Mette Ingvartsen Constellation

Mercat de les Flors, Barcelona
January 28-February 5, 2023

Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s choreographic work often takes on a hybrid nature, blending dance and movement with other disciplines including language. Her work has also delved into the politics of sexuality, and how it and nudity has appeared in performance art and choreography. That was all in evidence in Mette Ingvartsen Constellation, a week of performances featuring three programmes, which opened with 50/50 + Manual Focus.

In Manual Focus, Ingvartsen herself, Manon Santkin, and Kajsa Sandström enter the stage naked, backs to the audience, while each wearing a mask of a bald man on the rear of their heads. They adopt a downward dog yoga position, so moving across the stage throughout the piece.

We never see their front but the masks they wear sometimes make us feel we are being observed ourselves. At other times, we look at these hybrid beings, seeing them as annoyed or simply bored. The mix of female bodies and male faces in contorted or unusual forms is, at different times, amusing and disturbing.

Manual Focus by Mette Ingvartsen
Photo Eike Walkenhorst

The men’s expressions suggest fatigue. They look listless and somewhat upset. The faces and nature of the performance makes it seem as if the trio are waiting passively for something to happen.

They scatter, regather then disconnect from each other again. When they get close and bump into each other, there’s a sense of annoyance. They reminded me of animals, their movement not unlike monkeys on the ground. The ‘hanging out’, bored behaviour is reminiscent of that seen in caged animals in zoos.

Animals-humans in captivity. Is it what Manual Focus is about? After all, it doesn’t seem to be a huge leap to suggest that there is not much difference between zoo animals and humans in some circumstances or environments. Desolate hopelessness, embodied tiredness, dispirited psyches, de-energised bodies showing a sluggish mood infuse the work. What the three hybrid figures are meant to represent is never made clear, but Manual Focus is surely a show where anthropological observation, political criticism and sociological questions are never far away.

Mette Ingvartsen in 50/50
Photo Peter Lenaert

50/50 is also a rather political performance, this time Ingvartsen dancing alone and naked apart from socks and sneakers. Sync-singing, at first with her back to us, then facing us, she dances through numbers ranging from rock to opera with lots of whole-body impetus and strong interpretation.

Her movements appear the result of psychological motivations and personal interpretations. We are in front of a naked body, a body that doesn’t shy away, a body who is assertive and self confident despite making itself exposed and vulnerable. It is a powerful declaration of freedom and self empowerment.

At one point, turning away from us once more, she shakes herself to the music. Her shaking butt and quivering body displays a sort of body percussion that is both slightly provocative and celebratory.

50/50 is definitely a piece that invites us to see the body as something to love and respect, as an instrument to play, dare and to engage with, but also as a political catalyst for self-assertiveness, beauty, pride, force and control.

The second of Ingvartsen’s shows, to come (extended), a revised version of her 2005 piece, to come with a much larger cast, opens as an orgiastic space. Fifteen performers wear sleek, sky-blue, stretchy suits that fully cover their bodies, heads included. They look strange, like something between mannequins and cartoon characters. The colour and form of the suits do not have sexual connotation in themselves, but things do turn sensual when the performers caress and touch each other, perform sexual positions with casual ease.

To come (extended) deals with sexuality and its political meaning. It is meant to reflect upon the boundaries of the private and the public sphere in relation to the sexual representation, and to question the notion of sexual freedom within orgiastic rituals.

Performers come together in different groupings, pretending to give each other sexual pleasure. Positions are explicit with movement mostly in slow-motion. Various forms of sexual behaviour and interaction are revealed amusingly in poses that are held for a few seconds before those involved move on to another group.

Mette Ingvartsen’s to come (extended)
Photo Hans Meijer

For all that, the choreo-pornography or porno-choreography, as it might be called, is sensual and amusing rather than actually sexual although, and despite the asexual outfits and over-lit stage, there is some degree of sexual charge, in particular when the movements are smooth rather than mechanic. The soft, slow and gentle movement of the dancers are pleasant to watch, making it a sensorial experience for the viewer too. The work is certainly curious and provocative but definitely not what we think of pornography at large, nor does it connect immediately with what one imagines an orgy is like.

