Belgian choreographer and film maker Wim Vandekeybus’ work is characterised by absolute extremes: jaw-dropping theatricality; the use and abuse of unusual props, athleticism, frenzy, danger and discomfort. He doesn’t deal in soft options; rather, he credits his audience with enough intelligence to enjoy, pick apart and understand his challenging, often dreamlike pieces. The scenography and sound are as integral to the work as the steps.
“What The Body Does Not Remember,” for example, has bursts of violence and rigorous, perilous games, “Mountain” pits spinning dancers against an enigmatic, godlike figure, and “Blush” fuses ambiguous relationships with real cruelty, as dancers grapple together and then shove each other away. Then, the absolutely brutal, occasionally humorous “In Spite Of Wishing And Wanting” is an hallucinatory romp into a masculine nightmare, where a group of men are tortured, exploited and unravelling, using brittle contemporary dance and a choppy soundtrack from David Byrne.
So it is with his most recent work “Draw From Within,” created in collaboration with the dancers from the celebrated London company Rambert, which was livestreamed online in September of last year. It’s a hugely frenetic display of virtuosity, but not exactly suitable for family viewing—then again, why should it be? It plays with horror film tropes and is designed to unsettle. The ever versatile Rambert dancers, nineteen in total, maniacally throw themselves around, roll on the floor, jump over other (prone) dancers, spin, collapse, and weave in and out of a cat’s cradle of ropes, and each other.
The loose narrative threads, concerned with human connectivity or lack thereof, focus on birth (reduced to an absurd live TV spectacle with the large ‘baby’ becoming a tyrant), death (a supposed murder), and a desperate need to belong, don’t really tie together in a satisfactory, linear way, but as with so much of Vandekybus’ work, all follow his own skewed logic, that which is fragmentary, akin to dream states. Dancers are lost, trapped or stuck, or in one case, trying to make sense of something everyone else is seemingly in on. Even the poetry of Ted Hughes is included, meditating on nothingness. The sense of hopelessness during lockdown couldn’t help but permeate through the final film, with its twitchy, shadowy liminal spaces and anxiety-inducing action.
Rehearsed in lockdown, there were of course many challenges faced in getting the piece together, like the precise placement of cameras, keeping the ensemble safely socially distanced in masks, lighting in the studio, etc. but this is where Vandekeybus’ expertise in film and photography came into play. Extreme close ups brought the sense of intimacy and getting right next to dancers, almost emulating VR (virtual reality) where the audience can feel what it’s like to almost ‘step inside’ a live performance. Technology means that the audience could watch the piece unfold in real time from the comfort of their homes, cowering behind cushions.
Vandekeybus is not for the faint of heart then, nor one to simply pander to audiences looking for something safe, bland or traditional, but with his boundless imagination, dark sense of playfulness and vivid, exhaustive choreography, we will go where he leads us without question, even if the results are terrifying, bizarre, or utterly baffling- sometimes, all at once. His genres veer from hip-hop to flamenco, to movement which straddles more live art spaces of controversy and contention. He is, in short, a perfect fit for the boundless stamina of the wonderful Rambert dancers.
It is, it seems, impossible to make sense of the world we live in at the moment, so such strange, rapidly shifting little vignettes seem like the most apposite form of presentation.