Swiss Dance Days, Bern

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Swiss Dance Days (La Ribot, Anna Huber, and Yves Netzhammer)

Bern, Switzerland
March 3-6, 2011

La Ribot: “llámame mariachi”

Dampfzentrale Bern
March 5 and 6, 2011

At the eighth iteration of Swiss Dance Days, in Bern, Switzerland, it was a supreme pleasure to see La Ribot’s dance theater work of high intensity and clear intention. The two-part “llámame mariachi” starts with a film and ends with theater, and I think La Ribot’s work here could be called film-dance-theater, an opaque description but one in which an umbrella of dance connects film and theater, filmmaker and performer.

The filmed section—called “mariachi n° 17”—is the fast dance while the theater section is the slow dance. Each of the three dancers handles the camera in the filmed section. The fi™™rst two filmmakers, in teal and red colored tights (Marie-Caroline Hominal and Delphine Rosay, respectively) were easily visible (or parts of their bodies were visible), but the third filmmaker/dancer, who is La Ribot, was invisible to me. In the film, each successive dancer races through an old theater space, filming post-ups, the floor, a series of film excerpts. Many of these filmed sequences, which sometimes film another film, include dancers performing in old movies. Then there are the ever-present running feet of the film itself. (I mean this quite literally; often the camera lens is pointed at feet running through an enormous warehouse theater space rather than at the space itself.) It reminds me of looking through a kaleidoscope, but with everywoman to show you the way.

To go back to labels, just briefly, another genre label for this work (which I’ve been thinking about since the performance) could be called women’s absurdist dance theater. I specifically want the genre to be claimed by women, and to privilege the word (and gender) by placing “women” first, because it seems to me that the choreographer La Ribot uses three women in absurdist ways to point up the ways women have broken through constrictive labels, including the (new) label I’m now using.

So although Beckett is heartily referenced in the dance theater portion of “llámame mariachi,” and while Beckett is not absent from the film, there’s a refreshing (and welcome) absence of Beckett’s nihilism in La Ribot’s frame of reference. I also want to say there is an absence of clichéd treatment of masculine aggression, because when a toy gun is picked up and pointed, the gun does not go off. La Ribot is both more hopeful and more fun than Beckett (or Ionesco, for that matter), as she shoves incongruous elements up against the other—all set against the live backdrop of lines being read from books and then those books being abandoned. (The piece can be performed in different languages; the primary language performed the evening I saw it was English.) There’s an ever-present thump and thud as books hit the ground. The three women all make slow, compelling motions during the live section, but the books fall fast.

Since the film (“mariachi n° 17”) was made—filmed successively—by the same three performers you also see live, it gives the whole piece a feeling of overall connective tissue. Daniel Demont is responsible for the lights and photography; he is a longtime collaborator. (To see all the production and collaboration credits for this remarkable piece, please visit La Ribot’s website.) It’s interesting that the film has more speed than the live section, and music, too, by atom™, which is edited by Clive Jenkins and La Ribot. There are all sorts of reversals like this—a film with running feet and a live section with slow motion. The reversals play not only with one’s expectations but also with one’s assumptions. Put another way, it could be that the film represents a wild horse mind with thoughts and images run amok while the dance theater represents a tame sheep mind that has a hard time running off on its own. Yet nothing is left to chance. We see the sheepskin in the film. We see the sheepskin on the back of the chair in the live portion. The dancer—La Ribot—“baaa baas” like a sheep while crawling under the table. La Ribot grabs the sheepskin, puts it on her back like the skin it is, makes her bleating sound, and in a great moment of dance, one-sheep, two-sheep, leaps off the stage. Have no doubt: this is no black swan in woman’s clothing; this is a sheep through and through.

In the film, we see the stuffed sleeping dog that also appears on the set table later, and later still one woman, Delphine Rosay, during the live section, pets the dog and slowly turns him around so that she pets only his tail. I ask you, what film-dance-theater piece will ever be complete for me again without a dancing sheep or a stuffed dog? I jest, but only slightly. In what I’m calling women’s absurdist dance theater, nothing makes sense and yet everything makes sense. It’s that Magritte or Warhol moment—also referenced—where the thing that represents the thing is not the thing, or is it? To my mind, “llámame mariachi” references how we know what we know, and here La Ribot wants us to query both the performance and the performers. There’s a lot of meta-commentary happening; yes, on both sides of the stage, but it’s neither self-indulgent nor unnecessary. And, as I say, it’s quite a lot of fun.

The dancers are so committed that one never questions this space, or the act, of art. When La Ribot grandly announces, “Now I will dance” (she has yet to become a sheep), it’s funny because she’s moving her arms and legs very, very slowly. It’s hard to argue that she’s dancing (she’s just walking), but it’s also hard to argue that she’s not dancing (just look at the line of those extended arms!). I don’t mean to be circular, but I do mean to suggest that this kind of meta-fun can only happen when each detail is thought out and performed to the nth degree by performers who know how to hold the stage.

