Experimental Theater, Taipei
October 24, 2019
Increasingly acclaimed internationally for his innovative style, Belgian choreographer Jan Martens’ double bill at Taipei’s Experimental Theater proved an evening of contrasts and plenty of interest.
In Rule of Three (三之律), Martens takes as his starting point our ability to switch easily from one thing to another, and there are a lot of motivations here. The work is a dance piece meets music concert meets short-story collection. It is a collection of ideas, some long, some short, written with bodies, light, music, costumes and text.
It starts with a scrawled list projected onto the back wall: Hits, Suddenly afraid, Steven solo, Chin, Gumdance, Blue transit, Zombie spiral, Groovy fours and so on. They sound like dance workshop tasks. With a bit of work, you could probably figure out connections with the series of dances that follows. ‘Dog hair’ for example is obviously a reference to a recording of a story about a family who miss their deceased dog. They still find hairs everywhere and comment that, if they collect enough, they could bring the dog back.
The various dance tableaux often switch without warning, although the more it happens the less it is a surprise. Opposites collide again and again: there are stillnesses and dynamic explosions of movement, there is dance that is precise and dance that is fluid, there is freedom and reason.
One thing that is common is Martens’ love of use of arms, whether circling freely or stiffly robotic. One section in the latter that sees dancers Courtney May Robertson, Dan Mussett and Steven Michel repeating the same gestural phrase in canon is a gem. The accuracy was superb as it flowed like a well-oiled machine. I also found it oddly calming. Martens’ use of arms was also to the fore in the danced sections of the second work, Ode to an Attempt, a sort of deconstruction of his process.
But there is freedom too, none more so in a lovely, cheerful, joyful sequence that sees the threesome bouncing and skipping lightly as they weave in and out of one another. It reminded me greatly of some of the patterning seen in folk dance. The mood matches the bright red, yellow and blue of the costumes.
Later, that colour palette changes to black, after which a highlight is an eye-catching solo by Robertson. Starting in an upstage spotlight, she works forward in a club like dance with hints of poppin’. Her body full of aggression, her face full of expression, it’s quite raw and different from anything else in the piece.
All this is to loud music by American producer and drummer NAH (aka Michul Kuun). Like everything else in Rule of Three, it’s an eclectic combination that includes a lot of programmed and live percussion, synthesiser, assorted noise and even hints of jazz and hip-hop. On top of that is text from short stories by Lydia Davis.
But then, about 45 minutes in, NAH walks off. Now the entire mood changes. The dancers take a break too, sitting against the theatre walls. As they glance around, looking at each other and occasionally us, there’s a sense of ‘What shall we do now?’ After about five minutes, the answer is to strip off and, in spend the last 20 minutes saunter around the eerily silent stage, stopping to form a series of sculptural poses. “Life is too serious to go on writing, Life used to be easier and often pleasant,” reads the text on the back wall. Connections are obvious. For ‘writing’ read music and movement. It’s certainly a contrast after the loudness of before. It’s just unfortunate that it outstays its welcome by at least ten minutes.
The choreographer stars personally in Ode to the Attempt (嘗試), a deconstruction of his creative process in which he us invites the audience inside his head and computer. Text, music, images and movement come together in a piece that’s partly a self-portrait, partly a sort of confessional.
Ode to the Attempt also starts with a list, an agenda, typed up by Martens on a computer set up on stage. “No 1: An attempt to make you aware of what is coming. No 2: An attempt to start moving. No 3: An attempt to define it better,” and so on. Thirteen in total.
Over 30 minutes, Martens then shows snippets of himself. In a way, it is a reflection of today, social media and the need some people feel to put everything in the public domain. There is even a string of selfies. It could have been terribly egotistical but thanks to his easy-going personality it never feels like that.
There are moments of light humour too. “An attempt to define it better” is subsequently changed to “An attempt to kill myself” as he dances himself towards exhaustion, bouncing around the stage like a child. An even better dance comes later in “An attempt to be minimalist”, performed to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. “Perfection is borring” (think about it!) is another gem. “An attempt to be provocative,” which sees him dance with his shorts dropped, falls flat. That is but a blip in a fine evening, however.