Roni Rotem and Janan Laubscher’s 9 Muses

Acker Stadt Palace, Berlin
July 31, 2021

The Aker Stadt Palace is a small theatre in a now legalised squat in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, which was originally a chocolate factory and, for while in the 1930s, a home for the Hitler Youth. The squatters’ “This is our house” slogan is now “This is your house,” for a venue that is a meeting place for independent contemporary dance, theater and performance, and new music. It was here that now Berlin-based choreographers and dancers Roni Rotem and Janan Laubscher, originally from Israel and Las Vegas respectively, presented their new work, 9 Muses.

According to Hesiod’s Theogony (a 7th-century BC poem), the nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. They presided over the arts and sciences, causing people to forget worries and lessen pain. They have inspired countless artists over the centuries.

Rotem and Laubscher pay homage to the Muses in a show that sees several changes of dynamic and relationship; sometimes they are friends, sometimes there is the friction of rivalry. While they are meant to embody the muses, in a contemporary key they can equally be seen as lovers, relatives or close friends, however.

9 Muses by Roni Rotem and Janan Laubscher
Photo Till Becker

They pick up imaginary fruit around and above them, they tease each, they play completely carefree. But in other moments, they face each in physically aggressive confrontations that reference Ancient Greek and Roman training. All the time, a strong camaraderie shines through, however.

The dreamy pair appear in total contrast with the real world. Is this escapism or a provocative invitation to disconnect, at least for an hour, from what is happening all around us, near and far? Maybe the intention is exactly what Hesiod mentioned, to make people forget pain and obligations. Although only for the duration of the show, somehow that does happen.

Rotem and Laubscher nourish, sustain, care for each other. They feed each other gums as grapes at a Roman banquet. The seductive game leads to intimacy, but all is suddenly interrupted by a dictatorial voice that tells them what to do, forcing them to disengage from the promiscuity.

There is an unexpected shift to military commands and steps, and instructions from a male voice. It’s hard to not immediately think of Israeli military service for men (three years) and women (two years), that all are obliged to undertake once they reach 18, and which breaks their easy-going teen life.

The couple become intimidated and obedient but, shortly after, the scene changes again. They take their clothes off, perhaps symbolic of entering a different phase of life, from girls to women, but perhaps also somehow liberated by the coercive commands.

They are now wild, physical and independent. Their individual movement expands through the space in a complete disconnection from the symbiotic and dependent dynamic depicted in the first part of the show. From lighthearted girls they are now fiery women, their red lipstick melting away as they move energetically.

Looking back, I cannot help but think about the decadence of contemporary western society, the nature of arts, and the general obsession with vanity, including the incessant need for self-portraits. At the same time, I see a desperate attempt to save a crumbling dignity, to inject some self and shared care, and to invest in mutual support despite the worldwide conceit, narcissism and egocentrism that too often brings superficial and disquieting outcomes (for example on social media).

Rotem and Laubscher underline the necessity of the arts, sciences and culture at large as a means of resolution. Likewise, the power of female solidarity, the given and contrasting roles and attributes of being female in this world, and the reluctance to following given but nonsense obligations. Most of all, though, to the strong need to dance as a liberating and healing response, whatever the age, time, location, situation we are in.