“The Goldberg Variations”, Michiel Vandevelde ©Tom Callemin

In-Between Past and Future at Potsdamer Tanztage

The thirtieth anniversary edition of Potsdamer Tanztage was supposed to have taken place in May 2020, and has been postponed to 2021. Under the motto ‘We Need Art!’, however, a smaller corona-proof festival was created between the 5 and the 16 August. I visited three performances — from Jonathan Burrows, Matteo Fargion, and Michiel Vandevelde — in which past and future intertwine. 

Ten years ago, choreographer Jonathan Burrows wrote A Choreographer’s Handbook. It was the basis of a performance he worked on for two years before abandoning it. But it wasn’t entirely left behind, and eventually transformed into his solo-piece “Rewriting”. He enters the stage alone. This is unusual in itself, since he has been sharing the stage with his partner-in-crime and musician Matteo Fargion for the past thirty years. But they decided to take a year apart to each create a solo. Both are presented tonight. The image is strikingly unadorned. A white office table, a regular chair, a rather small, middle-aged white man, a pirate’s hat hiding his bald head. On the table there is a stack of very ordinary white cards cut into small rectangles. Burrows starts to talk. He has written sentences from his book onto the cards. He explains that over the years, these ideas from the book have become so familiar to him — so internalised — that he needs to reclaim them. Rewrite them. The cards function as content, as props, and also as bearers of his history. He shuffles them like a magician then places them on the table. 

From this moment on, one choreography unfolds through two parallel mediums. The first is a hand choreography; the acts of placing, folding, holding and moving the cards become more complex over time. The second is a choreography of words; reading from the cards out loud, theorising on the creation of dance, commenting on his practice as he does it. It requires concentration and mental and physical memory on his part to keep the choreography together.  The sentence: “The way two things are placed in relation to each other, utterly changes them” is a recurrent theme. As he explains, it’s the place in between and what happens there that matters. The place between the Earth and the Sun, between two white pieces of paper on a white table, between the performer and the audience. And they leave traces; all the things happening on stage, and all the in-betweens. 

I’m reminded of those traces, of the imprint that everything on stage makes on the audience, when a moth flies into the light about halfway through Matteo Fargion’s twenty-minute solo “The Solo Piece”. The moth is transformed into a firefly by the theatre lanterns. Its twinkling energy distracts me for a moment from Fargion’s contained movements. Fargion, also white, middle-aged and bald-headed, stands slightly bent over in front of a music stand holding a notebook. He appears to be following a written score, as his turning of the pages suggests, but is additionally and mainly directed by pre-recorded instructions. We hear: “Right ear, right ear, wrong ear, knees and ear” while Fargion is pointing at his ear, knees, his belly or upper body. As in Burrows’s solo, there is a focus on the hands as they develop varied gestures that look as though he is playing charades. Apart from a very short intermezzo on a harmonica, all the sound comes from the pre-recorded voiceover. No additional instruments are needed. Fargion has musician written all over him, and moreover, right through him. His body is his instrument. The tapping of his feet and the rhythmical gestures of his hands affect every fibre of his body, like a string instrument resonating. 

I’m still thinking about these two works —  especially about how history is impacting the now — when I enter “The Goldberg Variations” by Michiel Vandevelde. The piece starts with each dancer introducing themselves on stage. Audrey Merilus is a young black professional dancer. Oskar Stalpaert is an untrained dancer with Down syndrome who became something of a celebrity in Belgium when his You-Tube dance-clips went viral. Michiel Vandevelde is dancer and choreographer and, in his introduction, informs us that he hasn’t danced for the last five years.  They explain that “The Goldberg Variations” will connect past and future, and search for ways in which socio-political contexts influence art and how dance and democratisation relate to one another.

After their introductions, musician Philippe Thuriot enters, and I’m blown away by the beauty of him playing the Goldberg Variations on the accordion. The accordion! I didn’t know that was even possible. My excitement fades, however, as the performance unfolds. It is made up of two parts; the first represents the past, and the second the future. Inspired by 1960s dance innovator Steve Paxton, the performance takes place before projections of footage from, among other things, Vietnam War protests. In a time of huge political and social changes, Steve Paxton was at the vanguard of those breaking traditional codes in art and dance, making it accessible for non-professionals to take to the stage. The first part of Vandevelde’s choreography pays homage to this history. In the second half, elements from pop culture — a big source of inspiration for Stalpaert, as he mentioned in his introduction — enter the performers’ movements in the form of shaking shoulders and freer hip and leg movements. The video projection on the back wall is replaced by eclectic imagery of right-wing protests, military parades, a kneeling woman eating something bloody while casting seductive looks at the camera, and various videos of the South Korean dance hit Gangnam Style. This broad range of visual input comes across not only as somewhat random, it also misses out large parts of our current socio-political context. Where, for example, are all the protests we’ve seen that demanded freedom and equality over the years?

Although I appreciate that transposing the Goldberg Variations onto an accordion and presenting three diverse bodies on stage is a transformation of sorts, I do feel that the complexity of the times we are living in demands more than this for the piece to constitute a democratisation of dance. The political aspirations of the performance seem to have become an obstacle for me, and as a result of this, I don’t experience any connection between what is happening on stage and what is being projected onto the back wall. “The way two things are placed in relation to each other, utterly changes them.” Yes, but in “The Goldberg Variations”, I’m unable to experience the in-between. 

Here you can see the program of the closing weekend of POTSDAMER TANZTAGE 2020 – INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL FOR CONTEMPORARY DANCE (05 – 16 August 2020).