A few months ago when I agreed to write a response to New Treaty Militia, I thought it would be an easy task. As a writer with a visual art background, I usually find myself easily weaving together a quick piece, steeped in art history references, analyzing aesthetic choices and projecting an opinion from the viewpoint of someone trained in art direction and production.
Now autumn has turned to winter, and this write-up has continually been put on the backburner. While my response is delayed it is no means because of a lack of interest in performance. I have in fact found myself incredibly intimidated by the topic of “white guilt.” It is a feeling that has haunted me through my childhood in Indianapolis, to my adult-life in Brooklyn.
After the performance, when the Brooklyn audience was asked about differences between white guilt in the United States and New Zealand, the conversation lingered around Native Americans, making a direct connection to colonization in the two countries, while the more obvious causes for white guilt in the United States were sidelined.
In almost every city of the United States white people are flocking back to cities after the “white flight to the suburbs” that took place after desegregation in the 1970s. Rapidly changing demographics inevitably lead to the displacement of communities and has made “gentrification” a household word.
Growing up, I lived off of a main avenue called Martin Luther King Drive, within the inner-city limits of Indianapolis. While my personal relationships/ friendships never fit on one label, going to the local park I was referred to as “white bitch” or “hater” by strangers passing by. It was clear that my optimistic views of universality lacked an awareness of an oppressive history that I would confront for the rest of my life.
Now as an adult in Brooklyn, with close friends and roommates from countries around the world, I am confronted with another set of issues, which place a heavy weight upon the shoulders of my national identity and European ancestry. This weight is magnified when outside of the United States, as I am pigeonholed based on the politics of the country I am from.
It is needless to say the refrain “you make me nervous, nervous” that played throughout the performance, can be applied to my feelings and observations on this topic. Exoticism, attraction, privilege and nervousness are all relevant feelings and conditions that challenge us in overcoming our prejudgments and cultural biases.
Since seeing Cat Ruka and Joshua Rutter perform New Treaty Militia, I have engaged myself in conversation, which once seemed taboo. Treading upon rocky subjects with family members, friends and neighbors has begun to unfold a new understanding of who I am as a person, how I was raised, and how my life experiences continue to challenge my sociological perspective.
I am so incredibly honoured to receive the following response to New Treaty Militia from NZ poet and choreographer Tru Paraha.
Performers: Cat Ruka and Joshua Rutter
Venue: Otara Music and Arts Centre
Southside Arts Festival
Reviewed by Tru Paraha
The art of fearless community
On 28th October 1835 The Declaration of Independence was signed in Aotearoa, five years prior to the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. On Friday the 28th October 2011 performance artists Cat Ruka and Joshua Rutter presented New Treaty Militia at The Otara Music and Arts Centre, where audience members including whanau, friends, South Auckland locals, artists, dancers, teachers and students from Manukau Institute of Technology were invited to place their signature of attendance on a giant registry board. This was the first of many provocations of the evening where the gathered crowd became collaborator and conscience. I am reminded of Australian artist Lynette Wallworth and her profound installation work “The evolution of fearlessness”. She expresses in her notes how she is challenged to ‘structure theses spaces to encourage temporary interdependence between the viewer and the vision and a communal relationship between participants’.
Ruka achieved this feat through strategic decisions which placed an R18, experimental dance work in the heart of Otara and subsequently transformed the space. Presenting this work in The Southside Arts Festival after a disappointing response at Tempo allowed Ruka’s colleagues and students to form the voluntary support crew by which the tasks of production could be achieved. This enabled the kind of on-site learning that performing arts students are seldom privy to in their first year of training and gave them insight into a distinctive arena of independent production. For these individuals to host a NZ arts gathering including practitioners such as Shigeyuki Kihara, Sean Curham and Kristian Larsen on their own turf was liberating and of critical value.
The self-produced event relied on a currency of venue sponsorship, koha and product and bar sales. The performance artifacts and set design were accumulated through a process where friends and colleagues of the choreographer gifted articles to her. This was not a financial decision but a deliberate act of community inclusion. The most pervasive currency of the event however, was Aroha. Aroha as an operational principle presumes the universe to be abundant with more opportunities than there are people. Aroha in practice is intelligent; a unified intelligence of the heart, soul and mind, recognised by peoples of all cultures. Aroha in action is munificent as was evident in the audience contribution throughout the performance, generosity of koha and commitment of various individuals who respect and support both artists. This currency is a direct result of Ruka’s ability to maintain significant relationships within her local and international community. It also attests to a wahine who, through the evolution of her own fearlessness, enrolls the veracity of like-minded comrades along the way.
