Urban dance languages at Peepshow Palace

Talkabout co-authored with Lucia Fernández Santoro

During the months of July and August, Flemish cultural centre de Brakke Grond, theatre collective De Warme Winkel and Julidans curate and host performances and concerts: the Peepshow Palace Festival. A corona-proof setting welcomes audiences daily in an array of booths built around a circular, rotating stage. Just like in the peep shows for adult entertainment, each gets an individual booth to view the shows from, equipped with a chair, disinfectant spray and tissues. With dimmed coloured lights and a slightly awkward atmosphere, Jordi Ribot Thunnissen and Lucia Fernández Santoro saw four shows connected to ‘urban’ movements, pop culture in the contemporary scene, all indicating how cultural heritages and references co-exist and affect our ways of consuming performances.

 
Double bill: Shailesh Bahoran/IRCompany – Heritage & REDO

Seen by Lucia Fernandez Santoro and Jordi Ribot Thunnissen

LFS: Shailesh Bahoran and Redouan Ait Chitt present two solos, both directed by Bahoran. The two virtuosic breakdancers bring up identity issues from different standpoints. Always through physical dexterity, two stories are told: Bahoran’s mixing traditional dances and hip hop, playing with their symbols and imagery; Ait Chitt’s tale of a resilient body defeating social barriers attempts to exceed the cliché connotations of his physical form.

How did you experience Bahoran’s solo?

JRT: The title seems to say it all. Heritage stems from research into the choreographer’s roots. Bahoran asks himself the basic question ‘who am I?’ and tries to answer by combining movement elements and storytelling features from his different pools of self. Think of India, Suriname, breakdance and popping. Think about precise movement qualities, mythical mimicry, acrobatic jumps and balances.

LFS: Yes, it was fairly acrobatic and impressive in the deftness of execution. Generally, I am quite put off by technique for its own sake. It alienates me from other layers the work may contain. I am not sure if that’s because of my trained eye (as a dancer myself, who has seen a fair share of great dancers) or if it’s just a matter of taste.

JRT: I was impressed by the bodily tension. From a viewpoint of technique, it’s something particularly interesting (and common) to urban dance: how a sequence explodes from an accumulation of tension in the body, like a stone escaping an elastic band. In Heritage, Bahoran accumulates and accumulates. The whole solo seems to evolve from a single strand of effort. Within that, Bahoran efficiently navigates through acrobatic sequences – with a long, jackhammer moment as a highlight – and phrases reminiscent of oriental worlds, all accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions, loud breathing and a very dramatic musical background.

That overkill I found off-putting, as I – with my white and western gaze – didn’t feel the piece needed to be theatrically translated. But then the question is: was that world, or those characters who seemed to possess him at times, part of his heritage or was it a dramaturgical choice to present himself as a persona fighting invisible forces? Was there a story to be followed? To me, his body, not the theatrical reading of its acts, was the place where those diverse pools of self gathered. The combination of pantomime – traditional or not – and choice of music at times overshadowed the power of that physical gathering.

LFS: Indeed, I was lost in the combination of what I saw as dramatic faces and the acrobatics of the body. I surely lack references too, since the gestures I could recognise and ‘place’ are those that have been absorbed by pop culture. Also the traditional aspect of this work made me think. It was traditional in all senses: with reminiscences of traditional dances from India to Suriname but also with a traditional manner of performing, of showing off physical skills and overdramatised expressions, a bit like pantomime. Breakdancing too has the tradition of battles and showing skill and power as a performative act.

These thoughts on performative choices bring me to the next solo: REDO. Redouan Ait Chitt (commonly known as Redo) is the first hip-hop dancer to earn the Dutch ‘Swan’ award for best dancer, in 2019. But the award is incidental, really, to a career defined by fought for and well-deserved personal success. The introduction to the performance describes it bluntly: the bets were 0-6 against Redouan at birth. But turning what the world sees as physical disabilities into his defining strengths, Redo has become a prominent international player in changing the narrative around ‘disabilities’ in dance.

