I have a new choreographic man crush. When Jan Martens was here in 2015 with The Dog Days Are Over I was first smitten, so enthralled was I by his rigorously minimalist and physically taxing exploration of jumping in that work (and which I wrote about here). So when I learned he was returning this year with Sweat Baby Sweat in a co-presentation between The Dance Centre and the PuSh Festival I knew I had to be there. At the same time, I had a bit of trepidation, as I knew the latter piece was a love duet between a man and a woman, with Martens deliberately troping on all the cliches of this signature sequence from dance. Was it possible for Martens and his dancers, the incredibly talented Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel, to interrogate those cliches without reproducing and reinforcing the gendered power dynamics in partnering that contemporary dance, no matter its apparent or avowed conceptualism, has necessarily inherited from the pas de deux in classical ballet? Happily after seeing the piece last night, and especially after listening to the incredibly smart and charming Martens discourse on the building of it during the talkback with his dancers and facilitator Alana Gerecke, I can say yes.
The piece, which we learned has been touring since 2012 (its last performance tonight here in Vancouver will be the hundredth iteration of the work), begins with the two dancers already on stage facing each other as the audience enters the auditorium. Like the stage, which is completely bare (even the legs on both sides and the backstage safety curtain have been removed), the dancers are stripped to their underwear and are staring intensely into each other's eyes. The lights dim and as they slowly come back up we gradually become aware that Kimmy is now standing on Steven's thighs, clasping her hands behind his neck as both dancers lean away from each other, holding that pose for what seems like forever, and still not breaking their shared gaze. What follows is a series of equally gymnastic clinches: Kimmy wrapping her legs around Steven's neck and hanging upside down as she slowly raises her torso to horizontal; Steven, lying supine on the floor, balancing in airplane mode Kimmy's outstretched body on one extended leg. All are entered into with the utmost precision and care, with the dancers never losing touch with each other's bodies and never looking away. Indeed, there is a way in which the somatic practices Martens is drawing from in the choreography (in the talkback he mentioned yoga as an influence, as well as acro-gymnastics and butoh) turn the partnering into much more of a technical exercise. The slowness of the movement and the stretching of the duration of each held pose means we focus as much, if not more, on the effort and balance and weight distribution and breath of the dancers as on any overtly expressive meaning that might be attached to their relationship. It becomes almost clinical, but in a way that is also tender and utterly compelling to watch, and in the talkback Martens noted that it was the discovery in the studio of slowness and the held gaze that led him to understand how he could upend the rules of contemporary dance, in which speed, strength, rhythm, changes of direction, falls and recovery nevertheless combine to reinforce a strict binary division between male and female. To that end, this work is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Edouard Lock's La La La Human Steps choreography post his split with Louise Lecavalier, in which the speed of the point work especially ends up turning his wraith-thin female dancers into mechanical dolls to be turned this way and that.
Not that Martens, having established a pattern, is afraid of breaking it and thereby upsetting our expectations. Thus, in the second pass through of the poses he has established, when at the end Kimmy is meant to climb up and down from Steven's legs, Martens has his two dancers lock lips and hold the kiss as they continue to execute their incredibly complicated and gravity-defying choreography. Once again, however, Martens undermines any romance we might want to read into the kiss by having it become another technical problem to work through: how will the dancers maintain mouth-to-mouth contact while they are simultaneously in the throes of a push-pull with the rest of their bodies? Here Martens is playing with notions of attraction and repulsion: for each of Kimmy's desperate scrambles up Steven's legs and chest he is ready with his arms to push her away. This is not done violently but the seeming rejection does register as a shock: after such sustained contact and mutual support, how can these two break apart? Martens catches us falling for the very hackneyed phrasing and trite image he is trying to deconstruct: we want these two to remain in contact, preferably with Kimmy draped languorously around Steven's neck. As the words that have been projected on the backstage wall for the length of the piece to this point announce, "As long as you are here, I am too."
These lines come from Cat Power's epic ballad "Willie Deadwilder," which begins to play through the final section of the piece, with the lyrics alternately flashing on the screen (conveniently highlighted in pink) and being interrupted by banalities imported from other songs and sayings. It's a strategy that works to resist a narrative reading of Steven and Kimmy's relationship as paralleling that of Willie and Rebecca in the song. For, indeed, after synching their bodies to the rhythm of the song with a series of torso pulses that begin while the dancers are standing and that continue as they move to the floor, the piece actually ends with the performers inching away from each other like earthworms, dragging their bodies toward opposite upstage sides, still in time with the music, but no longer ready for each other.
It's a terrific capstone to an amazing work, one that is at once sensually seductive and intellectually stimulating.