Tell me it's happened to you. Please? You've seen an interesting poster or title, or just accidentally stumbled into a performance space and enjoyed what you saw. You had a philosophical epiphany? Fresh insight regarding the human condition? And then on the way out for coffee someone hands you the program you somehow missed on the way in: the artist's manifesto, an articulation of the meaning of the work. And, wow, were you off base.
In 2004, I saw a gorgeous performance by the Danish group Hotel Pro Forma. Their work is consciously anti-Aristotelian. I knew that going in. Still, I couldn't help but congratulate myself for seeing that they'd cleverly woven Othello into the dance sequence of Calling Clavigo (www.hotelproforma.dk/clavigo/eng_index.html) and that the "debate" in the foyer featuring local "arts personalities" was intended to begin in earnest, move toward parody, and finally become a kind of erudite white-noise during intermission (a la the Post Modern Generator: www.elsewhere.org/pomo). I still haven't decided if, during my brief conversation with artistic director Kirsten Dehlholm, I made a blatant display of my ignorance, my arrogance, or simply proof of my ardently Aristotelian brain.
And it's happened again:
This week I saw a dance/video performance by the young Norwegian choreographer André Austvoll: NEI. His company Microdance* (www.microdance.org) has performed the piece in Oslo at the Black Box theatre, Kontoret Galleri and Dansens Hus, as part of the New Norwegian Dance Festival.
NEI was originally scheduled for a café stage in Stavanger, but Tou Scene (whose program is meagre this season due to funding struggles and a kind of adolescent identity crisis) managed to snatch the booking. It's a good thing they did. The Spartan, whitewashed black box was a perfect space for the piece.
Going in, I knew the title: NEI, which is Norwegian for "no". Negation, I think. Okay. So I sit back and try to take it in. Try not to think too much.
I can't say it began well (if I hear one more piece of electronic music based on breathing…): A dancer, centre stage left, facing the audience. Motionless. A second dancer is on her knees just downstage with her back to the audience. She slumps to the right. She rights herself. She slumps to the left. And, oh, I'm such a pessimist.
But there was nothing predictable here. For a young choreographer, the piece was refreshingly free from cliché. Even free from the circular dramaturgy that seems to the stamp of "new" choreographers we've seen at Tou.
The black and white costumes and the simple scenography which consisted of red spotlights and columns of hanging tinsel worked well with the mechanical movements to create a dystopian mood. The dancers utilized the entire space (Austvoll's anchoring in Laban is evident) and many in the audience were on their feet among the folding chairs during the whole 45 minute performance so as not to miss the inverted, crawling, sprawling dancers.
The piece was characterized by sympathetic movements—a kind of contact-improvisational expression sans actual contact. The dancers never even look at one another: one dancer rotates her hips and the quality of movement is echoed in the movements of a nearby dancer's ribcage. An arm swings in a mechanical arc before bending sharply at the elbow and the movement is mirrored again and again on stage. The dancers are echoing—aware without ever actually interacting—sympathetic but never empathetic. By the end of the piece I'd been completely drawn into a "sympathetic frustration": willing one of the dancers to lift another, to touch, to look.
The use of technology, introduced unassumingly and late in the piece, was seamless and complementary. A camera on the floor projected the right half of the stage with a mirror-image effect onto the full screen behind: a dancer crossing the stage appears on the backdrop as a figure walking toward and ultimately merging with itself.
Finally, dancers touch—with a narcissistic futility. I was so drawn into the piece that I didn't even mind (much) when the music segued into electronic heartbeats before "dying".
Yesterday, on my way for coffee someone handed me the program for NEI. I quote:
"NEI is about limitations of space, thought and relationships. The four dancers pulse in a flux between extreme conditions and difficult choices. Pulsing in spatial directions and interpersonal constellations which are expressed in the dichotomies of energy/exhaustion, up/down, yes/no. The dance expresses the necessity of saying "no" in many ways, in order to allow for change between flexibility and obstinacy.
I didn't get all that. Perhaps my worst fear has been realized and contemporary art is a kind of Rorschach test. (And now you know more about me than you'd ever wish to.)
I hope to see more of Austvoll's work in the future. I'll be sure to read what his intentions are first.
Then again… Rorschach tests are kinda fun.
NEI is performed by Camilla Aarvåg, Riikka Taipale, Beate Kretovicona and André Austvoll. Music by Flux Rotator, costumes by Ingunn O. Myrland, and scenography by Andrea Lumb.
You can see a trailer for NEI on microdance's website: www.microdance.org
*(Not to be confused with Microdance, the Australian group that worked in cooperation with the Australia Council/ABC TV/AFC collaboration in the 1990s.)