd.

Harlekings and unicorns

The body acquired a political dimension and started to be perceived through the lens of ideology many years ago in dance and theatre. Dance itself is political, since it deals with the visibility of different bodies, physical discipline and sensibility. So it’s hardly surprising that half the works shown at the festival strived to bring social, cultural and ethical problems to the stage. The strongest Spring Forward offerings touched on issues of power, the political meaning of the body and its perception, yet they did so with completely different approaches.

“Harleking”, by the Italian duo Ginevra Panzetti and Enrico Ticconi, is a brilliant study of the socio-political and cultural dimensions of emotional states. From the grimacing of commedia dell’arte to mechanized yet bird-like hand movements, they introduced symbols of joy, mourning, fear, horror, tenderness and aggression — and then threw them away with a giggle, like old-fashioned theatre masks. Bound together by Demetrio Castellucci`s sound design, which transitions from guttural sounds to the roar of a crowd, the choreography moves from innocent pantomime to Nazi greetings, and then suddenly to gestures of solidarity. Thus, Panzetti and Ticconi connect ancient times and the present, personal emotions and major historical events by means of a fluid, changeable space where everything becomes blurred.

Another powerful piece, Chiara Bersani`s “Seeking Unicorns”, explored the political meaning of a “special” body when it comes in contact with the audience (Chiara lives with osteogenesis imperfecta). Surprisingly, she breaks with the conventional ways of working with the topic. Instead of insisting on equal possibilities or showing super powers (as Dancing Wheels Company has done, for instance), she slowly crawls on all fours, leaning on her knees and fists, inviting the spectators into a different symbolic space. Within that space, she`s not a person with a “special” appearance, but – oh my God – a unicorn! By using exaggerated self-exoticism as a joke, or a fairytale image as a door to open up new relationships with people, she creates an atmosphere imbued with strange eroticism. Could it make a shift in our perception of a special body? Somehow, I felt so. So did the people, perhaps, who were practically crying during and after Bersani`s performance.

“Seeking Unicorns” was shown on the third day of the festival – a day which brought body diversity to the programme after two days that made people anxious about the “whiteness”, “healthiness” and physical “normality” of the performers. And it really did – but not always successfully – especially in Robbie Synge and Lucy Boyes’ “Ensemble” and “Des gestes blancs” by NAÏF Production.

The choreographers of “Ensemble” shared the stage with three people in their 60s and 70s and tried to give a voice to the senior citizens onstage. Although there were promising improvised sequences, unfortunately, the piece failed to open up avenues for their individual physical expression, interrupting beautiful solos and subjecting them to childish and stereotypical choreography.

“Des gestes blancs” involved a child and purported to explore father-son relationships. While it is extremely well-made, cheerful and playful, the piece doesn’t address the sensitive issues which arise from that kind of physical contact. These include children’s physical boundaries, agency, sexual abuse, the specificity of adult-child contact, which were already apparent in Boris Charmatz’s “Enfant” or Fevered Sleep’s “Man and Girls Dance” project. These were powerful works of art, as they achieved something more than well-crafted choreography. On the contrary, “Des gestes blancs”, which seems to have been made without deeper research into the topic, looks more like a nice circus act.

The aesthetic effect of “Seeking Unicorns” and “Harleking” isn’t limited to the local context of the countries where the artists work. They deal with the most common, recognisable semantic codes, from pop music and fairytales to Nazi imagery. Meanwhile, other works dealing with political issues seemed to have been created in response to local situations and, when transferred to a “neutral” European stage, partly lost their power.

Examples included “The pure gold is seeping out of me” by Renata Piotrowska-Auffret (Poland), “Speechless”by Sofia Mavragani (Greece) and “Long Time No See” by a Finnish-Hungarian duet, Jenna Jalonen and Beatrix Simkó. “The pure gold…” brought to the fore motherhood and artificial insemination, as well as the complicated interplay between one’s personal life and work. Whereas on the more conservative Polish stage it is likely a bold statement, on the French stage it looked too straightforward and as a result felt somewhat depoliticised.

“Speechless”, a music and dance performance for two women and a man, strived to make room for different female voices, wandering between different centuries and countries. Though perfectly well-made and performed, it lost half of its meaning due to technical difficulties with the translation of the text into English. The performers` fluent speech sounded like beautiful noise for those who didn’t speak Greek, as the fast-moving subtitles remained unclear for non-native English speakers. Funnily, while working with the “universal” language of dance, the choreographer unintentionally highlighted the fact that there is no united Europe from a linguistic perspective.

A similar situation occurred in “Long Time No See”, where one Hungarian and one Finnish dancer ironically expanded upon the similarities and differences between their cultures. The piece is obviously rooted in local specificities and even when focused on jokes, it remains inaccessible to an international audience. These three works from the “socially-aware” part of the programme led me to wonder if the notion of European identity is legitimate at all.

Make dance dance again

Among the more abstract productions, roughly half of them appeared to involve rhythmic movement driven by the music, while the other half deconstructed existing dance traditions and toyed with ready-made choreography. All opted to focus on dance and sound instead of integrating speech or complex scenery.

While Lina Gómez`s “Restraint” showed how diverse and intense dance can be within the rigid framework of monotonous drum beats, Katerina Andreou`s “BSTRD” tested the audience’s patience with blinding lights, deafening club music and relaxed yet exhaustingly repetitive motion. Both pieces are based on repetition and pure dance with an element of ritual, yet their kinaesthetic impact is radically different.

James Batchelor`s “Hyperspace” and Thomas Bîrzan and Mario Barrantes Espinoza’s “Drift I” again offered different takes on extreme slow motion. While it’s interesting to watch Batchelor’s gradual transition from one posture to another, and immerse oneself into the dreamy images he creates, “Drift I” merely seemed to bring to the stage some movement research — sophisticated in itself, but artistically pointless.

Performed just after the nuanced, introspective “Hyperspace”, Paweł Sakowicz`s “Jumpcore” proved quite the contrast. While also slightly narcissistic, Sakowicz`s piece is saturated with self-irony and a kind of fervent despair. Inspired by a mysterious, suicidal performance by Fred Herko, an American dancer who jumped from a window to Mozart’s “Coronation Mass”, “Jumpcore” borrowed jumps from different dance styles and stitched them together in fast, stunningly weird sequences. Although this funny, lively piece lacked precise dramaturgy and was overlong, it exemplifies an approach to dance-making that was also partly on display in “Somiglianza” by Mattia Russo and Antonio de Rosa, and “Jean-Yves, Patrick & Corinne” by Collectif ÈS. Using choreographic patterns and dance traditions from the past, these productions created a collage of sorts, which relied on contrast and the audience`s pleasure upon recognising familiar stories. An old method, but it might have worked if it had been used for a clear artistic purpose.

Lust for precision?

It would be dishonest to deny that each work at Spring Forward had its charm and well-crafted sections, that the dancers were well trained, the costumes nice… All in all, I had lots of fun. How is it possible, then, that along the way this apparent diversity turned out to be dull? Was it because almost every performance conformed to a traditional black-box setting? Because artists’ political statements work mainly within a local context? Or was it just because these emerging choreographers don’t quite have the experience to be more precise and make better dramaturgical choices?

“You are a choreographer. Make something authentic,” says a dancer ironically at the beginning of “Jean-Yves, Patrick & Corinne”. That’s impossible, the Collectif ÈS then insists as they work instead with pop songs and ready-made choreography from popular aerobics videos. Striving for authenticity is irrelevant for 2019. So, what kind of quest should replace it? I would definitely bet on the quest for precision.

Anna Kozonina