Moving limbs and plenty more
Set, lighting and sound elements are enhancing our dancegoing experience more than before
Attending a dance performance, we usually expect to clearly see a group of highly skilled dancers on the stage decorated with set and lighting that correspond to the narrative or theme of the work. A joy of attending a contemporary dance festival, though, is that we should always expect the unexpected.
At the beginning of Cullberg’s “On Earth I’m Done: Mountains”, the audience at the Theatre J.C. Carriere in a northwestern suburb of Montpellier saw a beam of green light over a massive object occupying most area of the stage. It looked as if in this dance work by Swedish national contemporary dance company’s associated artist Jefta van Dinther there were no space for dancers to move. Slowly, we started to see a sole dancer, Cullberg veteran Polish dancer Agnieszka Sjokvist Dlugoszewska, crouched next to it.
Later, the lighting unhurriedly and meticulously revealed she was holding a long staff that connected this sole human to the object which we soon realized was a large fabricated landscape. Afterwards, this futuristic set piece designed by Austrian-Croatian collective Numen/For Use—whose “Tape Bangkok” we enjoyed crawling through during Bangkok Art Biennale 2018—would, after Dlugoszewska stood up, unfold and change into different shapes and forms either by her actions or Jonathan Winbo’s nifty lighting design. There’s no final answer here if the human has her control over the nature, or vice versa; it’s definite, though, that one has to live with the other on this earth. Accompanied by Dutch composer David Kiers’ sound design, the 70-minute experience was visually otherworldly yet thematically relevant to the here and now.
After the 20-minute intermission during which some audiences were discussing what we had just seen over snacks and drinks, we’re treated with van Dinther’s newest work “On Earth I’m Done: Islands” that just had its world premiere a month prior in the eastern Swedish city of Umea.
With a strong ensemble of 13 dancers in the same attire/uniform who were without solo parts, the sparse stage was again diversely painted by Winbo’s deft lighting design. Different from interrelationship between the human and the nature in “Mountains”, the focus was more on the humans themselves. Evident in the choreography were poignant discussions on social dis/order, kinship, communication, community, belonging as well as authority. Noticeably, the lighting almost always left some parts, or someone, in the dark. In the ongoing pandemic in which we all become more aware of ourselves as well as others and our governments use different measures in their attempts to return life to its normalcy—whatever that means—, “Islands” is truly apposite to 2022.
Presented as a diptych at Montpellier Danse, either “Mountains” or “Islands” is actually complete in itself as a full-length work and could also be enjoyed on a different evening. Together, though, they give a more fulfilling experience while asking us to think more about the earth we live in—and we cannot yet be done with it—especially now that global warming is back in our conversation again. It’s also noteworthy that while the company was founded as Cullberg Ballet 55 years ago, the B-word was omitted a while ago. These two works clearly explain why: You don’t have to be a dancegoer to fully enjoy Cullberg’s works.
Nonetheless, the design elements do not have to always be this intricate to support the human performance, or those moving limbs in dance works. That’s evident a few evenings earlier in the same festival at the Theatre de l’Agora. The stage was almost bare except for the scenography featuring movable white partitions designed by Berlin-based Georgian visual artist Thea Djordjadze.
French choreographer Noe Soulier’s, now director of National Centre of Contemporary Dance (Angers), new work “First Memory” attempts to prove that “The experience of our corporal actions, whether in the present moment or in our memories of them, is always partial,” and “Some parts of the body, objects and sensations are central, while others are left to one side.” Accordingly, his seven dancers’ movements were as unpredictable as the accompanying music by French composer Karl Naegelen. They’re frequently in solo and even when they’re in group sometimes they’re not interacting with one another. At times, they looked like kinetic sculptures and that’s also thanks to different arrangements of partitions and corresponding lighting.
In the end, the 42nd annual edition of Montpellier Danse has shown us different ways contemporary dance makers are communicating their thoughts and ideas to us dance lovers who look forward to visiting this small town every summer for years to come.
This autumn, the diptych can be seen at the 37th Romaeuropa Festival in the Italian capital; “First Memory” at Festival d’Automne a Paris. More details are at www.montpellierdanse.com, cullberg.com/en/ and cndc.fr/en
By Pawit Mahasarinand
The writer’s trip was supported by Montpellier Danse. Special thanks to Maiwenn Rebours and Ambre Martin.
Photo: “Mountains” by Urban Joren; “Islands” by Carl Thorborg; “First Memory” by Anna Van Waeg