The art of provocation
Described in the director’s notes as a “theatrical protest,” New Treaty Militia arrives in NZ as a timely prelude to the oncoming general elections. Aotearoa, notorious for our post-colonial identity crisis has toiled over Maori/Pakeha relations and power dynamics for nearly two centuries. Cat Ruka of Ngapuhi and Pakeha descent explores this hybrid conundrum in collaboration with NZ born artist Josh Rutter, in a performance of un-rivaled ingenuity. A barren community arts centre with black out curtains and modest lighting grid is mutated with a mountain of green bottles, chains, portable smoke machine, stage lights, bells, balloons, boxes of beer, a giant poi, two microphone stands, sound equipment, swag bag and various other paraphernalia. Symbolic and evocative, the haphazard display is more than chaos. There is a camera which the audience are invited to use at anytime and it’s fine if our cell-phones go off during the performance. Eleven envelopes entitled “articles” placed in a precise row across the floor contain cryptic information. The contents/instructions are unknown to both audience and performer until selected and read aloud. What follows could range from an orgiastic dance solo, to violent treaty negotiation, exquisite hair pulling pas de deux or a series of interrogations such as, “Do you relate more to people of African American descent than to Pakeha even though you are genetically more distant?” and my personal favourite “Are you Maori?”. These intermittent questionnaires evoke childhood games of truth or dare and at times, the odious surveys of NZ census; a wry observation of the Kiwi obsession with identity.
The art of transgression
A medley of selected and original soundtracks including modulated voice-over, gangster rap, and Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of ‘Po karekare ana’, create subliminal rhapsody and dissonance depending on what is happening within the performance or which article we are dealing with. The eccentric duo morph in and
out of theatricality, treading the edges of indiscretion. Their voices, amplified by microphones are often a caricature. Michael Haneke in his ground-breaking thriller “Funny Games” breaks the unspoken rule of the 4th wall when one of the antagonists makes a direct address to the camera/viewer. Such a blurring of fantasy/reality and reconstruction of genre has caused much controversy and debate as also happens within the dance paradigm. Ruka’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, though I suspect it may be because kiwi patrons are not familiar with the blend. The piece is abstract, and refreshingly impossible to understand. It does not reek of the codified movement vocabulary which is propagated through schools of dance in this country. These are however, highly trained practitioners who have chosen a unique path of navigation. A provocation of which one must be willing to experience; a breaking of the 4th wall.
Halfway through the performance, the audience is invited to create a dance party with pop-out streamers, lighters aflame and bass booming. Here is a euphoric hiatus, beckoning the elevated spirit of the participants to couple with an atmosphere of permissiveness. It is a clever manipulation. The artists possess full awareness of our need to articulate. The mute, passive observer of the proscenium arch is not cultivated in this breed of theatre. Some of us remain in a kind of Stockholm syndrome and continue to identify with an oppressor. I choose to stand on my chair and wave my hands in the air. Others avail themselves of randomly positioned bottles of beer. Beer is a powerful device in this decadent performance ritual. The players consume it before, during and after the show. It serves as a performance artifact and cultural emissary. Ruka sloshes it over her bare breasts inducing a paradox of iconic Maori maiden and wet-t-shirt-contender-at-slapper-pub. She questions her proclivities and ponders whether a desire to take her top off stems from the fact that her ancestors didn’t have tops on? Rutter, in a brilliant moment of absurdist theatre strikes a pseudo-gangster pose for the camera with an orange Tui box over his head. Later, when questioned on whether he loves rugby, an ambiguous head roll ensues, to both the dismay and delight of a gathering with divided loyalties. In some nations this could equate to being asked whether you support a fascist government or believe in God. His interpretive taiaha display is also something to behold; vaguely camp and devoid of the customary warrior mechanisms prevalent in indigenous performance. But the pertinent thing is that he isn’t Maori (unless you are of the doctrine that having Maori friends makes you a little bit Maori) and can improvise without duress. Ruka – a 21st century femme fatale clad in sheer tights and leotard, sequined brassiere, lace-up boots and bandanna across her face-greets her audience with legs astride, penetrating stare and taiaha in hand while Rutter ominously binds his hands in white boxing wraps, over and over again. Yes. You had to be there.
