Death. Exercises and Variations
I recently read an article claiming that terrorism has found the Achilles’ heal of Western societies – their fear of death. Renata Piotrowska starts her performance by speaking directly to the audience about her fascination with death and mortality. Inspired by the medieval “danse macabre”– illustrations personifying death as a skeleton, always in the company of a human being – Renata created a movement language by simply copying the pictures physically and exploring the skeletal system of her own body, and then moving on to imagine the hidden motion behind the static form. Exhausting movement routines with grotesque facial expressions and sharp changes of position follow until a skeleton is dragged onstage to participate in an actual “dance of death”. The audience was laughing a lot but I wasn’t sure if they were actually having fun or trying to suppress an anxiety that often accompanies this taboo topic.
A dance with death? A dance to the death? A dance of death? The Polish choreographer Renata Piotrowska-Auffret offers variations on these themes in “Death. Exercises and variations,” a solo that progresses through verbal explication of the danse macabre—a medieval genre in which death is personified as a skeletal, grimacing, cavorting figure—to an enactment of that dance, and a defiant assertion of life.
Along the way, Piotrowska-Auffret undresses, draws attention to the near-skeletal nature of her body (“although breast-feeding right now”), and offers a compelling series of grotesque poses, culled from medieval illustrations. But the confrontational aspect of the piece begins to fade when she brings on a skeleton with a tendency to disintegrate.
Although there is a melancholy poetry in an initial slow embraced circling, Piotrowska-Auffret can’t resist playing to the audience, and the dance devolves into broad comedy as she manipulates the skeleton – bits of which keep falling off – into a pelvis-gyrating, leg-kicking routine. The idea of facing death is erased by laughter; so are the subtleties of her subject.
Renata Piotrowska-Auffret is, in her own words, “skinny, almost see-through, with long legs” – some might say skeletal. Medieval Danse Macabre images are mementos mori and ‘Death. Exercises and variations’ is Piotrowska-Auffret’s own tongue-in-cheek version. Undressed, she explains her simple research process with theoretical terms, provoking laughter from a knowing audience. Posing in the angular, grotesque forms of each death figure in the book, she pieces together the static forms into a jerky, manic, entertaining series.
Re-entering with a plastic skeleton, the two bony figures dance an increasingly frantic routine based on her visual studies. Rare moments of ballroom-intimate poetry are interrupted by narration and clunky but comedic maintenance to the disintegrating joints.
She’s surely about to die – it’s her ‘last dance’ – so I’m glad she’s having fun. Cue: ‘Time of My Life’ from ‘Dirty Dancing’. “Actually,” she says, “I have never felt more alive!” Damn.