The film only shows fragments of the human body while the live section shows the body in aggregate. It takes the process of the film to accumulate the whole body, but not the whole meaning; the meaning of the piece is found in its total fragmentation, yet we realize that the film and the dance-theater sections really are not two separate parts but two parts of one whole. These seemingly fragmented parts of both sections ultimately make up the synchronicity of the entire piece—wherein lies its intention (from the choreographic process) and its integrity (in the performance itself). As we see images again and again, we understand that the random events of a life, of this piece, are made random only through lack of attention. Through attention, details accumulate into a whole—a whole body, a whole theater, a whole life—and this paying attention is both the act of making, and the act of watching, art. It’s the responsibility of both the maker and the watcher to let the mind view the whole.

Only the human mind tries to make sense of absurdity, but La Ribot makes the sense-making fun; a place where sheep can dance, a place where only one line of a book need be read.

A scene from “Aufräumarbeiten im Wasserfall”
Photo © by Caroline Minjolle

Anna Huber and Yves Netzhammer: “Aufräumarbeiten im Wasserfall”

Dampfzentrale Bern
March 3 and 4, 2011

Anna Huber is a choreographer-soloist who won, in 2010, the Swiss Prize for Dance and Choreography. Huber does her own thing, but this is not a solo vision. Although she appears on stage alone, collaborations with other artists are central to her solo projects. Indeed, it takes a village to create the theatrical experiences of her work—a kind of total theater of the solo dance world. Nothing is left to chance. This requires her full intention, while making the work, and her full attention, while performing the work. Such unique solos make for endless and varied audience interpretations. And not endless in the sense of a void; Huber is the ultimate infinite dancer. Huber’s work can be read in many different, fabulist, fun, and evocative ways.

Scored by composer Martin Schütz, who has also created other compositions in collaboration with Huber, the electronic soundscape for “Aufräumarbeiten im Wasserfall” (which roughly translates as “Cleanups in the Waterfall”) uniquely evokes Huber’s singular movement possibilities as well as highlighting the quirky aspects of visual artist Yves Netzhammer’s film. Huber has said that she prefers and enjoys a long collaborative process for exploration and development, and the unwavering intention made possible by such close alliances is evident in the premiere of “Aufräumarbeiten im Wasserfall”—Huber’s first collaboration with Netzhammer.

Space is revealed in Huber’s works, and “Aufräumarbeiten im Wasserfall” is no different. Dampfzentrale Theater becomes an open warehouse, a workshop for movement and video in collaboration. Netzhammer’s first video is projected against the back wall, and it begins as a narrative: white capped mountainous hills with a full white moon. Through this scene flies the cutest helicopter I’ve ever seen, onscreen or off. The film is projected across the actual theatrical stage and occasionally hits one huge enormous planet, or ball, in the center.

The stage space has a grid pattern of seven squares across and, on our right, nine squares deep. Dotted about the stage are several smaller planets, or balloons. Well, at first I thought they were planets, but as the huge orange planet started to bounce, and the video narrative was at first projected on it and then faded away, I realized these were balloons, filling an alternate reality made up entirely of objects from our reality. Netzhammer’s projected video person loses her toes, which separate into infinity, and those toes somehow become Anna Huber, the dancer personified, who is real. The video person projected on the back wall does not entirely go away, and there is some amount of play between the two—the video person and Huber—as they watch each other.

There’s a playful absurdity to “Aufräumarbeiten im Wasserfall,” yet the audience took it all quite seriously. I’m not sure I understand why, except that maybe dance, and the avant garde, in particular, is only supposed to be serious. Hogwash. I thought there was a lot of childlike play and room for laughter, but I heard several people stifle giggles. It’s funny when Huber races to plug in one long, winding cord. When she finds the outlet and plugs in the cord, the vacuum blasts on. (I think it was a vacuum cleaner; it sounded like one.) Bam, there’s an enormous blasting sound that hits straight to your gut, as if one of the balloons was just inflated by the vacuum cleaner and then—it burst. Haven’t you ever plugged in the vacuum only to hear it whoosh on, startling yourself into reverie and away from housework?

Serious art can be funny, as long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and I think Huber means for us to have more fun. The piece certainly suggests the role of play in art and the role of childlike curiosity in creation. I imagine the collaborative process between Netzhammer and Huber was full of laughter. There is a childlike play to this piece and a surrealist layering. It’s a Dali-esque dance, if I’ve ever seen one, and I think Huber and Netzhammer are encouraging us to lighten up. Sure, there are lots of serious questions to be answered, but isn’t curiosity more fun when questions and answers connect the unexpected rather than make us drown in our own overly important presentations and interpretations?

Huber and Netzhammer connect the unexpected. The results are sweet, artistic, and fun. Huber’s galoshes and collection of balloons tied down with a tea bag or a toothbrush or a kitchen sponge are artistic play full of childlike innocence where the unexpected is a source of joy. And Netzhammer’s art is not just for walls.

Renée E. D’Aoust

D’Aoust’s narrative nonfiction book “Body of a Dancer” is forthcoming from Etruscan Press.

(The author gratefully acknowledges Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council for accommodation funding during Swiss Dance Days.)

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