J’ai pleuré avec les chiens – A Cry for Communal Transformation
J’ai pleuré avec les chiens (TIME, CREATION, DESTRUCTION) performed in Bergen during the Oktoberdans festival, is Canadian choreographer Daina Ashbee’s first ensemble dance piece. As the title I cried with the dogs suggests, the piece is a radical attempt to bring some sort of canine sensibility to the artistic creative process and the human experience. In the end, however, I cannot help feeling that rather than changing the perceptions and the outlook of the audience the performance itself ends up going to the dogs.
I am sitting by the fireplace in a cosy house on the hillside above the picturesque little coastal town trying to make sense of last evening’s performance. The dry heat on my cheeks is a distinct reminder. It was a different kind of heat last night. Stagnant and humid, filled with the bodily odours of the nude, sweaty performers. Midway through the show, an audience member sitting opposite of me had to remove his sweater. He was probably sweating as well. Whether from the humid heat of the room or the warm discomfort of the scenes on display, I cannot say.
The dance was set up in a small room at USF Verftet, an old wharf turned cultural centre. Entering, we were asked to be careful and not trespass the imaginary line between the stage and the seats spread all around the walls. It was essential to keep the floor, covered by a black dance mat, to the artists. Keeping it clean for them. Cleanliness and health became a leitmotif the next hour.
Six people, casually dressed, crawled onto the stage. One by one they stripped down. As the lights dimmed the crawling nude bodies seemed to lose their human characteristics, leaving only a silent, rhythmical crawl, a human kennel. Gradually, auditive elements emerged. Sobbing, barking, shouting, and howling. The canine-like bodies explored their new functions. With their faces covered by hair, they rejected any contact with the public. However, I sensed a future confrontation to be inevitable.
The discomfort of the scene was palpable. One hundred faces lined around the walls of the room, still and expressionless, shifting in their seats, unable to remove their eyes from the scene unfolding. In front of them the nude performers were moving methodically: muscles straining, knees thumping the floor, ass-cheeks jiggling and breasts hanging down like udders.
Suddenly a female voice called. A pre-recorded message on the loudspeaker. “How healthy are you?” she asked. We were bombed with cliches, banal yogi phrases. Excellent health was demanded. Accusing us of provoking the sickness in ourselves she insisted: “Fix yourselves”. Yet, abruptly, the voice claimed the necessity of an illness in our lives, as a lesson to be learnt. Alas, a quasi-shamanistic introduction to a trance. An irrational overcoming of our physical condition in order to heal. After an intriguing start to the show, this new-age nonsense was quite a let-down. I looked around the room. There were people of all ages, in all shapes and sizes. What were their stories, what were their struggles? What dark suffering lay hidden behind their serious, expressionless faces? The nude bodies were scarless, they were strong and able. What could they teach us of life and of loss? Eventually the voice subsided, her eulogy of the healthy mind in a healthy body disappeared without making any clear impact.
However, my presentiment of a later confrontation was not wrong. After the first shy introduction, the dancers grew in confidence. Exploring new movements, they dared to return the gaze: stopping in front of particular spectators, looking them in the eyes, posing, displaying their nude, individual bodies. The dancers became more and more audacious, playful, and explorative: exposing themselves, accentuating their small vibrations, the expansions and contractions of their limbs. A violent musculation reducing their bodies to pure existence. In this state, liberated from the shame of humanity they played freely, their bodies carelessly put in danger, in daring acroyoga positions.
Repetition is a key point when it comes to imaginary of a ritual and trance state: it prolongates and resists time. The power of repetitive ecstasy can reveal new poetics and meanings. In this case however, the repetitions of stunts and postures seemed to have the opposite effect. Rather than revealing new meanings, after some time I felt bland. The intensity of the initial provocative encounter had worn off. I longed back to when the bodies were alone, circling around like savage dogs. The provocative messages were long forgotten. Now there was just six nude people being nude and doing edgy stuff.
With the performance threatening to go out with a whimper rather than a bang, suddenly the atmosphere changed. The rigidity of the first part returned. A pluriform human larvae slovenly made its way across the room. There were no sounds but the haunting screams of a lone female dancer highlighted in the centre of the room and the rhythmical howls of the only male of the ensemble – a lonely wolf lurching in the shadows, isolated. The dark warm intimacy of the first part of the show returned with newfound intensity. Finally, the bodies converged in the centre, in a frenzy of limbs and primordial voices, as the light turned blue and then dark, the shadows becoming one with the darkness of the room. The barely distinguishable actors were gasping for air as they left the stage exhausted. I stepped into the fresh night air with many contradictory feelings. Certainly, it was a performance to sleep on.
Now in the cool light of day, removed from the dark heat of intimacy, what remains? Approaching the final paragraphs, the fire has cooled down. It is hard to extract any precise meaning or insight from what happened last evening. Digging in the ashes, the only tangible opinions I recover are those of new-age nonsense and bad nudist gymnastics. Like a drunk one-nightstand what seemed real and intense is now long forgotten. With time, what was created has been destroyed. Is this the mark of a disturbing, self-destructive masterpiece, or was it just plain bad?
J’ai pleuré avec les chiens (TIME, CREATION, DESTRUCTION)
Choreographer: Daina Ashbee
Rehearsal Director: Gabriel Nieto
Performers: Angélica Morga, Irene Martínez, Greys Vecchionacce, Gabriel Nieto, Lorena Olguin, Elise Vanderborght
Mentor: Benoît LaChambre
Lighting Designer: Vito Walter
Project Manager and Administration: Angélica Morga
Musical compilation: Sean MacPherson, Daina Ashbee, Gabriel Nieto
Audio text: Louise Hay
Text (Française): Nayla Naoufal
Photo and Video: Nicolas VanAchter & Stephanie Paillet
Editorial note: This text is written as part of an international writing workshop entitled Playing Dance Writing, which took place at Oktoberdans Festival in Bergen. The workshop was a collaboration between Taneční aktuality and Performing Criticism Globally, kindly supported by EEA Grants.
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