Transfixing: Staatsballett Berlin in Plateau Effect by Jefta van Dinther

Komische Oper, Berlin
September 6, 2019

Veronica Posth

Jefta van Dinther’s Plateau Effect opens, not with the usual red curtains sliding to the sides but with a huge long, light grey drape of fabric. Sensually immersed, hanging and moving with and within it, seven dancers keep merge and play, appearing and dissolving with and within the fabric. It’s a basic item but creates a grand expression.

Tara Samaya sings in playback a lyric from ‘China woman’, the words crafted by van Dinther, the androgynous voice reworked from an opera soprano. The effect and content are puzzling. But it’s that all-enveloping textile that really takes the attention as it swallows up the dancers. After they have vanished, it shifts in enormous waves as if moved by strong rushes of wind foretelling a ferocious thunderstorm.

Suddenly the long pole holding the huge curtain crashes down. The dancers rush to it with alarm. They quickly start moving it, pulling it, shouting and giving each other directions to stretch the huge fabric through long ropes. It recalls a massive sail, hard to be control and direct.

As if in a sailing boat in extreme sea conditions, the weight of the bodies is constantly redirected as the cast struggle to keep themselves and their boat balanced. Watching the ongoing struggle I could not help but think of Théodore Géricault’s 1818 painting Raft of the Medusa, a work that has contemporary resonance with the rubber dinghy traffic of migrants.

Staatsballett Berlin in Plateau Effect by Jefta van Dinther Photo Jubal Battisti
Staatsballett Berlin in Plateau Effect by Jefta van Dinther
Photo Jubal Battisti

That textile has various connotations. One is environment. It is in our hands but still uncontrollable. It is something we are dependent on but also live against. The performers scream at each other as they rush from one side of the stage to the other to pull the ropes. Their difficulty in working together or in unison is clear.

The dramatic jumps of the dancers resonate. I think of cataclysmic events and the adverse conditions that result. Modern world disasters, man-made or natural, come to mind, the Amazon on fire included, all readable through the agitation and urgency of the dancers.

The simple but effective stage design by SIMKA, the pounding soundscape by David Kiers and the techno-hallucinating lights by Minna Tiikkainen all help recall an upcoming calamity. I wonder about the effect of the piece if it was shown in an industrial building with the audience all around. Surely a totally different experience, probably one even more impactful and sensorial.

Eventually, the dancers fall to the floor, exhausted. Rolling over and around the now folded fabric, they stand up one by one, only to fall down again. Their pace is now slow, their movements drained. The thunder is over.

[box type=”custom” border=”#000000″]”In an age that is so fuelled and busy by the idea of constant progress, upwards motion, more, bigger and better, the idea to take time, to spend time and to be in time seems even more crucial.”

Jefta van Dinther[/box]

As the now move unhurriedly from the back of the stage showing signs of their lived turmoil, the dancers linger, scatter, stretch, kneel, twist, contort and shake, somehow enjoying their individual movements in a sort of celebration. Some are alone, others get together softly in solidarity.

The change in rhythm from fast to slow connects to the word ‘plateauing’ and its use to describe a pause during a progression. The Dutch-Swedish choreographer makes clear that he is interested in allowing, relishing and even celebrating that pause.

Time is a peculiar aspect of Plateau Effect. It seems to extend while the dancers interact with the sail but shortens up once the textile is rolled up and they disconnect from it. It seems like that curtain is the organ that keeps them together, that makes them move with a common venture. Once it is tamed and folded, they also decrease their physical and mental engagement. There are references here to community empowerment through communal purpose; group commitment during a struggle to hold something together.

As in case of disasters and communal tragedies, people get together, support each other, fight and work for the same cause. In the individualistic and anti-social world we live in, Plateau Effect rises up powerfully as a good reminder of that.