David Mead looks at the documentary film, Soul Chain: Sharon Eyal & The Ballet of the Beats
It opens with a slow-motion film of ever-shifting bodies writhing to a slowing throbbing techno-beat. Even as one is tossed above the mass and caught again, the sense is almost one of the ensemble being in some sort of mass trance, lost in the beat, lost in their movement. The first voice sums it up. “It’s so organised and perfect and machine-like and yet the soul inside there is human. It’s perfect.” Welcome to Sharon Eyal’s Soul Chain, made for tanzmainz, the dance company of the Staatstheater Mainz, in 2017 and that won the choreographer the prestigious German Theatre Prize ‘Der Faust’ the following year.
The work is the subject of Soul Chain: Sharon Eyal & The Ballet of the Beats, a fascinating documentary in which the choreographer and some of the dancers from the piece talk about her approach and how she stimulates dancers’ individual expression within a very rigid structure. Those conversations intersperse and overlay the extensive recordings of the stage performance that include many close-up shots that really show the intensity of the performance. Patterns not always easily seen from the front are made clear with overhead shots. It all makes for a beautifully woven portrait of Eyal and a deeply intimate look at Soul Chain in particular.
Those first words from the film sum up well Eyal’s choreographic style and her dance that so often seems to live on the edge. Apart from an opening walking section, which gives the sense of a journey that is already long yet still has no end in sight, Soul Chain is typically about the group. It’s a uniform seeming mass of bodies and eccentric movement. It’s almost ritualistic, certainly non-stop, and easy to see what dancer John Wannehag means when he says that the unit breathes as one.
And yet, as if to emphasise that even in the most tightly bound situation there is individuality, it’s precise without being perfectly synchronized. “Exact without being the same, even though it feels the same,” Wannehag adds. Individuals frequently emerge from the group too, beating their own path for a while in a sort of counterbalance to the ensemble.
It does not come as a surprise to learn that everything is very specific. Timing and being right on the music is a must. To make the point, one section of the stage performance is overlaid with the dancers counting. “We count like crazy,” says Gili Goverman. “It’s like a programme that runs. The movement is absolutely set but there is personal emotion inside.” She adds that it’s amazing how so many things come together on stage as you reach a certain state of mind: the universe, colleagues, audience and music.
Eyal explains that “the system and the counts give them the freedom to let go. When you’re so much in the counts, so much know what you are doing, so intense, you have to let go. Otherwise it is just about the counts.”
We are told that Eyal doesn’t speak too much with words, preferring things to come from the body. The dance very much happens in the choreographer’s world but Goverman emphasises that, while it 100% comes from her, that is only the first layer. Matti Tauru backs that up saying while Eyal is strict and specific in what she wants, she equally gives the dancers freedom. Eyal herself says, “It’s my movement but it’s their movement.”
The film helps the viewer understand that while the dance may appear machine-like and minimalistic, it actually has multiple layers. Behind the dance, the inspiration is anything but mechanical, however. Eyal explains how she might give an image which the dancers then embody, making feelings visual, even if in a figurative rather than a representational way. Hidden in there is longing, love, passion and more. It might be only shoulders moving, says one dancer, but fire and hell can be raging inside.
She may not like talking about titles and meaning but Eyal reveals that Soul Chain really is about those two words, separately and together. First, it indicates that the dance connects very strongly with the soul. Then, while a chain is strong, when you lock yourself very strongly, it can also give freedom. Containment of emotions only helps them be felt more strongly, she feels.
Sharon Eyal tends to be one of those choreographers ones loves or hates. By lifting the lid a little, Andreas Morell’s beautifully unrushed film might just help more understand her work. If it comes your way, it’s certainly well worth a look.
Soul Chain: Sharon Eyal and The Ballet of the Beats
Director: Andreas Morell
Running time: 43 minutes