Life, death and more in Arcana Swarm by Kat Valastur

HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin
November 22, 2019

Emily May

In semi-darkness, seven performers burst from the back of the auditorium and up onto the stage. A slow, tuneful hum ensues as the group retrieves a large, sculptural object from the side of the stage, which they proceed to lift collectively above their heads and parade ceremoniously around the performance space. Eventually placing it down, a couple of the cast begin to polish the voluptuous object with white cloths. Later transpiring to be an oversized replica of a human heart, the nature of the sculpture is initially frustratingly indistinguishable due to a prolonged dimmed lighting state.

Even when the physical lights do arise on Kat Valastur’s Arcana Swarm, the third installment of the Berlin-based choreographer’s Staggered Dances of Beauty series, the audience still remains figuratively in the dark. Intended to be a meditation upon “the emotional complexity of joy” and its subsequent dissolution, the piece is instead a mélange of disparate visual metaphors that seem to have more to with perpetual doom and sorrow that the undulant and unpredictable nature of joy.

Arcana Swarm by Kat ValasturPhoto Dorothea Tuch
Arcana Swarm by Kat Valastur
Photo Dorothea Tuch

There are frequent references to death and mortality. As the sound a thumping heart beat pours over a stage set with various sculptural elements (the heart is later joined by a dismembered ear and a pair of cherries) dancers climb up a black staircase only to throw themselves off, white handkerchiefs are waved in desperate surrender later becoming stained with a blood-like hue, and ropes appear out of nowhere to wrap around the performers bodies and necks in chilling suicidal moments. Some scenes may be seen as joyful, as the performers skip kitschly around the stage, fling their limbs with abandon, and perform jerky body isolations with crazed smiles whilst screaming ecstatically. However, the psychotic mania of these moments tinges them with the air of discomfort.

Establishing a constantly tense atmosphere is admirable, however it throws into question what Valastur is actually trying to say in Arcana Swarm. In the post-show talk, she described how she is often inspired by the state of the world when choreographing, referencing a whole host of broad topics and crises such as the conflict in Syria as influences on her work. This lack of specificity in her thematic focus makes it difficult to establish a connecting thread running through the piece, and to understand the reason behind having to endure a seventy-minute onslaught of upsetting vignettes.

This is not to say that all the images Arcana Swarm presents are unsuccessful in conveying meaning. A motif of a group of performers laboriously dragging the human heart sculpture across the stage with ropes entangled around their semi-naked bodies is particularly effective, metaphorically casting the dancers as slaves to their emotions. It’s one of the rare moments in the piece where all of the cast relate to each other, as they are mostly self-preoccupied, dancing in their own worlds unaware of the people who they are performing alongside. It’s a conscious choice, yet by presenting seven simultaneous story lines onstage Valastur contributes to the overarching issue of Arcana Swarm: there’s way too much to see, hear, and digest.