The Artist and the State (of things)
This brings me to cite those illustrious advocates of the NZ contemporary arts industry who did not make it to the performance. No professional dance reviewers, CNZ/Te Waka Toi representatives, NZ arts administrators or members of DANZ, Pacific Dance, Toi Maori or director/producer of any state-funded performance company in Aotearoa were sighted at this event. As the late front man of OMC, Pauly Fuemana once proclaimed- how bizarre, how bizarre. And it really is considering the international itinerary of this work and the contribution that these practitioners are making to the NZ contemporary art arena. It was the only professional dance performance programmed in The Southside Arts Festival and is supported by a strong media profile with feature articles in The Leader, The Aucklander, Sunday Star Times, Radio Live and various online sources. Perhaps the work is too subversive or the location simply undesirable. My questions to the above mentioned organisations and others are:
- How are we able to create a culture of critical analysis/dialogue around performance work being made in NZ if we are not attending?
- Who are the artists considered worthy of investment by the State and why?
- Why are dance support organisations in Auckland not sending representatives to every profiled contemporary performance?
- What are the current definitions for contemporary dance, contemporary Maori dance, experimental dance, avant-garde dance theatre, Pacific dance and performance art?
- Which do you personally consider “real dance”?
- Are you Maori?
(Val Smith is a New Zealand/US Dance Artist engaging with the fields of Education, Performance and Research, her work interfacing with a sensation-based, creative practice. Her performance background is in contemporary dance, improvisation, feminist performance art, and political street theatre since 1991).
I saw the final show at Oratia Settlers Hall on a warm Sunday evening (December 5th 2010).
We arrive by car from the city.
I am aware we are much closer to the Waitakere Ranges.
I can smell flowers and trees in the air.
As we walk across the road to the hall I become aware of birds calls, Ruru.
It feels really alive here in a very different way from where we have just come from.
This feeling of aliveness is also filling the hall as we enter to find seats.
People are excited in a quiet, sparkly-eyed kind of a way.
Having never seen Dudley live before I don’t really know that which is happening.
The hall slowly packs, and more chairs are pulled out to accommodate everyone.
Cat’s piece opens the show and is rendered like a kinesthetically communicated karanga. She stands as a solo artist on the small raised stage, but I easily sense all the other performers are with her, just not yet seen. Lit with DIY lighting, the space is all really old school colonial styles, all tea cups and dance halls. Calling across thresholds with precise and refined signals, becomings, and embodiments, Cat skillfully crafts the focus and quality of mind/spirit in the Settlers Hall.
The piece functions to set the tone and intention for the whole event, and in her role Cat perhaps functions as our spiritual host. I really enjoy the formality of this ritual along with the way Cat manages to also undermine the formality with an inspired approach to content. Perhaps I should give an example of what I might mean by this here, in case you didn’t see this work, but hmmm, nah, maybe you can just imagine what a dissident and transgressive ritual choreography might look like…
Body is dressed in a long simple off-white costume with a long black thick rope wound loosely around her neck, it is slowly cast off or birthed through, with slow weaving hands and arms, then, it just lay there evocatively draped across and around her feet. At some point, I cant quite remember when, Cat seats herself on this chair, knees spread wide in a strong position claiming spaces of all kinds, including sexual spaces, and its like, here I am, whatcha gonna do, but softer and more intricate than that. I drop into the liminal flow of images, engagements with audience, and all of the ancestral, modernity, and contemporary referencing.
There is a part where a stream of quick edits of breathing movements morph in quite a trippy way. I am struck by how easily Cat moves between embodiments of the feminine and masculine. In split second shifts she becomes a god, a warrior, then perhaps an ancestor, and long gone early modernist choreographers. All and more inhabit the choreography – ghosting characterisation. I really super love this part. She is pushing around binaries – I see the spiritual and physical, tapu and noa, and feminine and masculine realms being cleverly played.
