Ultima Vez, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Posted: March 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ultima Vez, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ultima VezMockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 1

Ultima Vez Mockumentary
Flavio d’Andrea, Anabel Lopez and the cast in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour (photo © Danny Willems)

Since he started his Brussels-based company, Ultima Vez, in 1986 the prolific choreographer, filmmaker and director Wim Vandekeybus has sought innovative approaches to dance and theatre beginning with his first work, What the Body Does Not Remember. One might say that he has established choreography as a form of discourse on a wide variety of subjects that preoccupy him — myth, belief, faith, subconscious desires, dreams, life and death. (In May the Brighton Festival will be presenting his latest work, TrapTown, that questions conflict and freedom). As in modernist architecture’s mantra of ‘form follows function’, each production takes on a form that grows out of the subject but Vandekeybus nonetheless remains true to a physical movement vocabulary that embodies tension and conflict, risk and impulse, intuition and instinct, passion and endurance. In his recent work, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, presented at Queen Elizabeth Hall, he draws on the different cultural traditions of his seven performers — Anabel Lopez, Maria Kolegova, Jason Quarles, Wouter Bruneel, Yun Liu, Flavio d’Andrea and Saïd Gharbi — to create an ironic, perhaps even caustic documentary of salvation.

In an era of unprecedented migration with its underlying plurality of faiths, Vandekeybus broadens the scope of Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour to include any religious remit that promises the kind of salvation where utopia and dystopia are interwoven. The set with its circular centre conceived by Vandekeybus and Meryem Bayram describes a nondescript place reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in which three men and two women have been saved as the ‘chosen ones’ and as in Stalker, there is no way out. It is into the midst of this circle, dominated by a transparent halo-like ceiling, that Bruneel, a big-bellied, lusty western psychologist in orange safety overalls, suddenly appears: his ‘corpse’ drops through the halo and lands with a thud on the ground. His body is ‘still warm’ and the community, already conversant with the notion of a saviour and convinced he is a sign of divine intervention, revives him. Ironically Bruneel’s unexpected arrival sets off a cacophonous dispute about belief, death and preparations for the next life. Even if the location of the space is indeterminate, we learn from Bruneel that the world as we know it is in a state of disintegration, suggesting this is a purgatorial staging post; hence the importance of signs that might lead to a possible way out.  

The internal conflicts, cultural differences, and encounters between the characters are played out as physical and verbal commotions against a rumbling score by Charo Calvo in which Vandekeybus’s characteristic muscular idiom articulates their grief, desires, hopes and sense of resignation. Although a spoken text devised by Bart Meuleman and Ultima Vez predominates as the main expressive form in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, it is the heightened physicality of both voice and body that unleashes the full dynamics of the contradictory forces within the community. Lurking close to the surface of the bonds that tie the seven people in their precarious existence is a violence that threatens to destroy them. 

Vandekeybus’ timely reflection on the power of belief is based not so much on the presence but rather the absence of ‘the child’. We learn that Lopez is a mother whose son has died; early in the piece she is addressed as Martha. Gharbi, a blind seer who represents spiritual clarity, suggests she has to let go of her dead child if she wants him to forgive her. The deliberate conflation of her personal salvation with the biblical Martha’s acceptance of Christ’s resurrection is further corroborated when her son, once freed from her motherly love, is lowered down into the space like an effigy and immediately recognized by the community as proof of the saviour’s existence. Armed with this conviction they clamber enthusiastically over the audience to proselytize in their respective languages till they make their exit through the auditorium doors, leaving the blind Gharbi on stage communicating with the sound of his clicking fingers alone. Vandekeybus thus ends his provocative interrogation of faith with Gharbi’s quiet, meditative gesture that in its simplicity elicits a response from the audience without any misplaced belief or truth assigned to it.  

Mockumentary of A Contemporary Saviour is a reminder from continental Europe of the robust role choreography can play in philosophical debate. In this country we are not familiar with it being used in this way and it pushes hard, if uncomfortably, against a prevalence of aesthetic movement that risks limiting the art form’s full development. 


