United Kingdom, de May and Vermeersch, What the Body Does Not Remember: Ultima Vez, Sadler’s Wells, London, 10.2.2015 (J.O’D)
Performers: Germán Jauregui Allue, Jorge Jauregui Allue, Livia Balážová, Maria Kolegova, Pavel Mašek, Zebastián Méndez Marín, Eddie Oroyan, Aymará Parola, Revé Terborg
Musicians: Ictus: Jean-Luc Fafchamps, Fabian Fiorini (piano), Carlos Galvez, Dirk Descheemaeker, Tomonori Takeda (clarinet), Eric Sleichim (alto saxophone), Alain Pire (Trombone), Géry Cambier (Double Bass), François Deppe (cello), George van Dam (violin)
Musical Director: Georges-Elie Octors
Direction, Choreography and Scenography:Wim Vandekeybus
Original music: Thierry de May and Peter Vermeersch
Styling: Isabelle Lhoas, assisted by Fréderick Denis, Isabelle De Cannière
Lighting Design: Francis Gahide
The poster and the programme photographs were predominantly black and grey. So it was a surprise, before Wim Vandekeybus’ What the Body Does Not Remember began, to find bright colour (of towels hanging from rails) on both sides of the stage. After seeing the Belgian choreographer’s booty Looting, from 2012, at Southbank Centre in 2013, I had come to Sadler’s Wells feeling like the character in the Henry James story (Greville Fane) of whom another character says ‘he forces himself to look at things from which he’d rather turn away’. But this revival of the first work by Vandekeybus’ company, Ultima Vez, in 1987, lets you off lightly. The stage is full of restless movement. Like the power-dressing Yuppies among its first audience, perhaps, the people on it often want to take things from each other (their place, what they are wearing, their affection, their dignity). Even so, compared to the scene of destruction at the end of booty Looting, it was like the lyrics to That’s Entertainment: ‘No death, like you get in Macbeth. No ordeal, like the end of Camille.’
It might be the age Vandekeybus was at the time (twenty-four). It might, as Lise Smith suggests in the programme notes, be the difference between the world then and the world now. It might be the delight of an artist discovering what he can do. For whatever reason, What the Body Does Not Remember is a production that often conveys a sense of happiness. I could hear it in the laughter of the school party a few rows behind me. I could hear it in the applause at the end.
But you can’t guarantee that it will. When a man ran across the stage to take a leap onto another man’s shoulder, the audience wanted to laugh and applaud as they would a stunt. They couldn’t, because the man himself did not smile. Instead he remained, disconcertingly, in his final pose as he was carried off stage. What could have been something funny becomes something strange.
Setting the pace and atmosphere for the different sections of the piece is the music, a collaboration between the choreographer and the composers Thierry de May and Peter Vermeersch. This is performed live, on two different levels at the back of the stage, by the musicians of the contemporary music ensemble, Ictus. Last year, these men moved around the Sadler’s Wells stage, in Vortex Temporum, with the dancers of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas. Here they are out of harm’s way behind a transparent screen.
For What the Body Does Not Remember has its danger. Bricks of some light material, but with sharp-edges, are thrown high in the air and caught by dancers who are running in circles at the same time. The performance is about ‘instincts, reflexes, things we have forgotten’. What my body remembered, as I watched, was being at the ICA in the mid-nineteen eighties, and the dancers of Jan Fabre’s company on the stage: fair-haired men, in white, lined up and stamping their feet with a physicality that seemed new. (From the programme, afterwards, I found out that Vandekeybus worked with Fabre for two years at the beginning of his career.)
The dancers of What the Body Does Not Remember have captured something of that physicality as they, too, stamp their feet very close to each other’s prostrate, supine, or rolling bodies. It is the most disturbing moment of the piece (for there are moments that disturb), the one at which a woman whose body had seemed first to protect that of another woman, appears to tighten her ankles around her partner’s neck. At this point, booty Looting, and the figure of Medea in it, did come to mind.
So, there was danger, and violence, in 1987, too. Because of his father’s job as a vet, the programme’s biographical note points out, the young Vandekeybus was ‘exposed to the rawness of nature and the beauty and catastrophe of life and death’. But there was also an extended sequence, without music, in which three dancers each try to keep a white feather afloat by blowing it up into the air.
And there were the towels. In the most comic, and possibly most intricate, section, the dancers constantly snatch these from around each other’s waists or heads as they pass backwards and forwards on a diagonal across the stage. Walking as if pushing their bodies into the space in front of them, the women know how to wrap the towels around their hair with a single, effortless twist. One of the men, however, only goes on twisting and twisting with his head bowed. The towels themselves, when held flat or folded, are like blocks of Mondrian colour against the grey and black of the stage. As such, they express the beautiful side of life on which this production, for the sake of argument, comes down.