Dancing in my mind
Margarita Zieda, Theatre Critic

The Japanese approach to the performing arts differs somewhat from that of Europeans and Americans. The cult of youth and beauty does not come into it at all. Only after seventy, eighty or ninety years of life experience does the performer become sufficiently mature in an emotional sense to be able to say something through art.

When American director Robert Wilson remembered his comrade-in-arms Suzushi Hanayagi, the legendary Japanese choreographer and dancer, together with whom in New York in the 1980s he had developed his distinctive, flowing, slow-motion, somnambulistic form of human state of being on the stage, punctuated by robotic movements, when in the new millennium he started to search for her in Tokyo, she was nowhere to be found. She had completely disappeared and nobody knew anything about her.

Suzushi Hanayagi is one of the icons of the 1960s New York avant-garde, although at the same time she continued with traditional Japanese art. Hanayagi was enthralled with the abstract poetry of Japanese traditional art, but its formal demands seemed too staid and firmly established to accept new impulses. These she found in the works of John Cage, in Fluxus and in the melting pot of artistic ideas of the 1960s and 70s New York avant-garde, working together with Merce Cunningham and Yoko Ono, experimenting together with Judson Church Dance, and at the same time continuing to perform Japanese traditional dance in creative interplay with avant-garde ideas.

When, in the early 80s, Hanayagi met director Robert Wilson, inventor of a new world of theatre, they were united by an interest in the performance of a kind of movement that would be equivalent to light, image and sound, and would not involve human emotion or storytelling, but would nevertheless be redolent with meaning. Hanayagi, who was engaged in pure movement, taught Wilson that movement that is not charged with any particular meaning derived from the human mind, or emotions, can itself create meaning. Hanayagi taught Wilson that dance has a mysterious force of its own. This conviction helped to crystallise Wilson’s magical language of movement, which he developed together with Hanayagi, drawing viewers into a different level of reality which nobody can really explain in intellectual terms, but which all can experience.

And thus, when after an intensive search Robert Wilson finally found Suzushi Hanayagi in the new millennium, with the intention of proposing that they put together a new performance, he was shocked by the meeting. Hanayagi had been in an old-people’s home in Osaka for several years, in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease. She was wheelchair-bound, and could not move of her own accord. For several years she had ceased talking and communicating with the outside world. When leaving, Wilson did nevertheless tell her that he wished to create a performance together. And in return he received a small gesture: three fingers of one hand, slowly turning. When he met Hanayagi once again, having obtained permission from countless different instances, he took her out to a restaurant, and she told him in a scarcely-audible voice: “I am still dancing. In my mind.”

This was the beginning of KOOL, a performance which premiered at the Guggenheim in New York, and then made its way around the world. In September it was shown in the old building of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. In the new glass structure on the Pariser Platz, Robert Wilson had created an exhibition-installation dedicated to Suzushi Hanayagi. A composition of movement by Hanayagi, fixed by film cameras, was shown on the four walls of a black velvet room. These are small fragments: hands, toes and face, slowly communicating with the world in darkness. Turning the world around itself.
Robert Wilson. KOOL - Dancing in My Mind. Photo: Lovis Dengler Osteriek
The power of gesture is still here – the immense force still present was the subject of Wilson’s work. At the back of the stage, the hands of the 80-year-old artist were displayed, enlarged on an immense screen. Her fingers, no longer resembling human fingers, but instead like strange sculptures, like immense, sinewy, ancient roots, like a water-fall charged with immense force, performed slow movements. In the performance of Homage to Suzushi Hanayagi, seven dancers once again danced excerpts from the choreography of movement of the works they had created together, including the transcontinental megaproject Civil Wars, which was intended to link up continents in a chain of power, although never actually realised in full. In a strange way they have achieved this in KOOL – Dancing in My Mind, where the centre of energy was the dancing, almost motionless body of Suzushi Hanayagi on the immense screen at the back of the stage. It appears in the form of fragments, in a split image. The hands, toes and face of Hanayagi interact with this “historic heritage” performed by the dancers, continuing in the present a dance that creates its own meaning. And can convey this, even though the artist herself is in an almost motionless state on the other side of the world.

