Is it a matter of privileged ability or habitual tendency, that concert dance tends to lend itself to provisions of aspiration? Perhaps it’s SYTYCD culture and the new norm of “more is more”, but I believe audience members now come to the theater expecting to see illusions that defy their own earthbound limitations. They seek and find vertical ascension that contradicts the “impossible.” The ritual of congregating becomes more of an exercise in escapism, as opposed to a reflection of a sometimes bleak reality. For these moments, however long, of observing others strive for a change, serve as a relief.
In attending Jefta Van Dinther’s “Protagonist”, performed by the Cullberg Baletten last month, the vertical beam of striving was toppled, revealing the horizon of human (re)-evolution. Instead of contradicting time, the 14 dancers began the journey as slaves to it. A melancholic monologue of Van Dinther’s own words — describing lying awake at night being consumed by thoughts, knowing something must change — slithered them out into the space. Armored in gear of functional leather and mesh, the dancers’ velcro sneakers and work boots served as survival tools rather than symbols of individual expression. The electronic mood of sound engineer David Kiers established a tone that was immediately relentless.
The aura of the set design, although minimal, shone dark. Blood red carpet with two, three inch steps spilled out upon the stage floor with crude metal beams unevenly stacked, establishing a makeshift trellis far upstage. There were moments when shadow play upon the floor transformed the crimson into a crushed velvet texture. Perhaps because I was viewing this performance in Berlin, my initial reaction likened the set to a squalid dance club post- party. I couldn’t help recollecting early morning disillusions, when the lights are finally turned on and nothing seems as glamorous as things felt the night before.
But the people present were not dancing in the trance-like rapture of night life nor were they “performing” any definitive modern technique. For the minutes to follow, I witnessed communion. Vignettes of individual monologues, impassioned triangles, and brutal yet tender duets engaged in crystal clear physical declarations of what it means to be an Agonist. Bound gestures emanated from the scarlet red floor, reaching up to the decisive reaction of the face. The matter they moved through was unbearably thick, just as the tales of crises and doubt they told were driven, almost without choice, forward. The beats-per-minute drove these vessels in a loop of time which fed the macrocosmic effect of chaos on stage.
It was in this mastery of manipulating time within the body that the physical syntax became evident: through perpetual dramatic pauses with the joints, semicolons of the face. These endless individual hyperboles were able to compound into the narrative created by Van Dinther and the world inhabited by the 14 artists. A world where humanity is in crises and angst is the underlying motivator.
Because of this overwhelming “chatter”, as an audience member, I was then given agency to engage in what story line intrigued or even scared me the most. Individual responsibility to narrow the focus allowed me to notice cultural themes Van Dinther placed in this unforgiving machine. Personal power and how it pertains to the collective were consistently given brief moments of spotlight, if you were able to catch them. Protagonists arose, followers followed suit, at moments physically exalting a heroine and traversing her across the stage. Some were left behind, seemingly too weak to carry on.
Through this calamity, Van Dinther provided a mirror to what human progress looks like when the stakes are high and time is running out. He kept us in this uncomfortable space for long enough that the struggle and desperation began to subliminally reflect, mirror-like, upon me in my seat. My natural urge as an “educated dance patron” to seperate myself, label, and formally organize what I was seeing into manageable thoughts ceased, giving space to simply absorb the crushingly loud dialogue for what it was: 14 individuals desperately trying to be heard, fighting for survival by any means necessary. They were rulers of their own dark narratives which I interpreted as ripe with abuse, doubt, and crises. Also present on stage (as in humanity) were overt sexual uses of power as one female protagonist dominated another woman into submission through weighted lunges and predatory advancement. The group behind them excited and amplified the energy with battle-like intensity as they circled around in a nonverbal alliance.
It was at this almost unbearable peak of aggression, that the measured beat which had not let up since the beginning, finally seceded. Following a satisfyingly repetitive group arm phrase, the sound of exhausted breath was all that remained. It was chilling in nature in comparison to the prior numbing soul of electronica. Later on, I was able to connect this almost rapturous physicality of repeating simple but specific gestures to an interview in which Van Dinther mentions his personal daily practice of Kundalini Yoga. The connection to this method was evident in terms of the dancers vital stamina in spite of the dogged rigor of the meter.
What filled the space next were the powerful words of the young Swedish soul/gospel singer Elias. With a voice deep in tone and texture he sang of revolution:
we are falling now words written down
they are falling now
but the lies they will hurt you hold on
human kindness desert you hold on
let’s start a revolution how beautiful
let’s start a revolution how beautiful
it is (revolution)
(oh, oh, revolution) (oh, oh, revolution)
Once Elias’s call beckoned, an a cappella harmonizing of these 14 individuals slowly gave rise and a vulnerable projection pierced through the traditional “4th wall.” Unification I didn’t know I craved was exalted through ritual of song. Only then, during a moment of stillness on stage did I begin to recognize this palette of instruments as uniquely gendered, varied in their solar rotations and gravitational pull. This transparent moment of having movers use their voice in song is not new, but in context felt freshly examined.
From there, the pace of the established dial began to slow down. The characters all stood facing forward and began an imperceptibly slow retrograde of upright man and womanhood into a sinking of the former “self.” The self of curved spines and slow gait; unmastered opposition of legs and arms to the neanderthal state of unfettered purpose. It was in this change, two thirds of the way through, that emancipation was introduced, not through advancement of facility but rather through ease in nature. To Be the idea rather than perform it. A beautifully simple intention, rarely tangible, because of dancers’ natural desire to be perfect and/or “prove.” In this creation, the nature of the unseemly was perfectly enough.
Previously austere and warehouse-like, a simple lighting change transformed the space into a soft green forest floor with the same shiny metal beams becoming a bamboo-like ginger. The protective wear of “civilized” tops and bottoms were thoughtfully removed to reveal white and brown bodies, naked in form and contrivance. I became witness to play now, as the 14 began exploring their environment as if for the first time. Primary human forms hung like grapes on a vine, or bats in a cave. There was contentment in swinging from trusses as far down as the proscenium. Human interaction now an activity of endless discovery.
Even as the musical score of electronica was brought back little by little and the lights became brighter, the phrasing and timing served rather than enslaved the dancer this time around. Decisions felt clearer as to when to join the rhythm, choice being option that wasn’t there before. It’s as as if Van Dinther was implying that only by scaling back, stripping away, can one presently move forward. Their complete nakedness in all its “wildness” did not feel taboo or jarring but natural in the way of intuiting the inevitability that all of us — both the spectator and the vehicle of the piece — would arrive at this very destination. The former could not have made sense without the latter. Just as the story could not have progressed without each individual agonist determining a heroic finish.
Not until the abrupt blackout did I realize the lasso the ensemble had covertly swung over me. Through their expanding and contracting journey, I too was looped in and re-evolving; acting as both witness to ritual and playing heroine to the timelessness of human transformation.