It is much more playful than that, an almost childish way of enacting sexual interaction within a group that is horny but without specific goals and intentions. Furthermore, the sexual identities of those bodies are somewhat neutralised, which, considering the present debate about gender identity, opens up another big spectrum of reflections.

Mette Ingvartsen’s to come (extended)
Photo Hans Meijer

As the piece continues with the dancers now all naked, earphones in, an mp3 in their hands and reciting in chorus the sounds of a sexual intercourse, we are again in front of a scene that makes explicit and public what normally is very private and kept behind closed doors, at time even suppressed. The orgasmic noises become a shared symphony ‘played’ by the performers who very clearly ‘act’ its peaks with their faces and bodies.

The third and final part of to come (extended) opens to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ by Louis Prima with the performers exploding in the enjoyment of every one of their lindy-hop steps. They dance together, swing and lift each other, smile at one another and at the audience. It is a reclamation and a celebration of nudity and the freedom associated with it.

The beats are so loud, so rhythmic that it is difficult to stay still in our seats. When invited to clap hands with them, most respond enthusiastically. I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if we had been invited to dance with them. Dance is very contagious, at least for some of us. Not only is it an art and a physical activity, but also a state of mind and a way of relating to the world at large. In this sense, to come (extended) is a dance, a dance between bodies searching for individual and collective pleasure, reacting to and dancing with the sound of each others’ bodies and energies.

Mette Ingvartsen in The Dancing Public
Photo Hans Meijer

The final performance of the Mercat de les Flors’ Mette Ingvartsen Constellation was The Dancing Public, which sheds light on the dancing manias first recorded in 14th-century Aachen, when the Black Death caused outbursts of compulsive and uncontrollable dance that went on for days and weeks in a large part of the population. It then hit Strasbourg, where it reportedly started when a young woman lost her child and, out of an unbearable sufferance, began dancing, others joining her grief. Several other cases of dance manias have also been recorded in Europe and the United States.

The Dancing Public is a multi-layered work that merges history, dance, acting and interaction with the audience. Ingvartsen dances between the public and on platforms, reciting narrations based on her dance mania research and her personal take on the whole phenomenon. She has determination and great self-confidence. She speaks, she raps, she sings offbeat. She screams, inciting those watching to dance with her.

After a rap criticising the measures and rules imposed during pandemics of the past, and by inference during the Covid outbreak, she starts barking, crawling between the audience like a guard dog. It recalls the rigid, sometimes threatening and vigilant controls introduced, in particular over those who kept dancing as a way of retaining or reclaiming some personal freedom, wellbeing and release. Being a dancer myself, I couldn’t stop thinking how dance is a relief, a cure, a liberation, a self-therapeutical medium, a physical-sensorial-emotional activity to get in touch with ourselves and with higher dimensions.

Mette Ingvartsen in The Dancing Public
Photo Hans Meijer

Ingvartsen starts laughing out loud wildly as she pulls silly, coquette faces and moves. She then compulsively scratches her thighs. We are in front of a delirium, one out of control and proportion due to the overload of psychological burdens and physical imposed restrictions. Again, it was impossible not to think of the limitations imposed during the Covid pandemic and the various reactions and after-effects they caused and are still causing.

It is difficult for any performer to hold the space and the audience’s attention while simultaneously being so incredibly vulnerable to the reaction of those watching, but with great force and appeal, Ingvartsen achieved it.

The Dancing Public is a call for rebellion through dance. It’s an assertion on how dance is a fundamental and instinctive part of human nature. It’s a scream for reclaiming communal space where feelings and emotions can be shared, processed and cured. It asserts how dance is essential to many, and the power it has to stimulate resilience and help finding wellbeing.

The Dancing Public concludes with just that. Ingvartsen invites everyone to join her in dance before disappearing behind one of the curtains enveloping the black box space. There followed approximately 15 minutes of blue and green disco lights in the otherwise now dark space filled with loud techno rave music, all of us dancing together, infused by the daring and cheerful energy that she left behind.

Having previously seen the piece in Berlin, it was notable how the Spanish audience responded differently than in Germany. In Barcelona, people reacted more easily and enthusiastically to the dance that Ingvartsen ignited. It was thrilling to see so many of different ages ravenously dancing together and truly enjoying a moment of shared celebration for the freedom we have to do just that once more.