Conceptualism and narcissism
The dance festival Tanz im August, one of the most important dance forums in Europe which takes place in that same Berlin venue in late August and early September each year, focuses on artists’ ideas, bringing together leading contemporary choreographers who show their latest works. Two of these – Gardenia by Belgian choreographer Alain Platel, and Product of other circumstances by French choreographer Xavier Le Roy, indirectly relate to Dancing in my mind, making us think not only about aesthetic approaches and the opportunities for dialogue through art, but also about what the artist chooses as the content of the conversation. What he or she chooses to fill their own time, and that of their fellow human beings.

This is something we tend to think more about when encountering an imitation of a work, rather than a powerful work. Especially when the artist is an interesting one, who on other occasions really does have something to say, and is capable of looking at things from an unexpected point of view. In this case it applies to French choreographer Xavier Le Roy, who has previously created wonderful works, among them the grandiose dance of the orchestra when performing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, going through all the motions necessary for this music to sound, only without the sound itself. Causing us to see how music comes from movement and is quite impossible without human movement. This autumn Xavier Le Roy presented his audience with two hours of Japanese butoh, a product of the artist’s conceptual joy at discovering a book entitled ‘Butoh in two hours’ and of his desire to create a performance under the same title. The artist undertook to learn butoh in a brief period of time, setting himself a very strict and short time-frame, and then to share what he had experienced.

This sharing has taken place and indeed continues to take place at various festivals: the choreographer tells us how he thought up this challenge for himself and nurtured the idea, until he finally told someone that he would implement it, how he finally started to do it. He had started from the most elementary point, namely the video and text examples thrown up by Google, the most interesting of which are shown to the audience, followed by a demonstration of several examples of butoh dance, as performed by Xavier Le Roy, meanwhile he continues to discuss his involvement in the project. But with that the conceptually assigned time has run out, that’s all there is, and there is no more to say. No original thoughts, no personal viewpoint, no original comments on the object of study. And immense narcissism in the assumption that it must be incredibly interesting to travel across the whole of Berlin (or wherever the performance is taking place on that occasion) specially to watch and learn about how one artist has decided to take an interest in a particular theme. Usually it is youthful artists, enamoured with their own selves, who happen to create such works, but evidently it has nothing to do with the age or level of the artist. It simply has to do with the artist’s own choice of what to show the people who’ve come to see them. What to talk about.

Gardenia. The last evening in the festival of life
Another artist, the Belgian choreographer Alain Platel, whose latest work Gardenia opens the Berlin dance forum and premiered to immense ovations at the Avignon Festival in the summer, always emphasises in his interviews that he takes his audience very seriously. Because the viewer has made an effort: has made a journey, paid money for the ticket and expects something from the artist in return. In creating his works, Platel starts by considering what it is that he values most highly in work by other artists. When he goes to see other artists perform, he doesn’t want to be taught, to have something explained to him or to have a discussion held in front of him. Platel wishes for his emotional world to be stirred, for something to happen in his heart. And such indeed are his own works: emotionally powerful, devoid of sentimentality, kitsch or cheap emotionality.

Platel is a choreographer who doesn’t create choreography. He works with non-professionals: the autistic, the deaf and dumb, alcoholics and the homeless – people whom society tends to shunt aside, apart from itself. And he is interested in the world of movement revealed through these people. But first and foremost, he is interested in the people who are revealed through movement. Platel is an instigator of movement, a stimulus to open up to movement and to people. He himself says that if he knew where his performances come from, he wouldn’t need five weeks of rehearsal, searching and effort. The idea for the work Gardenia, created by Alain Platel together with director Frank Van Laecke, came from Belgian actress Vanessa Van Durme, who was inspired by the film ‘Yo soy asi’, which tells of a Barcelona transvestite club that is due to close. It’s called ‘Gardenia’, and the performance shows the last evening at this club. There are seven people on stage, quite advanced in years. They are transvestites, people who affirm the gorgeousness of life, but whose own lives are now beset by age. The non-professional players in Platel’s performance remain who they are, never pretending to be artists. In this case, they are elderly people who have attempted to turn themselves into something else for their whole lives, by changing their dress and their sex, and by this means have sought to find their true self. People who have tried to make their lives happy and colourful, even if the vital force of colour is celebrated only in their outer form. These people have come together in order to say goodbye to the place where they celebrated and which was their home. And to perform there for the last time.

