A festival of surprises: Tanz im August round-up

Various venues, Berlin
August 9-31, 2019

Veronica Posth

Tanz im August is always an intense and enriching program, a month of eclectic and fascinating works from big name choreographers and those less well known. As ever, this year’s festival brought many surprises. The Deborah Hay programme, Merce Cunningham celebration with CCN – Ballet de Lorraine and DANCE ON Ensemble, Alan Lucien Oyen’s Story, Story Die, and James Batchelor’s Deepspace have already been covered separately, but there was much, much more…

At Hau2, The Fading of the Marvelous by Catherine Gaudet came out of an investigation into the universal structure of circles to discover deep human experiences.

A walking line of two women and three men. Eyes closed, they move as a fluid rope in the sea. Keeping the step most of the time, in unison and aligned, the rhythm would unexpectedly break only to reform. Like a constant changing organism, the group moves in circles, new forms constantly expressed.

The Fading of the Marvelous by Catherine GaudetPhoto Mathieu Doyon
The Fading of the Marvelous by Catherine Gaudet
Photo Mathieu Doyon

Astonishment, fear, tension, struggle, resilience are just some of the emotional outcomes manifested by the expressive bodies. As they stretch, twist, arch, scatter and emit strident sounds, their limbs and faces reveal insights. The bond between mind and body is clear. Long lasting and repetitive phrases are accompanied by soft hypnotic beats that lead the dancers to a state of ecstasy through a challenging crescendo of transforming motion. When they freeze at the end, it appears reassuring; an interruption to the transformative, incessant metamorphic process.

In Hau3, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster by Nicola Gunn looks at the ethics of confrontation and intervention. Where do we draw the line at getting involved? And how? It’s moral dilemma most people face at some point, and the question the talented Australian performer asks herself and the audience.

Nicola Gunn's Piece for Person and Ghetto BlasterPhoto Gregory Lorenzutti
Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster
Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

The work was inspired by Gunn’s strong reaction to seeing a man and his two children throwing rocks at an otherwise peaceful, brooding duck in a canal. Full of motion and emotion, Gunn becomes a catalyst for her own fierce reaction. Bizarre and witty, yet equally impactful and serious, the intense piece has a political connotation that interrogates about the freedom to speak up when we perceive something as wrong and the resonance that such reactions have. Personal insights and interrogations, dilemmas about political correctness, social media sharing and relativism are recurring and resonating themes during the brilliant, fluctuating and engaging 70 minutes long monologue.

Seen in Hau1, The Wonderful and The Ordinary, a collaboration between Swedish choreographer Gunilla Heilborn and Theater im Bahnhof Graz, runs around memory, its fragility and unreliability. Five performers, mainly actors, try to come up to collective memory but constantly fail. At first, it is witty and wry with hints of dark humour but slowly loses appeal.

There are references to films, chosen by the performers and transformed into videos by Jonas Holst, but the compendium of material developed by Heilborn with the performers at times seems vague. There’s no dance, rather recited texts and lots of improvisation (content was being changed almost right up to the premiere). Some uncertainty is almost therefore to be expected, it’s part of improvisation, but while sometimes humorous, at others it leaves everything quite hazy.

Theater im Bahnhof Graz in The Wonderful and the Ordinary by Gunilla HeilbornPhoto Johannes Gellner
Theater im Bahnhof Graz in
The Wonderful and the Ordinary by Gunilla Heilborn
Photo Johannes Gellner

Audiences for White Dog by Latifa Laâbissi at Hau2 were greeted by a very particular set design: a stage taken over by fluorescent yellow sculptures that recall a mangrove forest. On the floor, four performers are unravelling a bundle of the same rope that surrounds the skeleton of entangled trees. It looks like a daily ritual that is unsolvable and endless.

Laâbissi asks how practised points of view can be discarded, in particular old resentments. Connections to colonialism in Africa and its repercussions emerge. Like the rope, it’s a huge knot of numerous beginning and ends but impossible to untie. References to slavery including bound ankles, arms behind backs and rhythmic steps are forceful. The cast struggle to move at times, but elsewhere bounce with ecstatic faces. But then, when a man spins, it scatters around the mangrove setting. There is always someone who walks out from the group. Maybe walking away, detaching from the past is part of the answer, even though one inevitably goes back.

Elizabeth Schwartz in Isadora Duncan by Jérôme BelPhoto Camille Blake
Elizabeth Schwartz in Isadora Duncan by Jérôme Bel
Photo Camille Blake

At the Deutsche Theater, French choreographer Jérôme Bel presented Isadora Duncan, a solo for the dancer and teacher Elizabeth Schwartz based mainly on Duncan’s autobiography My Life.

The work opens with Bel’s assistant narrating the plot, not having it printed being an environmental choice by the R.B./ Jérôme Bel company. She read parts of the book, Schwartz translating everything into movement, first to music, then words, then music again. The structure is extremely didactic, including a session where volunteers from the audience are taught a brief dance phrase by Duncan. Schwarz may be 69 but her dance is light, elegant and exquisite. Her lines are long and extended and her stage presence magnetic. She wholly and marvellously embodied Duncan, capturing her essence perfectly.

Back at Hau1, the fearless young choreographer Oona Doherty guided us into the nervous system of Belfast in Hard To Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer, showing us a patriarchal society characterised by religiosity and economic deprivation.

The Sugar Army in Oona Doherty's Hard to be Soft: A Belfast PrayerPhoto Gaelle Beri
The Sugar Army in Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer
Photo Gaelle Beri

The work is based on the experiences and realities of people living in Belfast today, Doherty illuminating the condition of Northern Ireland from various perspectives. She musters a group of young, self-confident women, has two men wrestle for consolation and assurance, and effortlessly unifies opposites like longing and toughness, hopelessness and utopia.

Hard To Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer comes in four episodes recalling four main elements from her own existence. It starts with ‘Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise’, a solo for herself in which she is enveloped in a culture of youth masculinity. Then comes the ‘Sugar Army’ with girls dancing a New Zealand haka interlaced with Sufi dance, always having in mind the image of the female youth of the province. Third is ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, which sees two middle age men recalling a troubled relationship between her father and brother. Finally ‘Helium’ is a second solo for the choreographer.

It’s a dance full of poetic lines, the product of Doherty’s creativity and insights. Voice recordings are played back alongside Belfast street body language. Those are counterposed with melodic, profound, liturgical music that envelops some scenes with solemnity; the strong and long fight-embrace between the two men in Meat Kaleidoscope resonates in the memory particularly. The ensemble is impactful, forceful, striking.

The work is authentic and penetrating. There are raw aspects and characters. But as a means of addressing, cleansing and healing the wounds of Belfast, the work has much merit. Doherty gives a helping hand to a social and individual change through dance.

Dançando com a Diferença in Happy Island by La RibotPhoto Caroline Morel Fontaine
Dançando com a Diferença in Happy Island by La Ribot
Photo Caroline Morel Fontaine

Finally, back to Hau2 and La Ribot with Dançando com a Diferença in Happy Island. The company was founded in 2001 on the Portuguese island of Madeira with the aim of establishing inclusive dance. Under the artistic directorship of Henrique Amoedo, it has become an important presence.

Choreographed by La Ribot, Happy Island is a work that emphasises the freedom of expression as its performers are invited to share their desires and dreams on stage. It is a dance of community. The rich material is given structure in a work full of poetic balances, colourful details, unexpected and tender moments and touches of enthralling soft irony. It is a creation of beautiful and natural fragilities, sometimes intimate, sometimes extravagant. We watch with fascination and empathy, the playful dance, and what is shown on the big screen behind the dancers, a window on the essence of the humanity.