Belgian choreographer Jan Martens' The Dog Days Are Over, on at The Dance Centre through this evening, is as deceptively simple in its conceit as it is gruellingly complicated in its execution. The piece features eight dancers--six women and two men--whose only task is to jump continuously for 70 minutes. Sounds pretty basic, right? Not to mention deadly boring to watch. In fact, while the work is very much designed as a parallel test of the audience's spectating stamina, part of what keeps us rapt in our attention is not just the complicated rhythms and counts and spatial formations that Martens' builds into the piece, but also both the personalities of the dancers that emerge over the course of the movement's execution and what we per force read into the unrelenting sameness of that execution.
On the former front, Martens has commented that he took inspiration for Dog Days from 1950s American photographer Philippe Halsman's aesthetic of "jumpology": that in photographing someone in the act of jumping Halsman could capture their true face. Throughout the piece, Martens' eight dancers are for the most part uniformly blank and inscrutable in their facial expressions, focused absolutely on the task to hand (or, in this case, to foot). However, that doesn't mean that differences aren't noticeable, starting with the way they are dressed. Some of them wear lyotards, some boxing shorts, one a tennis skirt. The men are shirtless and several of the women have exposed midriffs, the better to see and admire their impressive abdominal muscles (which, notwithstanding received kinetic logic around knee joints, actually receive the biggest workout in this piece). There is a penchant for leopard skin prints. And then there are the running shoes. They are lined up--different sizes and styles and hues--in a horizontal row centre stage as the audience files into the auditorium, with the dancers stretching and warming up against the upstage wall. Following the curtain speech, and with the house lights still up, the dancers march toward their shoes and begin to put them on, starting one sock at a time. In retrospect this moment becomes so meaningful, its extended duration so pregnant with possibility, because in one dancer's brisk efficiency and another's lazy languor in putting on their footwear, in one's bending from the torso and balancing on one leg to slip on a sock and another's crouch on the floor to tie laces, it is arguably the last time we will see the dancers inhabiting their own physicality with any degree of self-agency.
For, once runners are all firmly in place and the dancers stand up, forming a strangely athletic looking chorus line, Martens' movement score takes over, commanding a total submission of muscles and tendons and joints. It starts with a slow pulse in the quads and bend at the knee, and then slowly builds to a rhythmic jumping on both legs, the action steady but also banally pedestrian. This isn't the look-at-me jumping we associate with ballet, with height and suspension the hallmarks of singular virtuosity; these jumpers, bobbing up and down in a row, their feet barely coming off the ground, announce in their sameness and efficiency that their dancing is about aerobic endurance rather than flashy acrobatics, about making it to the end rather than standing out in the middle. Which is to say that in Dog Days we are meant to focus on the act of jumping rather than the person doing the jumping. And with only the steady slap and squeak of sneakers hitting Marley providing our soundtrack (at least for most of the piece), the deliberately drone-like action is wont to lull us into a kind of sensory stupor.
And yet the exact opposite happens. Over the course of the piece, our senses are sharpened and heightened rather than dulled. And for two reasons. First, into the repetitive sameness of the jumping action, Martens inserts subtle variation, just enough and over sufficiently long stretches of time to keep us expectant and off guard. So, for example, we begin to notice that that opening horizontal chorus line starts to get tighter and tighter, which is a prelude to first one of the dancers and then another stepping out of line and reinserting him- or herself in another spot--all without breaking rhythm. A bit later the line will begin to turn on an axis and still later the dancers will break ranks altogether, adding to their four-four vertical jumping counts a set of double-time lunges. As the piece continues, the variations get steadily more complicated, some shouted out with counts by the dancers, others simply manifesting as if by magic. Then, too, there is how all of this is registered by each of the dancers. By that I mean that while the actual physical execution of the movement may be the same, by virtue of their different bodies and physiologies and dress, we see (and hear) the effects of this movement upon the dancers in different ways. Some dancers sweat more, and in different places. Some breathe more heavily than others and some of their voices, in calling out counts, sound more strained. Some of the women's hair, whether tied in a ponytail or left loose, is bouncier than others'. In those rare moments where Martens programs a pause in the jumping, some dancers collapse at the waist and breathe into their knees; others look barely winded. As the piece wore on, I found myself attending more and more to these differences in a way that, for instance, I might not were I watching a traditional corps de ballet execute the same pretty steps--where, of course, the tyranny of sameness in movement is even more acute, and precisely because it is largely decorative rather than meaningfully kinetic.
All of which brings me to the issue of what we read into Martens' movement. If, as Martens is quoted as saying in an interview in the Vancouver Sun with Deborah Meyers, that Dog Days is "a portrait of the dancer as an executing species," this suggests that the piece's built-in reflexology is a self-reflexive comment on the larger choreographic project of dance: i.e., when I say jump, you jump. At the same time, we can extrapolate this imperative to apply to any number of additional labouring contexts (from a factory assembly line to a sports team) in which completion of an assigned task depends on the focused physical and mental concentration of an entire group. So what might it mean, then, when one member of the group just decides to stop doing what she's told to do--in this case, to jump? Near the end of last night's performance of Dog Days one of the women dancers did just that, moving downstage left and sitting down to rest and watch her fellow dancers. I'm not sure if this is a programmed out for any of the dancers who are feeling that they can't continue to the end of the piece, or if the dancers take turns occupying this role simply in order to fuel audience speculation and/or allow us an on-stage surrogate with whom to identify in our own exhaustion (and, indeed, it should be pointed out that the resting dancer did continue to call out counts). Either way, it made this fascinating work about dance-as-work (both physical and intellectual) even more compelling.