Not only a maori invocation/ritual, this work also plays out as a protest piece. Owning ‘self’ as maori and a performance artist Cat opens up (and closes) emotional realms and fields of qualities through ways of being, through carrying her history and allowing us to see all of it. She somehow invokes and includes past, present, and future social and political paradigms, challenging all of our colonialist fuckups, and provoking ‘us’ (the implied us-ness of an audience, as visitors on the implied marae) to stand up and own our ‘selves’ as well. This is mostly all implied, so I’m not sure how to explain this with concrete descriptions.
There is a definite flavour of subversion to this work, (as there is in all of Cat’s artistic work to date), but in this case she is pointing partly at a lineage of modern dance and the interest in primitivism at the time, making movement references to that dance history through the lens of colonisation of the exotic body. Her statements are intriguing through their complexity and ambiguity. Notions of the spiritual are at once revered and questioned. It’s really intelligent, but also emotional. It’s like I’m not exactly sure what is happening but there is a sense of the mystique of ritual and quite rightly so I’m drawn into the magic of it and the artistry of how she is revealing the realm of spirituality and politics combined.
Cat has a strong sense of mana as a performer that is very moving. Through this particular performance she is making bold statements about gendering possibilities through incarnations of maori masculine and feminine symbols and movements which she unapologetically owns. There is a feeling of pushing boundaries around what is ‘ok’ to portray here, but she is totally confident in her decisions, so I feel like she is creating new ideological grounds that others can walk upon too. What she challenges she changes. I experience an empathic exchange of hope and courage whereby she is envisaging a future more tolerant of living diversity.
I bring diversity into the discussion deliberately here, because this performance is making statements about what it means to be maori, a woman, a dancer, and a performance artist. But beyond this Cat is also creating ideological space for the performance of Dudley and The Dawn Chorus and all of the implied statements of that segue into our experience as audience – that of witnessing living sexuality, sexual identity, queering, and genderqueering.
Cat’s performance opens a door for understanding and appreciating the significance of Dudley Benson as a living history of contemporary performance practice and self conceptualization. For me, Dudley embodies a lineage of fighting for the freedom to express a queered self acceptance in art. Whilst how he is in himself signals for me a time where we can more comfortably and visibly be who we are in performance and art, there is still a reminder of a history of violence against LGBTQ communities. The witnessing of Dudley and The Dawn Chorus doing their thing sheds light on meanings evoked by Cat’s work. There is a revealing of the subtleties of what she is communicating to us through contextualisation of what comes after her. I realize more of her gendering intentions after I ‘get’ the extent of what Dudley and his art practice represents.
This set is a collection of Dudley’s interpretations of waiata by the New Zealand composer Hirini Melbourne. They are folksongs that celebrate Aotearoa’s birdlife from Dudley’s new album Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne as well as songs from his debut album The Awakening. Dudley and The Dawn Chorus are sweet and concentrated, carrying us into a kind of quasi-religious state. We are reflective and transfixed by their delicate and articulate voice and song. I think Dudley might come from a church choir background, but whether he does or not, I am taken into a heightened space that sparks feelings that I associate with churchly experiences. Why is this worth a mention? Because Dudley is mixing queering with God, and that for me is such a very valuable actioning in these present times.
I know now the meaning of the sparkly eyed thing I saw in people as we entered the space tonight, Dudley is well loved. Its so interesting to me how I feel affirmed in my own queering identity by just witnessing Dudley’s presence in performance…but the strength of talent of his artistry along with the talents of Hopey One (beatbox) and the rest of The Dawn Chorus members is just so damn beautiful, I end up crying quietly throughout their set. Tears for injustices, tears of shame and pain, tears for loves, and loves lost and left. What I carry away from Cat’s performance and this event as a whole is a renewed hope and gratitude for the living and loving of queer and genderqueer artists working away all over the place dreaming and enacting new futures and worlds.
As I enter the building an old naked man in womens’ make-up stands at the top of the stairs leading to the theatre. He is saggy and creviced, a confrontational image of everything about the body that society passionately seeks to avoid. I won’t pretend that initially I am shocked and caught off guard by the honesty of this, but given the nature of the work I am about to see, I assume that he is part of the cast placed intentionally amongst audience members to help jolt us out of the normality of our lives – or perhaps for any other reason – maybe just for fun. I give the man a warm hello, which he receives gratefully and politely, and then I take my place in the long line for tickets. I soon see however that he is standing a few people behind me waiting in line to be ticketed just as I am. This not only reminds me that I am in New York, but also sets the tone for an event that has already, without even trying to, immediately confused the traditional boundary between audience and performer.
