Saturday, January 24, 2015

PuSh 2015: It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend

It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend, on at The Dance Centre through this evening as part of the PuSh Festival, was one of my advance must-see picks when Festival Associate Curator Joyce Rosario told me last summer that the show was coming to town. First of all, there's that title, apocalyptically suggestive, but in an amiable don't-sweat-it-just-accept-it sort of way. Then there's the concept of the piece: a solo by Belgian dance artist Lisbeth Gruwez to a sermon by Jimmy Swaggart, from which the title derives.

As Gruwez and her partner in the company Voetvolk, composer and sound designer Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, explained following the show, the origins of the piece began with Gruwez's interest in the gestural vocabulary accompanying speeches made by political leaders from Hitler to Obama. After watching a raft of YouTube videos and assembling a range of movements used to punctuate and emphasize words and phrases, Gruwez went into the dance studio thinking she would build a piece just from the gestures themselves. Very soon, however, she and Van Cauwenberghe realized that they needed words to accompany the movement, and vice-versa. And so, after happening upon a recording of a Swaggart sermon on what the Bible has to say about the perfidy of drugs, Van Cauwenberghe went into the recording studio to create a soundscape. What is so remarkable about the results is that Van Cauwenberghe plays this soundscape live, responding to Gruwez's movements manually from the tech booth by playing a keyboard programmed with a series of sound-words cued to Gruwez's repertoire of gestures and movements. It's a virtuosic display of kinetic and sonic symbiosis in which the text most definitely is not functioning as a score whose lexical meaning Gruwez then illustrates mimetically through corresponding movements; rather, as I rather clumsily tried to suggest in my own contribution to the post-show conversation, Gruwez's movements somatize or enflesh the words, rendering them more sensual and sense-able than sensible--which in the context of religious proselytizing couldn't be more appropriate.

However, the piece actually begins in silence. Gruwez appears at the upstage edge of a piece of carpet illuminated by a shaft of white light. She is dressed androgynously in tailored slacks and a white button-down shirt; her hair is slicked into a Tin-Tin-like quiff. She slowly walks downstage, taking the measure of the audience, holding our gaze for what seems like five or more minutes. Eventually she moves her right arm forward and cuts, or rather caresses, the air before her horizontally with her hand; she repeats this gesture several times, eventually alternating with her left arm, and then adding a lunge with her leg. During this sequence we are gradually aware of guttural sounds that seem to be accompanying the gestures; they get louder and faster as Gruwez accelerates her movements and adds to their repertoire, swinging her arms and bouncing to her knees and turning and bending her torso. What we are witnessing is a double form of rapture, the syllables from Swaggart that Van Cauwenberghe has stretched and manipulated and layered over seeming to prompt these ecstatic eruptions in Gruwez's body--that we then, in turn, become captivated and moved by (as in the best of rhetorical deliveries by both idealists and ideologues).

In the piece's second section, after a most effective costume adjustment, the syllables become full words, each of which has a corresponding movement located in Gruwez's body. But, again, it is Van Cauwenberghe in the tech booth hitting the keys to match Gruwez's movement, rather than the other way around. Thus, while we gradually become aware, via the accretion of and connections between the word-movements, that together they comprise both a grammatically correct sentence and a satisfying movement phrase, language and intelligibility are not really the points. To this end, the movement is deliberately abstracted, and its repetition renders the words a refrain that sways our bodies as much as our minds.

This idea is taken up in the next section, where the speech by Swaggart is distorted by Van Cauwenberghe into muffled noise of the sort that we might hear coming from a stadium off in the distance, sound we cannot fully distinguish but that nevertheless compels and draws us. In other words, the text has fully entered into Gruwez's body, literally shaking her from the inside out--a form of ekstasis (from the ancient Greek, meaning a displacement of the mind) that culminates in a mesmerizing coda in which Gruwez jumps up and down over and over again, and with absolute grace and precision, while a string quartet composed by Van Cauwenberghe plays in the background.

One cannot help but be seduced by this piece, nor by the artists, who were so funny and warm and generous in sharing their process with the audience following the show. A shout-out to local dance artist and Brief Encounters impresario Kristina Lemieux, who led the talkback/danceback. In launching the conversation, Lemieux invited audience members to dance as well as speak their questions should they so desire. While the concept momentarily flummoxed Lisbeth and Maarten, I have rarely been to a post-show discussion in which the conversation flowed so freely and spontaneously.


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