“Bang Bang Bodies”, Xenia Koghilaki ©Mayra Wallraff

Centripetal Performance

TANZTAGE BERLIN 2023 >>> In Xenia Koghilaki’s “Bang Bang Bodies”, the opening performance (5 & 6 January 2023) of Tanztage Berlin at Sophiensæle, a force builds slowly and insistently, pulling the audience into the performers’ orbit.

In steady, bright light, the two performers (choreographer Xenia Koghilaki and co-creator/co-performer Luisa Fernanda Alfonso) take the stage, their backs to the audience. Both wear their dark hair loose; one of them is crouched, the other standing. They are dressed in sneakers, cuffed black jeans, and tees. On January 5, the sold-out opening night of the 2023 Tanztage festival at Sophiensæle, this pre-show image lasts for some time, as we negotiate for seats and watch people from the waitlist trickle in. Then this extended stillness erupts: suddenly, the lights are strobing, music is blasting, and the performers banging their heads and leaping around one another and the stage at a level of intensity you’d expect from musicians at the highest energy point of a heavy metal concert. After a few seconds I am dizzy, disoriented, and unsure how much of this I can watch.

“Bang Bang Bodies” doesn’t require its audience to hang in that high point for long, though. After thirty seconds or so the strobes stop as abruptly as they began, the music cuts out, and the performers are still again—or nearly: their hair, hanging long over their faces, is trembling. Separate, isolated behind the curtains of their own locks, they seem to play with the textures and patterns that delicate, repeated movements of the head can create in the thousands of strands originating in it. For a long time the movement I’m watching unfold, which gradually increases in the size of its gestures, seems to be all about the hair. Koghilaki and Alfonso move towards one another, shaking their manes together. They swing their upper bodies and heads to make swirling hair shapes in the air that emphasize and resist gravity. They swirl their heads in sync, then out of it, then in again. A low hum begins (sound design: Ernesto Cármaco Cavazos). Now side-by-side, the performers make faster and faster head-circles, reverse them, come to rest, begin again, rest, start, reverse, stop, wait in stillness, begin again. The hum begins to resemble music, it pulses and throbs, speeds up and slows down like the performers do. Watching, I see nuance unfold in repetition; I begin to experience hair and head as an entire continuous limb, like an arm. But I also start to feel intensely aware of the head as a composite of skull, brain, eyes and all the other sensitive organs of the face. And the blood, the blood in there, churning around.

For me that’s where the midsection of “Bang Bang Bodies” begins, as I feel Koghilaki and Alfonso’s blood calling out to mine. It’s a performance you feel from your chair. Headbanging for Koghilaki is a way to explore collectivity and togetherness, stemming from research begun during widespread quarantine and isolation when she missed dancing with others. She describes an interest in “dancing alone-together” and in using headbanging as a tool to achieve it. As percussion enters the music and the performers break out of formation as front-facing duo to engage their entire bodies now, horse-trotting around the stage, I feel the tug of a centripetal force. They square off like in a boxing ring, and the lights (light design: Vito Walter) cascade in a circle above them, making their shadows spin and pivot around their bodies. The image is dizzying again, but this time it doesn’t feel unbearable.

The performers whirl out of this eye of the storm towards the evening’s end, carried by what’s become again full-on headbanging. No more stillness, delicacy. The rule is to move. Everything pulses, with the force of a punch. They use humor to pull us deeper into the trance with them. Koghilaki rolls a cigarette while banging; she pulls down her jeans and underwear, unwraps a menstrual pad, and sticks it in place. The two tear open and share a bag of chips. The audience ripples with laughter; it’s good comedy, and better because it underscores the physical journey we’re all on together. I can feel the performers’ disorientation and the effort of completing these tasks that were developed by humans who were not also throwing their heads, and the whole sensing ensemble belonging to them, rhythmically back and forth.

As a kind of finale, Alfonso paints Koghilaki’s toenails. Then the lights blink off and come up for the curtain call, revealing the performers breathing heavy, flat on their backs, faces red. It’s the first time I have gotten a clear look at their faces all evening. And I think about how unusual it is to have felt such connection with people without looking into their eyes.

“Bang Bang Bodies” by Xenia Koghilaki (with co-creator/co-performer: Luisa Fernanda Alfonso, sound design: Ernesto Cármaco Cavazos, light design: Vito Walter) is shown on 5 & 6 January 2023 as opening performance of Tanztage Berlin at Sophiensaele. Tanztage Berlin 2023 is running until 21 January, you find the festival program and ticket info at tanztage-berlin.sophiensaele.com.