Elderly people come in from the street in grey suits, and slowly change into flowery frocks, turning into beings open to joy. Platel allows each of these people to be seen individually: almost like sculptures arranged in space. He allows us to see their faces, faded from the storms and passions of their lives, their figures, which have lost their form, the fatigue of the flesh. And their wish to affirm vitality, colour and joy. ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is heard through and over this exhibition of people, permitting us to see an existential longing in these sumptuously dressed-up people, a longing that we all experience. A longing for a joyful, colourful, powerful life, as against the rarity of such events in real life.
Suzushi Hanayagi and Robert Wilson at a rehearsal for 'Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights'. 1992. Photo: Archie Kent
Platel’s performances always give the audience a new perspective, thinking about the occurrences in real life. This is also true of Gardenia: we can consider transvestites not only as a manifestation of a particular kind of sexuality, but as people who strategically charge up life with the necessity of colour and joy. People who are ready for life to happen, and instead of pining away in waiting, apply all the force of colour and potential for change that they possess. Transforming themselves into colourful birds of paradise, even if these birds really have no place in ‘real life’.

Human Writes

The special theme of Tanz im August this year was human rights – each and every person’s right to be. American choreographer William Forsythe once, while observing a technically accomplished ballet performance at the Paris Opera, at the same time contemplated the dead soul of ballet: he then radically renewed the vocabulary of classical ballet, breathing into it new life and the possibility of development. In his latest work Human writes, not created in conjunction with the Berlin Festival and its theme, but shown in this context, Forsythe has played with the phrase ‘Human Rights’, contemplating about how it is that such a simple and self-evident thing as a person’s right to exist is impossible in reality. That it has had to be declared, and that the implementation of this right still turns out to be impossibly difficult. While working with the theme, the artist wished to completely avoid the high feeling that frequently accompanies discussion of it, and to examine it through movement.

If you are in Berlin, Radialsystem V, the house where Forsythe’s Human writes was performed, is worth visiting. It is the city’s former pumping station at Holzmarktstrasse 33, one of the best Berlin venues dedicated to dance and music. It is an immense labyrinth of studios and rehearsal rooms, the workplace of one of the most important contemporary dance artists: the German choreographer Sasha Waltz, together with her dancers, choreographers and musicians from around the world. In the enormous space of Radialsystem, Forsythe had set out forty tables. On each of these there was a white sheet of paper with a sentence, lightly sketched in pencil, on it. The sentence came from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the full text, drawn up in 1948, was hanging on the wall. The dancers had the task of copying the text, but none of them were able to go up to the table and trace over the letters in black charcoal.

They encountered the most refined and absurd kinds of opposition and obstacles, for which it was often difficult to even identify any rational basis. In the simplest form, they had their hands tied behind their backs or their feet tied together, with the writing implement between their fingers or toes. After four hours of struggling with these restrictions on movement, and even seeking the aid of the viewer in this struggle to write in the face of opposition, all that is left in the room are the traces of the struggle. Smeared pages. Illegible scrawls in black charcoal. The impressions of movement that strives to state that each person has a right to be, a statement that actually never becomes legible. In all of his works, Forsythe has searched for life and the capacity to converse through movement. This four-hour struggle for movement leaves a heavy atmosphere, with the question hanging in the air: Why do people move at all? To do what?

/Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš/
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