The venue that Naked Man and I are lining up outside of is Issue Project Room, located on the third floor of the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It is a long white rectangular venue with no ‘stage’ area as such, meaning that the performance has to take place amongst and with the audience. Upon entering the space, which has been decorated with huge bunches of balloons and blow-up animals, we all circle ourselves around an orange square in the middle of the room, which has on it, among other random objects, a laptop, some papers with notes on them, a microphone and stands, water bottles, food, and what seems like beads or gems scattered around. The style is colourful, kitschy and primitive, as though we have entered the earnest pages of a young girl’s scrap-book. There is a woman standing at the end of the room overly primped in a blue hooped princess dress, white gloves, thick garish make-up and a blonde wig topped off with a small sparkling tiara. Beside her are two male assistants in black suits, pink bow-ties and wigs, and a soundman in a bloody-stained blue lycra dress stands by the mixing desk near the middle. When everyone is in, the woman makes her grand entrance to the middle of the room on roller-skates, floating toward her fantasy.
The woman on wheels is none other than controversial, provocative and prolific New York based performance artist Ann Liv Young, a young woman who since graduating from Hollins University’s prestigious dance programme has fast become a leader in her field. At only 29 years of age Young has performed her distinctive works at some of the world’s most leading festivals and venues including P.S 1 Contemporary Art Center, Brooklyn Museum, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, P.S 122, Judson Church, Impulstanz, Tanz Im August, Springdance, and Laban Centre London, among others. Having only had the chance to follow the woman’s prowess via her online presence (which is quite extensive by the way), my anticipation is running high. What will I see tonight in this somewhat sickly-sweet room? Will I see boobies? Will I see people having sex? Will someone even try and have sex with me maybe?
Starring in Young’s one-woman fairy tale reinterpretation is her own alter-ego “Sherry”, an aggressive and persuasive southern wildcat who in turn plays the character of Cinderella, a poor young maid whose parents are dead and whose evil step-sisters control her meaningless life. Essentially there are three women performing tonight, each one bouncing in and out of the aggressive and the demure, an interplay that manages to investigate female archetypes and stereotypes without boring you to death with serious feminism. The juxtaposition of a socially provocative character (Sherry) inside a strangely sweet and child-like veneer (Cinderella) is a subtly tense yet playful dynamic that among other things, enables the audience to maintain their curiosity.
Existential ‘Dear Diary’ monologues that Cinderella softly recites into the microphone as she sits in front of her laptop provide a simple thread through the first part of the performance. These personal and almost shy monologues are spliced and contrasted with her trademark use of pop songs, which she leaves her computer to dance and rap/sing along to with conviction and a truthful attempt to get the words and pitch correct. Her two suited assistants in pink bow ties and wigs provide flamboyant back-up dancing with flashing fame style moves. High kicks, turns, and pirouettes never looked so funny, must have been the wigs. A favourite moment is Young’s powerful and hilarious rendition of T.I’s Whatever You Like, which she manages to re-contextualize with a Riot Grrrl attack on the microphone.
It is a simple structure that unfolds. Young performs a song or monologue, and then addresses the audience with questions, after which she returns to her computer to recite a monologue again. It soon becomes apparent that it is not the actual singing and dancing and ‘performing’ that is the ‘performance’, but rather everything else that happens in-between it. She gets on the mic and asks us how we are, what we think of the performance, if we have any questions or comments. The young intellectual Brooklyn audience is keen to participate, giving responses that Young steers the show with by cleverly throwing it all back in our faces. The issue of relationships and being in love comes up at some point, which then becomes the over-arching theme of the rest of the evening. Young spots a man alone leaning against the wall, whose name is later revealed to be Jacob. She begins interrogating him about his relationship history, which he reveals to be almost non-existent. She proceeds to ask him very personal questions and the air becomes awkward and tense. She takes him outside to ask him further personal questions, which she then shares with the audience when they return. “Jacob hasn’t had sex since 2003″ she says, embarassing him as anyone naturally would be in this situation, and it seems as though he is on the brink of tears, crushed like a young child who learns that their favourite storybook character is not real.