Wim Vandekeybus – Ultima Vez: What the Body Does Not Remember

Posted: February 13th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Wim Vandekeybus – Ultima Vez: What the Body Does Not Remember

Wim Vandekeybus – Ultima Vez: What the Body Does Not Remember, Sadler’s Wells, February 10

Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus's What the Body Does Not Remember (photo © Danny Willems)

Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus’s What the Body Does Not Remember (photo © Danny Willems)

If I could collect and access my favourite dance performances as easily as I can my favourite music on an iPod, Ultima Vez’ What the Body Does Not Remember would be one of them. The era in which it was created — the latter half of the eighties — was one in which many creators were devising dance-theatre works with a rich, contradictory vocabulary of tension, harmony, tearing apart and coming together. Many social and political barriers were beginning to fall (not least of which the Berlin Wall at the end of the decade) and dance was part of that tectonic change. In the same year (1987) Wim Vandekeybus first presented What the Body Does Not Remember, Pina Bausch’s Palermo Palermo opened prophetically with the collapse of a huge wall filling the entire proscenium arch. Vandekeybus was clearly not working in a vacuum; he was tuned in through contemporary philosophy (particularly the social theorist Jean Baudrillard) to an understanding of his time and he developed a movement language that was a highly physical expression of emotional turmoil, chaos and freedom from establishment ethics. It was in the same period in Montreal (where I was living at the time) that Édouard Lock created Human Sex (1985) for LaLaLa Human Steps (with the extraordinary Louise Lecavalier) and Gilles Maheu created Le Dortoir (1988) for his company Carbone 14, in both of which action prevailed over narrative to provide thrilling, visceral spectacles that caught the public imagination and propelled their creators to mythic status overnight. Vandekeybus took the dance world by storm with What the Body Does Not Remember and he has since continued to make works in theatre, film and dance. It is not often his work is seen here (most recently at Southbank Centre with his booty Looting in 2013) but fortunately someone at Dance Touring Partnership loves his work, for DTP toured Blush in 2004 and Spiegel in 2007 (the last time Ultima Vez was at Sadler’s Wells). For those outside London who want to see What the Body Does Not Remember, these performances are just the beginning of an extensive UK tour.

This version is a revival with a fine new cast of dancers who clearly enjoy the challenge and, for the London performances only, with live accompaniment by ICTUS of Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch’s brilliantly percussive score (there is even an encore of De Mey’s Musique de Tables, a composition for six hands on three tables).

I never saw the original cast but I didn’t pick up from this performance what Vandekeybus calls the ‘fear and catastrophe’ inherent in the work. Perhaps that is the passage of time or the more refined training of these nine dancers (or both), but I got the impression of wild games played by fearless children with beards and muscular legs. It doesn’t detract from the work, but the original revolutionary force may have been replaced over time by a more ludic intensity. Vandekeybus acknowledges that “It’s not limited to a time or age-related; you can show it to kids and the kids enjoy it! It’s something universal.”

The most menacing sequence is the opening in which two women are manipulated by the hand movements on a sound table of a manic puppet master (Zebastián Méndez Marin). The amplification is powerful and the percussive gestures on the table transmit violent phrases of tension and collapse in the two women writhing on the floor, the one on the right (Maria Kolegova) controlled by Marin’s right hand, the one on the left (Livia Balážová, if I remember rightly) by his left hand. He is relentless and merciless in his game, watching them intently as they respond to his control. Satisfied with the game, he simply leaves the stage while Kolegova and Balážová meekly remove their tormentor’s table and chair.

The subsequent sequences are fast-paced variations on daredevil games of risk in which the dancers compete with and taunt each other by throwing or catching bricks, endlessly removing and putting on each other’s jackets and towels with split-second dexterity as they pass, annoying each other, riffing on the airport body search, keeping feathers airborne, circulating the stage at high velocity, hurling themselves to the floor, stamping on each other or taking evasive action to avoid imminent impact (early on one disdainful critic termed the genre ‘eurocrash’) that makes the head spin from the sheer energy and effervescence. The final sequence is a reprise of the menacing opening but with Germán Jauregui Allue as a foot-stamping puppet master who has lost his power. When the last woman has walked off he is left stamping tempestuously all alone, a final dose of impish humour spread throughout the evening that makes the show (let’s admit it) so irrepressibly entertaining.