Photo REDO: Sjoerd Derine

JRT: REDO wants to be a powerful tool in this regard. It focuses on the body we are seeing – a body with one hip, a shorter leg, two malformed arms. The solo starts with him illuminating his three-fingered hand with a lamp, then plays with the shadows his prosthetic leg projects. The way this dancer manages his physique to perform is the sole line to be followed. Actually, isn’t this the core of every dancer’s practice? We train our body to make it play to our advantage. Only, in the case of REDO, the uniqueness of his body is more visible, and carries a social and political narrative, a story of empowerment.

LFS: I found myself again limited by my own biased perception. I found it cheesy, and was once more lost by the choreographic direction. I wanted to believe that what I was seeing was not all about his differently abled body. But the dramaturgy, soundtrack and lighting kept reinforcing the feeling that it was just about that.

JRT: I agree some elements can come across as cheesy: the distracting, action-movie soundtrack, or the way the pantomimic links between one choreographic sequence and the next.

Looking at both solos: what bothered you about the overdramatic feel?

LFS: I frequently wonder why concept and physical execution feel so disconnected, or even not related at all. Either the movements feel like a decoration to what the piece is proposing, or the opposite: the conceptual layer feels put on top of virtuosic movements, without adding anything.

JRT: It’s interesting that hip-hop based performances designed for the stage often are built into melodramatic settings, closer to pop-culture and TV shows like Dancing with the Stars than to the lines of movement research stemming from western dance stages since the early 1900s. But not surprising: as Trajal Harrell poignantly noted in Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, there’s an abyss between the social, economic and cultural pools in which postmodern and urban dances have evolved since the sixties. That said, I can’t help but feel a sense of lost opportunity when I see this most influential dance current, which has evolved into a myriad physical techniques on the street without needing metaphors, being shaped so often into emotional gimmicks when it jumps onto stage.

LFS: A lost opportunity in a way, but isn’t it also maybe an effective way to make themselves a space within the elitist context of theatres? I think that pop culture absorbed house dance and hip-hop culture because of their great commercial potential. Hence, this popularity also attracts a broader range of audiences. Is it really a choice between favouring execution over concept, or is it also being subject to the market?

In this respect, I think Cherish Menzo did a fantastic job in Jezebel, another piece at the Peepshow: she flirted with gimmicks but as a commentary and not as a narrative tool. But, again, Menzo is very active in the contemporary scene, and perhaps has a differently educated approach to creating for stage.

JRT: I saw Menzo’s piece when it premiered back in November 2019, and I agree with you every step of the way. As for the melodramatic tendency of urban performances being demanded by the market, I don’t necessarily see it that way. If anything, I assume there’s a wish to be popular when creating for the stage, but I also consider urban movement languages rich and powerful enough to cater for all kinds of choreographic strategies, as we see in any other major technique.

But before going further with Jezebel, there’s a moment I want to talk about in REDO. At one point, Ait Chitt stops the action and sits down to put his shoes on. No added sugar to the coffee: we just see his necessarily unconventional, and so very revealing way of putting his shoes on. Vulnerable and honest, not pitiful. After this, the second part of the solo is a series of exploding, awesome phrases taken out of the battlefield for our bafflement. What a joy. When it was over, I thought: what else was needed?

LFS: Exactly, for me the piece only started there, when Redouan puts on his shoe, with no added artifice. Then I became truly engaged and didn’t have or need more questions about compositional choices. It was impressive and well executed, and didn’t need any extra contextualising.

 
Cherish Menzo: JEZEBEL

Seen by Lucia Fernandez Santoro

LFS: Cherish Menzo is for me a great counter-example of composing skilled movements within a rich concept. In this piece, Menzo reminds us of the late 90s, early 00s phenomenon of the ‘video vixen’ – the much criticised but also acclaimed portrayal of hypersexualised women, often of colour, in hip-hop videos. Skilfully commenting on the manipulation of female bodies by mass media, she reclaims and challenges our perception of that figure. How is this Jezebel redefining herself in our current times?