Young’s behaviour seems a little unfair to me at this point, and to me it is though she has crossed a certain line. I feel compassion for Jacob and a hint of resentment towards Young, a resentment that probably comes from the same place as the anger that has lead people to physically attack her in previous performances. I sit there petrified at the possibility that I may be the next victim of her terrifyingly direct questioning. But as the evening progresses, my resentment transforms into complete awe as I come to understand her embarrassing provocations as cleverly crafted acts of healing.
After performing another song, Young lifts her dress up, pulls down her stockings, and squats on top of a bowl announcing that she is going to poo into it (she also happens to be eating something at the same time I might add). She sits there pushing, asking us to look away whilst she performs this act, but then asking us to gather around closer to her, which she suggests might actually help her push the poo out as it proves difficult to do. Stage fright perhaps. She asks us for advice as to what might help her shit which, by the way, she innocently refers to as “doo doo.” Someone hands her a cigarette, the soundman opens a coke for her to drink, a friend from the audience even gets up and sticks two fingers up her arsehole in an attempt to douche it out. Nothing works though, so we sit back down and she changes the subject.
What was supposed to be approximately a one hour performance turns into a 3 and a half hour ritual. It emerges as an open forum discussion, where Young in fact recognizes that people may receive her as a controlling protagonist that uses the misfortunes of other people to create entertainment. We sit on the floor huddled around her like primary school kids, listening intently to the mistress share her glittering story. She addresses Jacob again, who throughout the evening has become the star of the show in a way, perhaps identified by Young as someone who was looking for some help in the first place? Maybe not though, who knows. She actually ends up making out with him, and then after this, repeatedly asks him if he wants her to give him a blowjob, maybe to show him what he really wants, maybe to just do it. Ironically, Cinderella has found her prince, but it is she who saves him in this instance, a clever twist and maybe an accurate reflection of the power that women do actually have over men. There is no clear ending to the show and we are all finding it hard to leave, partly because as audience members we aren’t given an obvious “THE END” cue which we are all so used to. The curtain to this fairytale never drops, and we are forced to enter back into the worlds we came from with a lingering sense of “FOREVER AND EVER.” Young asks us, “Why haven’t you all left yet?” And we all kind of look at each other with “Who the hell knows, I just can’t!” expressions on our faces.
Just over 24 hours have past and I haven’t been able to get Ann Liv Young/Sherry/Cinderella – or the chain of events that she provided the conditions for – out of my head. To me she is a sharmanistic provocateur disguised behind the annoying aggressive feminist stereotype, perhaps a completely selfless act to come off as the bad guy whilst all the while undertaking the work of a modern-day spiritual doctor. Ann Liv Young can simultaneously create excrutiating discomfort, unusually profound enlightenment, humour and grief. Exposing people to their own potential, to their true identities and to what is stopping them, Ann Liv Young is an inspiration to those of us performers concerned with transforming our audience. Behind the candy-dipped facade of an old story she is simply seeking for honesty I think, in her own performance delivery and in her community, because if we are honest with ourselves, and are honest about ourselves in the presence of others, can we perhaps heal and let go of that which brings us misery and holds us back from our potential? I feel privileged to have witnessed Ann Liv Young’s idiosyncratic take on the fairytale of Cinderella, and to be making work and viewing dance at a time when she is around is, simply, inspiring.
And as for Naked Man, a personal thank you to you my friend for owning your body, your identity, and your true desires. May you shine on like the crazy diamond you are, and may you continue to lead the path for those of us who have become afraid.
Irregular flashes of light across the stage reveal an electric guitar, speaker and mic-stand to the right. There is a sense of loss and abandonment here, instruments incomplete without their players. A half-round curve of heavy blue-grey curtains provides an unusually shaped backdrop, which as the flashing fades to darkness and the light ever so slowly grows again, is revealed to be a wry suggestion of an empty small-town cabaret lounge. The huge image of two dandelions being blown in the wind stretched wide in front of the curtains echoes the sense of romantic wishing that tends to linger in such an environment. Two figures are positioned centre-stage, sitting side by side on the carpeted floor with legs stretched out and backs to the audience. Slowly they recline in unison until lying submerged in their world, and as the man apprehensively stretches his arm out to grab the woman’s, their intimate interplay begins.
