Tanz im August: from dance manias to Northern Ireland society and Zulu rickshaw drivers

Various venues, Berlin
Week 2: August 14-21, 2022

Week 1; Week 3

The second week of Tanz im August began with Jefta van Dinther‘s Unearth at St. Elisabeth-Kirche. It is quite an experience. The show goes on for four hours, although it is possible to go out and re-enter at any time except for the final 30 minutes.

Repetitive sequences are performed in a sort of trans-state. Unearth begins with the performers seemingly high on a drug that softens the limbs and makes them semi-conscious, slow and very tired, almost sleepy. In heavy boots, they move slowly through the audience, sometimes lingering or stopping next to someone as if attempting to regain energy or searching for contact or solace.

The performance is fully sung, at times as laments, at other times as prayer, sometimes as an emotional, physical and mental release. Pop songs are interpreted in personal ways. Hopelessness, resignation and resourcelessness are imbedded in the bodies as they drag themselves forward, often gathering in the corners of the church. The gravity of the performers’ situation is perceivable in altered faces that are intensely expressive. They look as if they are about to pass out. The mournful singing became even more impactful and eerie when a thunderstorm exploded after months of heat and drought.

Unearth by Jefta van Dinther
Photo Jubal Battisti

Seen without breaks, Unearth can at times be perceived as monotonous. Yet, its length also means that, if experienced entirely without intermissions, it becomes something like a spiritual-trance ritual. Short phrases including “heal yourself,” “cure yourself,” “love yourself,” and “admire yourself” are repeated and merged with other cues as a mantra that concludes the show. At the end, as if entering a trans-state myself, I closed my eyes and started singing with them.

We wear our wheels with pride and slap your streets with colour… we said ‘bonjour’ to Satan in 1820 is the latest piece by South African, Berlin-based Robyn Orlin for Johannesburg’s City Theatre and Dance Group. Seen at the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, it is inspired by Orlin’s childhood memories of being mesmerised by Zulu rickshaw drivers who appeared to her as ‘flying colourful angels’ as they drove around white men. The work pays tribute to the drivers’ beauty and inventiveness, their dignity, resilience and joyfulness, despite struggling with resistance.

Robyn Orlin’s We wear our wheels with pride…
Photo Jerome Seron

Costumes by Birgit Neppl are bright and colourful, in particular the helmet-masks worn by the performers. Video by Erik Perroys projects on the back of the stage, enlarging and stretching the dance and giving a particular aesthetic to the piece.

The highlight of the show is the vocal performance of Anelisa Stuurman. Her potent, solemn and hypnotising singing takes full space in the Volksbühne, attracting and holding the interest and attention. It gets interrupted by a playful and joyful group of performers who move around a colourful installation made out of colourful cans in traditional Zulu colours. The music, sounds and text composed by Yogin Sullaphen and Stuurman add to the scene as it recalls a history that must continue to be acknowledged.

Known for her very political work that addresses themes of oppression and rebellion of the Irish working class, and the rage of the Belfast youths, Oona Doherty presented Navy Blue. Usually performed by an ensemble of twelve, on this occasion it was reduced to ten thanks to a couple of Covid cases.

Scenes of violence merge with sufferance and anger, all well-expressed by the fiery and expressive dancers. Notes of pain counterbalance with signs of resilience and strength. The juxtaposition of the delicacy and elegance of Rachmaninov’s melodies, and the earthy, scattered and unpretentious movements of the dancers who fall one by one to the sound of gun shots, appear as an effective and powerful contrast.

When the bodies are reborn, “Hope spills from the wounds of violence and shooting stars paint the sky with a submission into love”. An urgent appeal for societal change, Doherty’s desire for love and peace despite the turbulent reality is clear. That reality is emphasised by the navy blue work clothes by Doherty and Lisa Marie Barry, while John Gunning’s lighting creates a tense space where tragedy and kinship merge in the mayhem.