LFS: She arrives on a customised BMX bike wearing a fur coat, a thick golden chain around her neck, long fake nails and fluorescent pink crop top and shorts. She moves with power and swiftly navigates through hip-hop characters or characteristics: twerking, strutting confidently, territorial and assertive. A transformation happens as her nails start to fall and she steps into a metallic blow-up body-suit. It inflates progressively, exaggerating the curves of the body, turning the figure into a Botero-like body.

The work is a well rounded and crafted proposition. I have been following Menzo’s work as a performer as well as a maker. Versatile and consistent, with integrity and generosity, she is a force on and off stage.

 
Double bill: Dalton Jansen/The Double Collective: The Double
Lisbeth Gruwez & Maarten van Cauwenberghe: Penelope

Seen by Jordi Ribot

JRT: Lastly, I saw an interesting double bill at Peepshow Palace which serves us well in the context of our conversation.

Photo Penelope: Danny Willems

 

JRT: Dalton Jansen is a choreographer from Rotterdam. In The Double, which has an overall feel of what we might loosely call urban contemporary, dancers Terencio Douw and Gihan Koster measure themselves against one another. Starting from the incidental fact that they look alike, Jansen worked with them to go deeper into the implications of mirroring. Jealousy, competitiveness, a wish to excel. While working mainly in synch, both theatrically fight to be seen as individuals, instead of as the one that looks like… or the one that is the opposite from…

JRT: Douw and Koster combine the power of their youth with the proficiency of their ability. They toss around, grab one another, chain one dance phrase to the next. The choreography is neat, an effort has been made to make it possible for them to move as one as much as possible, and for the audience to be able to enjoy them doing so. Yet again, I found myself struggling with the theatrical overkill. Nevertheless, I thought it was a very well made duet, where the dancers brought a lot to the fore and the hand of the choreographer was felt in a way that brought structure and balance. The three got each other; that much was clear.

LFS: I didn’t get to see this piece but this emphasis on performing emotions seem to be recurrent in works stemming from urban movement languages. I wonder if it is to do with these expressions being quite new within more art-institutional forms of dance. Are we bothered by what we perceive as artificial emotions simply because we sense a clash between context and content? Works in theatres historically come from a fairly elitist tradition and conceptualist rhetoric. Am I seeking concepts everywhere? The movement techniques referenced by these works originate from a different social urgency than ballet or modern dance. There are other discourses constructed around these movement languages, and we as audiences also need to broaden our own references to enter the works with a different state of mind.

JRT: As I see it, the choice to add this emotional layer could also be a way to adapt to this elitist stage tradition. I go back to my comment about opportunities lost: it’s not about me seeing the focus on physical research as the right way to go from battles to the stage, but feeling that that focus is already at the core of these languages. But you make a very good point. Maybe my hope of seeing this clash between content and context become a movement of mingling is only a matter of time.

JRT: In this broader debate, Lisbeth Gruwez very much embodies the last decades of that contemporary, white, western european dance-theatre tradition. Her presence on stage is magnetic, and in her works the constant focus lies on the phenomenon of the human body appearing. Just that: in its duality, both as body and as an emotional and telling entity. In Penelope, a ten-minute solo created as an epilogue to a 24h (2017), the all-male Odyssey-opera at the Royal Flemish Theatre, Gruwez turns – like the dervish dancers, like a little girl, like a madman. Her arms move slowly, creating patterns and remnants of recognisable gestures in the air. Gestures related to Homer’s Penelope and to all the other women in his pages, silenced under so many words about heroic virility, blood and revenge. Thus, images pop out of the constant spiral: Penelope waiting, Helen in despair, Circe drying a tear with her skirt. But the focus remains on the turning, Gruwez is occupied by it, and the gestures are like ghosts, wilfully aloof and disconnected to what is happening. Rather than acting out emotions to make us believe they are guiding motion, these image-like echoes spill out of it instead. Supported by evenly evocative light and sound design, this ambiguity turns her into something of a dancing myth herself: an ungraspable whirlwind, a symbolic and energetic something in-between. 

 

Photo cover (The Double – Dalton Jansen): Hans Hordijk 

Jordi Ribot Thunnissen. Originally published: September 3, 2020. Springback Magazine