In “M.O.S.T”, an acronym for “My Ongoing Silent Transcendence”, which ran from the 15 to 30 April 2022 at the Pfefferberg Theater Berlin, dance company Chaim Gebber-Open Scene plots a timeline of events that chart, in the company’s own words, “universal and personal transformations.” As the choreography suggests, such transformations are not always linear, but rather cyclical in nature, where the dancers find themselves ending up much where they left off — with the ongoing silent transformation of the self.
Ssssssshhhhhhhh, puffs the smoke machine, sending clouds of smoke onto an empty, blue-lit stage. From out of the fog a small battalion of female dancers emerge — you might call them ‘warrior women’, so unwavering is their gaze. They advance as a unit, in synchronous and sure-footed sequences, knees ever-so-slightly bent, bobbing on the defensive. Their arms swoosh and skewer like unsheathed swords. These women, I soon figure, are readying themselves to attack. But to attack what, exactly? As the calming voice of Alan Watts intones through the speakers, the real enemy in “M.O.S.T.” is ultimately, and inevitably, the ego.
“So, if you really go the whole way and see how you feel at the prospect of vanishing forever. Of all your efforts, and all your achievements, and all your attainments turning into dust and nothingness. What is the feeling? What happens to you?”
There is ‘The Beauty of Nothingness,’ is there not? ‘Nothingness’ as in “the nothingness of space, which contains the whole universe,” Watts elaborates, laughing:
“All the sun and the stars and mountains, and rivers, and the good men and bad men, and the animals, and insects, and the whole bit. All are contained in void. So out of this void comes everything and You Are It. What else could you be?”
Under a spotlight, lone dancer Lyla Palmer spins and spins on the spot, while the other three dancers play a game of Ball-of-String, weaving in and out and trying to find out where the thread begins and where it ends. She’s still spinning and spinning, like a ballerina in a jewellery box, arms in demi-second, although lifting, it appears, incrementally with every turn. Or am I imagining it? Is time moving at all? Will she ever stop spinning …?
The world, after all, doesn’t stop turning. Or life for that matter. Chaim Gebber-Open Scene makes this clear with choreography that is, at times, dizzying. They chart a timeline of random events that, as far as they see it, have brought about both universal and personal transformations.
1400 The Advent of Feminism
In Simone de Beauvoir’s best-known book “The Second Sex”, she cites a female author from the 1400s, Christine de Pizan, as the ‘first woman to take up a pen to defend her sex.’ Pizan wrote: ‘Neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.’
In a line, all four dancers strike iconic (or are they ironic?) stances. Knees overlapping, hands on hips, lips pouting. They then strut down the runway of an imaginary catwalk, from the back of the stage and into the laps of the audience where, at last, they assert their power with a pose. Only these are no ordinary catwalk poses, but rather a re-enactment of the ‘We Can Do It!’ poster. While this WWII propaganda poster might have been designed with the intention of preventing female factory workers from quitting their jobs, it has since been transformed into a symbol of women’s empowerment. Indeed, it has been celebrated on placards at feminist marches from the 1970s until today.
1581-1631 The Witch Trials
Of an estimated 50,000 people who were hanged or burned at the stake during the years of the Counter-Reformation and the European Wars of Religion, roughly 80% were women.
On all fours, albeit with her back facing the floor and her face turned steadfastly skyward, dancer Roberta Pupotto scuttles back and forth across the stage like an insect trying to escape from an insectivore. She soon finds herself cornered. It would appear, however, that she is not necessarily entrapped by her own fears, but rather by those of ‘higher’ forces — which, as history has it, are more often irrational than grounded in reason.
1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
As a reaction to the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948. It was the first international agreement founded on the basic principles of human rights, which were recognised as the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace.
A silent, solitary scream sees dancer Elizaveta Polyakova arch her back into a shattering crab-like pose, which sets off a chain reaction in a trio of dancers stage-left. Their reactions soon peter out and they reach a stillness in the form of three pillars, which Polyakova then paces manically between, pulling at her hair and muttering mantras of disbelief, as yet another war threatens freedom, justice and world peace.
1963 The Civil Rights Movement
On the 28th of August 1963, Martin Luther King delivered one of the most iconic speeches in US American history: “I Have A Dream”. Calling for an end to racism in the United States before a crowd of 250,000 people, his speech became a defining moment of the civil rights movement, pointing out a way “from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
Dancer Giuliana Corsi struggles to breathe in straining neck-turns and searching arm extensions, as she relates a dream sequence that, as dreams tend to be, is surreal to the point of suffocating. At first, she seems to wonder what it would be like to be a goldfish in an aquarium, only to find herself treading water at sea, trying to communicate to her “Dad!” that she’s not waving but drowning, but he’s not listening, he’s never listening, and she’s at once spat back out onto the beach where she’s perhaps always been, struggling to breathe.
1969 The First Moon Landing
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong reported on 20 July 1969, as he took his first steps onto the moon’s surface. He then proceeded to dig a hole into the ground to plant a US American flag. Some accounts have it that an ‘a’ was deleted from the transcript before ‘man’.
With turned-out hips and flexed feet, all four dancers float their legs up to 145 º angles, like mongrels marking their territory. It’s a motif that returns throughout the performance. Any sense of weightlessness that it implies, however, is soon grounded by the gravity of the ego, as the dancer’s limbs fall back down to the earth and, with combing ronds de jambe, begin to map out their personal space.
1989 The Invention of the Web
In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee laid out his vision for what would become the worldwide web in a document called “Information Management: A Proposal”. At the heart of his vision was a space that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, and anyhow: ‘You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.’
Locking her body like clockwork, joints popping with precision, Palmer blurs the line between human and machine. So dependent have we become on them that her mechanical — even robotic — movements seem to suggest that we have become much like them. Or, indeed, they like us. With fingers for keys (or is it keys for fingers?), she exercises every digit of her phalange. Her absent look seems to suggest, however, that these movements are more automatic than mindful.
And then she’s spinning and spinning again, like a Ballerina in a jewellery box. And they’re advancing again as though a unit, in synchronous and sure-footed sequences, arms swooshing and skewering like unsheathed swords. Indeed, we’re back where we started in a battle against the ego that has been neither lost nor won, but is rather ongoing. That’s what “My Ongoing Silent Transcendence” is surely all about, I think — the cyclical, as opposed to linear, nature of transformation, which begins and ends with the self.
“M.O.S.T” by Chaim Gebber-Open Scene was shown at the Pfefferberg Theater from 15 to 30 April 2022.
Concept / Direction / Choreography: Chaim Gebber Performance: Chaim Gebber-Open Scene (Elizaveta Polyakova, Giuliana Corsi, Lyla Palmer, Roberta Pupotto)