Murder and genocide are not usually topics favored by choreographers. But life, death, nature and loss are all subjects that Belgian choreographer-filmmaker Wim Vandekeybus has explored before, so violent death is just another step in his investigations into man, society and conflict.
Violent death is not pretty, but pretty is not an adjective often used to describe Vandekeybus' work or his Brussels-based company, Ultima Vez.
Back for their fourth visit to Taipei, Ultima Vez will perform
Vandekeybus' latest work Puur (Dutch for pure), as they make their debut on Taipei's big stage, the National Theater, as part of the Taipei International Arts Festival. The company has
apparently won enough of a following here that the sponsors felt they could make the jump from the Metropolitan Hall to the National Theater.
The world premier of Puur was in Singapore this past May for the Singapore Arts Festival, and, as usual, it is a blend of dance, film and text.
Vandekeybus is a Renaissance man: actor, choreographer, dancer, director, photographer and film director, but he always stresses the collaborative nature of his pieces. His creative process starts with a good title, and goes on from there, but his pieces are crafted around improvisations by his dancers and actors.
Vandekeybus said yesterday that he was inspired for Puur by old myths and the murder of innocents -- the Biblical story of King Herod's order that all male babies in Bethlehem be slain so that a prophecy about a newborn male (Jesus) who would become king would not come true.
"Here is a pure story -- the story of the killing of the infants," he said. "Take the ingredients of that story -- the power, the fearful beliefs, the unjustified acts -- it's a contemporary story. We're still busy with the same things. We can talk about Rwanda, Iraq."
The piece is centered on a small, isolated community living in a post-apocalyptic world. Something terrible has happened and what remains are vague memories of the past -- and the voices of the dead.
In Puur, the short film shot on Super 8, serves as the collective memory, "the hereafter on the scene," Vandekeybus said.
"I didn't want to use video, because Super 8 -- the graininess -- already conveys the idea of memory," he said.
Vandekeybus has created a timeless story about living in isolation, about closing off from the outside world. It is a story about power struggles, horrifying genocide, the fear of the unknown, it's about prophets, killers and saviors. The film allows him to express things he can't do on stage -- and with a cast of just 13.
"I can't travel around with lots of children," he said.
"In the movie, everyone has to die. It's a very functional thing," he said. "But you can't show the children dying."
Through Puur, Vandekeybus asks who is a hero and who is a coward, who is innocent and who is culpable when confronted with an extreme situation?
The opposition between nature and culture has been a constant theme -- as death has been -- in Vandekeybus' work, ever since he rose to prominence in the late 1980s.
Vandekeybus and Ultima Vez have won acclaim for performances that are a challenging combination of intensely physical, often
confrontational choreography and film or video. He also
frequently employs dancers who are not dancers but actors. In Puur, the cast includes 79-year old Tone Brulin, a Belgian actor, playwright and theater director.
Ultima Vez' performances are always impressive, with their mix of movement and image.
For the score of Puur, Vandekeybus turned once again to US singer-songwriter David Eugene Edwards, who worked on Blush, which Taipei audiences saw in 2003. Edwards also appears in the film for Puur, as a social outcast from a closed society, who appears to sing and prophecy. Vandekeybus then combine Edwards' score with music by the Italian composer Fausto Romiteli.
As is true with almost all of Vandekeybus' works, Puur is not for the faint hearted, since he doesn't shrink from violence or blood.
"I've never made a show that's so close to life -- because it's about death," he said.