Awkward engagement and disengagement is at the core of this restless folding and unfolding duet. Man and woman dressed in every-day clothing roll and struggle across the floor, stopping every now and then for long periods, finding it difficult to make prolonged physical connection. The choreography has been given all the time and space it needs, allowing the work’s message to gradually and undetectably seep into the hearts of its audience like love-sickness. Penetrating insight into the nature of a steady declining relationship is delivered through the movement’s calculated clumsiness, which in its disregard of the balletic code provides an astonishing unpredictability.
The man and woman stirring uncomfortably in each other’s presence are Europe-based choreographers Meg Stuart and Philip Gehmacher. In 2007 the two came together in collaboration to create Maybe Forever, which has been touring the world ever since and is performed as part of the main performance program of the 10th Indonesian Dance Festival in Jakarta. Although both very different in their approach to choreography, space and design, the two arrive at a complimentary meeting place that, unlike the disintegrating relationship they demonstrate, has proven to be a winning point of departure.
Stuart and Germacher are joined by Brussels-based singer/songwriter Niko Hafkenschield, whose shiny blue lounge jacket surreptitiously reinforces the tired pub-like environment. His sweetly melancholic series of love ballards infuse the dancing with a fragile and delicate darkness. Quite indie-blues and up-to-date in its retro character, Hafkenschield’s performance contextualizes the story of love in a contemporary setting, helping to transform age-old issues into radically progressive performance. With his soft and vulnerable lilting he is a modern day angel of sadness – honest and open, almost unbearably so, in that he demands us to be honest with ourselves.
Stuart performs two text-based solos in the work spliced with abstract gestural arm movements, each solo positioned at either end of the stage. The first she performs in a skirt and heels, both rather drab and forgettable in colour, the skirt at an awkward just-below-the-knee length. She also wears a restrictive dark leather or vinyl jacket, completing a rather incoherently assembled outfit. The loud squeaking and crunching of the jacket amplified by the microphone emphasizes the ongoing feeling of unease, of everything being not quite right. Interrupted by gestures and silences that drag her away from the microphone, her text is broken and incomplete. Right down to the very last detail, this work is a tour-de-force of struggle.
Gehmacher’s solo is performed in his signature style of timid apprehension towards space. Shoulders inelegantly reaching for the ears and gawky transfers of weight as he walks from one position to the next create an uncoordinated language of movement that speaks volumes for the uncoordinated relationship he is in. It is almost as though he is embarrassed, self-conscious of the fact that there are people watching him. He pulls back the curtains and reveals part of the backstage area. Stuart enters and together they perform a phrase of ‘almost-hugging’, difficultly manoeuvring around each other, he often failing to complete the connection. The cold black concrete of the theatre’s walls are exposed and so too is a cold and dying union.
The startling final act of the work plays out like a Lynchian memorial service, spooky enough to send shivers down my spine as I sit in disbelief. In a bright yellow shirt and black jacket and trousers, Gehmacher performs a final confession to the one he has lost – he moves abstractly around centre stage and as he does so, a recorded speech is laid over the top, the text broken up and slightly nonsensical. Without warning Stuart enters from the right in an intensely garish orange sequined dress, slinky and shimmering under the lights. We are caught off guard by this over-excited outfit, which after the previous dowdy and monotonous clothing makes a raucous and unsettling statement. She takes a seat next to the musician’s speaker. He enters and stands behind her as if to claim her as his. Almost menacingly she simply sits and watches, looking ridiculously fabulous and no longer Gehmacher’s who is now out of his depth in this uncomfortable situation. And with a painstakingly slow lighting fade, the image is crystallized.
After seeing Maybe Forever I dreamt that I was having a conversation with the woman an ex-boyfriend of mine is seeing. She was crying hysterically, trying to make sense of their crumbling connection, demanding that I give her insight whilst simultaneously refusing to accept any advice I offered. For some reason this was all taking place on the sports field at my old primary school, an aptly surreal continuation of Stuart and Gehmacher’s performance which somehow managed to bleed further into my consciousness than I had hoped. Obviously this work affected me profoundly and like the memories of failed relationships will continue to stay with me, maybe forever.
Choreography and Dance – Meg Stuart and Philip Gehmacher, Live music – Niko Hafkenschield, Dramaturgy – Myriam Van Imschoot, Lighting Design – Jan Maertens, Scenography and Costumes – Janina Audick, Assistance Choreography – Sigal Zouk, Production Manager – Tanja Thomsen, Assistance Scenography and Costumes – Inga Timm