Oona Doherty’s Navy Blue
Photo Sinje Hasheider

Throughout Navy Blue, Doherty brings authenticity to the stage in what is a politically critical work. Her choreographic language sheds light on the human condition caused by exposure to desperation, hopelessness, anger and deprivation. The word ‘insignificance’ resonates in her text as she recites a poetic flow of raw images and uncompromising truths.

The closing solo is one of burning rage and strong frustration. With its highly charged and explosive movement, it is a forceful and eloquent scene, At least, for a moment, the struggle has passed.

At Sophiensæle, Mette Ingvartsen made the audience dance in her new solo, The Dancing Public. Inspired by the historical phenomenon of dancing manias, it’s a participative piece in which she dances with all her might while narrating stories related to real-life outbursts of impulsive, wild and continuous dancing, documented from the middle-ages onwards in times of plagues, pandemics, dismay and sufferance.

It begins with her dancing among the standing audience and reciting a song that invites people to abandon shyness and dance with her. Some audience did indeed dancing while others remained still. Ingvartsen’s performative ability to break the ice is remarkable. I admire her courage to expose herself to the vulnerability that participatory performances and events always bring.

The Dancing Public by Mette Ingvartsen
Photo Jonas Verbeke

She once again demonstrates her ability to capture the audience’s attention and sympathy while making the clear statement that letting go and expressing our wild side through dancing is an excellent heathy practice. The Dancing Public is a statement about how important, if not vital, it is to dance to let go of stress or frustration, or to help face sorrow; all things that affected us all during the pandemic.

Although the audience did not explode in ecstatic dancing, the work does invite people to think about the healing power of dance, how it can be made individually but mostly together and, how after the last two years of pandemic, there is a need to let go of inhibitions and fears and get together again to relish our bodies, and the beauty and joy of being part of a community through dancing.

The week concluded with two shows at HAU Hebbel am Ufer: AMAZONIA 2040 by Colombian choreographer Martha Hincapié Charry in HAU1 and No.60 by Thai choreographer and dancer Pichet Klunchun in HAU2.

Martha Hincapié Charry in AMAZONIA 2040
Photo Liliana Merizalde

As its title suggests, in AMAZONIA 2040, Martha Hincapié Charry reflects on the past, present and uncertain future of the Amazon rainforest. Interlacing her indigenous Quimbaya perspective, the show combines video installation, sound, movement, talk, an interview and data regarding the destruction of Amazonia. As she references pollution, climate change and unsustainable and destructive farming practices, she beseeches us to think about the highly endangered present-future of the planet’s lung, its indigenous people and their culture.

The piece is strongly didactic but the necessity to talk about the subject and to find solutions is becoming every day more urgent given the immense but silent catastrophe that is occurring. AMAZONIA 2040 is a reminder not to forget; an invitation to do our best as individuals and together to save what is still salvable.

It ends with the audience invited to a meditation with and for the earth conducted by Hincapié Charry. It is quite moving. Gravity, grimace and puzzlement conclude the piece as she lays on a bed of earth surrounded by an extended red fleck while horrifying images of trash and forest fires contrast with those of the flourishing beauty of the rainforest, run on loop together with a thundering piercing sound.

No.60 by Pichet Klunchun
Photo Hideto Maezawa

A master of khon, a traditional Thai dance practice, Pichet Klunchun presents a contemporary approach to Thai classical dance while respecting its wisdom and embracing its essence.

In No.60, he examines the 59 poses in the Thai ‘Theppanom’ canon and generates six new principles that provide a firm basis for the 700-year old system of movements and gestures. The abstract setting is composed by new forms and accompanied by detailed notes and hand-drawn diagrams projected onto the backstage screen.

Klunchun’s intention is to unfix the rigidity of tradition, exploring new trajectories to read this very old art form. Danced by himself and Kornkarn Rungsawang, No.60 is a meditative experience that brings in a metalinguistic and hermeneutic world of. However, the theoretical, slow-paced, and calm inducing overtones of the beginning disappear in an explosion of unexpected yet explicit turmoil towards the end, in what is a strongly political reference to Thailand’s ongoing revolts and protests.

Check out Veronica Posth’s reports on Tanz im August Week 1 and Week 3