In sync with the underground world of today’s Berlin: Zoe Gyssler’s Firestarter

Monopol, Berlin
November 11, 2022

Monopol, a beautiful industrial building formerly a distillery, in the Reinickendorf area of Berlin, was the setting for the quirky FIRESTARTER, an interdisciplinary and immersive performance created by Zoe Gyssler, a Swiss/Canadian performer based in the city.

Introduced as “a ritualistic attempt to accept the darkness within us: while transforming the force of pain and anger into light, pleasure and humour,” the work is based on the personal stories of the performers and references to historical biblical female figures.

On stage, Aymara Parola, Lauren Roe Mace, Anna Rose and Gyssler herself are in bizarre costumes: a mix of kinky, queer, zany, extravagant outfits designed by Nika Timashkova. Some have their faces hidden by closely tasselled veils that are later taken off.

Aymara Parola in FIRESTARTER
Photo Keren Chernizon

As the audience enters the unusual performance space, three of the performers vocalise a grave melody that keeps coming back, increasing in volume. Candles light the spacious location, surrounding and framing the three beings. The atmosphere is dense. It feels like a sacrifice is about to happen with us, the audience, soon to find ourselves observing what appears like a secret act and sinister practice.

The performers each hold a pomegranate. In what appears an improvised but impactful gesture, one of them is smashed on the floor by one of the performers using her head. Then, the show moves to the room next door. The audience silently and religiously follow.

In that room there is a very tall figure, all in black. The core of the performance-ritual is about to begin. It transpires that what we have seen so far, is just preparation for the outlandish show that follows.

The women unfold an untamed physical performance full of fiery energy. They scatter across the stage, jumping, screaming, bumping into each other, sometimes making each other fall before helping them to stand again. At other times, they fall and stand by themselves as if possessed by a stronger force; something that makes them vulnerable yet strong. They are unified in a mysterious coalition. At times they seem to be unaware of where they are in the space as in trance. It is a performative rollercoaster that keeps everyone engaged and pondering about the tumult happening in front of them, within and between these women.

Photo Keren Chernizon

The different bodies move in different ways. They all tend to showcase then loose themselves and their ego as they perform with all their might. They appear overtaken by a compulsive, uncontrollable energy. As they dance and walk around in shiny and very high heeled boots, at times they seem wobbly and woozy, at others self-confident and authoritative. They seem to deal with personal traumas through a sort of liberation from repressed feelings and actions. The appearance is of women somewhat brutalised yet empowered by those traumas, as they search for an emotional and physical discharge.

Their facial expressions are charged with hatred and resentment. Yet, equally, they seem determined to find some sort of pleasure. As they go through a mystical, ecstatic ritual to help them get over past self-negation and traumas, they explode in visceral movements.

Their bodies are used to inflict pain on themselves in an attempt to free themselves from torment and affliction. The eerie ways in which they fall, walk, run, roll and otherwise move their bodies makes me think of an exorcism. Maybe agony is a sort of cleansing, a purging meant to expel what doesn’t belong to them anymore but that is, somehow, still deeply ingrained in their bodies and minds.

The singer of the group has a dominant voice. Tall and dressed in all black, she moves across and around space reciting difficult to understand sentences. When she comes close to the spectators she appears as an awe-inspiring figure ready to transform all of us into different creatures in a blink of an eye.

FIRESTARTER ends with the performers falling onto the floor exhausted. They lay down spiritless as they eventually surrender what they cannot fight nor control.

The light installation by Pablo Schenkel, despite at times being blinding, contributes to the dramatic scenario. The sound by Malik & Maram Diao is loud and for a good part of the show consists of a repetitive melody-free techno.

Despite the strong interpretation, I would have liked to see more movement research in the performers who appeared to be caught in an approximate mayhem, but perhaps that was the intention. Nevertheless, I missed Gyssler’s distinctive trait and style.

Still, all facts considered, FIRESTARTER is a show very much in sync with the underground world of today’s Berlin, with its own surreal queerness, limitless imagination, kinky fantasies, mystical visions, loud and monotonous techno, kitschy excesses, freakish trends and a pinch of occultism.