Adelaide Festival: Stau (anoukvandijk dc)
“Spontaneous inevitability” is an expression that David Freeman uses to describe the ideal way of directing Shakespeare. The words are more-or-less fixed, but they have to be delivered with the jousting freshness of live conversation, with the drama (if you like) of having those words deal with an actual situation or having them solve a problem in the moment of delivery. They must retain the capacity to surprise.
There’s a similar challenge in dance which adapts and ‘fixes’ the ideas and moves pioneered in “contact improvisation”. It’s an apparent contradiction: choreographing improvisation.
Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk calls her system of movement Countertechnique. (It’s reminiscent, in more ways than one, of Mikel Rouse’s ‘counterpoetry’.) The central pillar is the lack of a central pillar! The pelvis is no longer the superstructure underlying all movement in this kind of dance. Instead of the “static balance” that comes from the pelvic keel, there is a constant whirl of limbs in van Dijk’s dancers which offsets each and every primary gesture, each lunge and lean and whirl.
Stau is a near-perfect example of van Dijk’s theories in action. ‘Stau’ is one of those looking-glass words: it can mean “traffic jam” or the moment when tides change... that point when ebb becomes flow or vice versa.
This 80 minute work is divided into two parts. The longer first half (performed by Birgit Gunzl and Nina Wollny) is an intimate and hushed study of that tidal turn-around. The second part (in which Gunzl and Wollny are joined by Philipp Fricke and Angela Mueller) turns those tidal forces into small but dynamic eddies. The audience itself becomes the cause of the traffic jam.
The seating arrangement for the opening section is a small boxing ring, with three concentric squares of tiered seats. Before entering The Space, audience members have to remove shoes and, optionally, socks. (I’m guessing this is a first for a show at the Festival Centre!) No bags are permitted in the theatre either.
Now, bags certainly might prove to be a problem for the dancers in the latter part of the show, in which the dancers storm through the crowd after all seating has been removed, but I’m guessing that the insistence on bare feet might have more to do with some of Stau’s sustaining themes, which directly or indirectly include intimacy and personal space. Moments before the performance started, we were urged to fill up the few empty seats left in the front row... which is when I traded the safety and anonymity of back row for a ringside seat. And I’m glad I did.
Stau begins with Gunzl and Wollny leaning into one another, face to face, chest to chest. Poised. Gradually that equilibrium is lost. Surrendered really. And the two women begin to spin and pivot and whirl around the edges of the square, even snaking under chairs at one point.
Part of the thrill of the piece is, of course, the dancers’ proximity to us. Not only do we hear their breathing and the rasp of taped soles skidding against the floor, we feel the flick of hair and the occasional touch. We can’t miss the sheen of sweat. Can’t help but wonder whose nudity we have been warned about in the festival guide...
Up this close, one can’t objectify a performer in any case. They’re too human to be reduced to a sum of their parts. Sitting there, I remembered being ringside at a performance of Penny Arcade’s Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore, a performance that was intended to be titillating. I realised, there, that I couldn’t objectify a dancer, even if she was lapdancing me. To objectify her, I had to look at a video screen, a live feed of her doing her stuff. The image had to be mediated somehow.
But, no, we are not invited to objectify. Not at any stage. And, yes, there is audience participation; but, by the time it happens, it is almost anticlimactic. It’s certainly not in the least bit embarrassing or humiliating or threatening. It’s celebratory. But it lacks the thrill of danger.
Van Dijk clearly wants her audiences discomforted, but she doesn’t betray the trust she exacts from us. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Festival audiences -- even audiences at festivals the calibre of Adelaide -- are all-too-capable of swallowing weirdness whole, without ever digesting it. Acceptance becomes a kind of dismissal. We’re all “unshockable” at festivals.
I didn’t find van Dijk’s choreography especially innovative or memorable, but the performances themselves were impressive. Indelible. As skilled as they were brave. And the first 50-odd minutes I would happily sit through again and again.
Stau is a wondrous experience without necessarily being wondrous art. I couldn’t help but recall seeing Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods in this very theatre, ten years ago. Everything since has been just steps.
N.B. Images are from an early version of Stau, performed at Studio Dok, Amsterdam.