Matthias Sperling: No-How Generator

Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London
April 22, 2022

In 1983, Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen edited a series theoretical essays titled What Is Dance? Nearly four decades later, perhaps there is a need to amass writing on the theme of ‘What Is Dance For?’, at least as a form of public display.

A Martian sending a postcard home would be utterly mystified if he too had been sat in the Lilian Baylis Theatre for a long hour tonight. After another late start (they are becoming all too commonplace – and what on earth did they have to prepare on a bare stage with minimal lighting, anyway?), we were informed that the dancers would be delighted if we sat on the floor, like 5-year-olds in a reception class. Fortunately seats were also provided.

Sperling appears to be take the Irish phrase céad míle fáilte literally as he nods to the audience saying “welcome” whilst, like his companion, Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome (Sperling has a different guest each evening), rocks back and forth in a squat. She informs us that the person in the corner was taking a “reading” adding that so were we. Must have been a synonym for ‘interpretation’.

The rocking turns into a loud hum (the dancers wear radio microphones) and the lights become vermillion, then blue, the female dancer ending up on the opposite side of the stage. I have no idea how she got there, or rather, I didn’t notice it happening because the ‘how’ was a constant loop of repetitive rocking, reaching and lunging which I was, for the sake of my sanity, working out how to block out.

The sound track gets louder and includes heavy breathing and metallic sounds. It’s all initially rather sinister as they sound like the hacking, persistent cough that we have all been dreading the last two years. There’s some frantic movement and contact after which the lights now turn acid yellow making the performers look like insane construction workers escaped from a building site or football fans sporting a particularly nasty nylon replica strip.

To abuse the great Dorothy Parker, the show runs whole gamut of emotions from A to B – and only just makes it that far.

At last, it stops. The audience shuffled in discomfort and a few self-conscious sniggers erupted. There was an interminable silence until eventually, the dancers stood up. Sperling muttered something about people “taking five” and ragged applause stuttered around the assembly.

What this ‘generated’ is an hour of ‘No-nothing tedium’. No doubt everyone present had spent their sixty minutes wrapped in their own thoughts irrespective of the performance or otherwise. So why? What is Sperling trying to achieve? The show is abstract to the point of pointlessness. There is no context, no emotion, just jigging around, writhing and lots and lots of panting. The reason that we can all come to our own ‘reading’ is that it does not engender a communal experience, there is no point of common reference. Nothing. It was not beautiful. It was not informative.

It may have been a hallucination brought on by the endless repetition in sound and movement, but methinks I saw a naked emperor streaking past and making for the nearest exit.