Exploring body and mind: Matthias Sperling’s Now That We Know

Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre at Sadler’s Wells
September 29, 2016

Alison Durkee

The relationship between our body and mind is one that affects everything we do: the way we walk, how we interact with others – and, for dancers, the movements we choreograph and perform. For as intrinsic as this relationship is, though, much about how it works and its potential still remains a mystery. But what if it wasn’t? This hypothetical scenario is at the heart of Matthias Sperling’s piece Now That We Know, a thoughtful and compelling piece exploring the potential links between our body and mind.

Now That We Know features Sperling as a character from a hypothetical future, in which the body-mind relationship has finally been ‘cracked’ and is at the heart of society. Election campaigns feature choreographies that sum up candidates’ positions, the Turing Test is determined by how well a robot can move, rather than think, and ‘neurochoreography’ is a new and important scientific field. Donning a long black wig, sunglasses and flamenco boots, Sperling explains this newly-discovered body-mind relationship, in which the capacities of the body are inextricably linked to perception and the capacities of our minds.

Matthias Sperling in Now That We KnowPhoto Pari Naderi
Matthias Sperling in Now That We Know
Photo Pari Naderi

This lecture comprises the entirety of the piece’s short 45-minutes, though it is astute and thoughtful, and never descends into feeling overly academic or dull. Sperling’s dialogue brings clarity and excitement to a heavy subject that he clearly knows a great deal about, and his strong presence and charisma entertainingly carry the piece along. His over-exaggerated future character moves and speaks with a dream-like quality, with his resonant, drawn-out cadence and slow movements aiming to put the audience into a hypnotic trance.

This hyperbolic character comes across a bit better in theory than practice however. While others seemed enraptured by his presence, Sperling’s over-enunciated, slightly ‘sing-song’ tones personally became somewhat grating, and I wished for more variety in the proceedings to break up his character’s lengthy dissertation. The character’s ‘hippie’ persona also immediately calls to mind the psychedelic 1960s – and, more specifically, the faux authority and dangerous charisma of a 1960s cult leader – which somewhat undercut his narrative authority and the body-mind capabilities he describes. This seems to be at least somewhat intentional: In a post-show talkback, Sperling noted that he wanted to produce a “situation of questioning,” and that as the character, he is simultaneously laughing at himself and taking himself seriously. But this tone is never quite clear in the piece itself. Whilst it’s good that Sperling doesn’t try to force how the audience will perceive his character, it could be made slightly clearer that this wavering sense of authority was an intentional choice.

The most compelling part of Now That We Know, though, comes from its visual moments, both in movement and staging. It opens in complete darkness, and the wondrously slow reveal of Sperling’s presence onstage (aided by Jackie Shemesh’s evocative lighting design) immediately engages the audience and draws everyone in. Once the lights are fully up, Sperling accompanies his lecture with fluid, gestural choreography performed simultaneously as he speaks. His concave movements are based more on isolated gestures and shifts of weight than overt ‘dance steps’, and are flowing yet constrained in nature. The harshest movements, in fact, come from Sperling’s face, as he contorts his mouth to emphasise each word and syllable. But these limited, simplistic movements feel so full of power and purpose that they’re instantly compelling. Sperling attacks each move with intention, and energy seems to flow out of his limbs with each tiny movement. Something as simple as Sperling outstretching his hands or rotating his arm becomes an instantly captivating moment.

This sense of energy and intention makes Sperling’s performance aesthetically gripping, but it also perfectly embodies the words he’s saying. His smooth movements match his psychedelic character and add to the hypnotic aura that pervades the piece. But there’s also great potential in each movement — a sense in each purposefully constrained, yet electrifying, step that Sperling has the capability to do so much more. This cuts to the heart of Sperling’s speech, hinting at the limitless potential of movement that still, in our present day, goes largely untapped, without having to literalise this potential through high-flying tricks. Through his mesmerising restraint, along with his carefully considered words, Sperling’s meditative piece makes it clear that there’s so much more to know.