The Belgium-based troupe Ultima Vez is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a world tour of the production that made it famous, What the Body Does Not Remember (身體不記得的).
Troupe founder Wim Vandekeybus stunned the dance world when this piece premiered in 1997. He was just 24 and had recently founded Ultima Vez. The raw physicality of What the Body Does Not Remember, the confrontations between dancers or dancers and the music and the sheer energy and intensity of the piece have since become trademarks of Vandekeybus’ work. However, in 1997 it was all very new and the production won a Bessie Award (The New York Dance and Performance Awards) in New York City in 1998 for Vandekeybus and the composers Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch.
Ultima Vez made its first appearance in Taipei in 1999 with In Spite of Wishing and Wanting and has been back four times since then, with Inasmuch as Life is Borrowed in 2001 Blush in 2003, Puur in 2005 and nieuwZwart (New Black) in 2009, thanks to the Taipei Arts International Association (台北藝術推廣協會). The multiple appearances have developed a loyal fan base for the troupe in Taiwan, highlighted by the company’s transition from the smaller Metropolitan Hall to the National Theater. What draws people back is the energy and danger in Vandekeybus’ work, tempered by humor and appreciation for human foibles.
Twenty-five years on, there is a new cast for What the Body Does Not Remember, but the intensity of the choreography is unchanged. The piece is a bit more barebones than some of Vandekeybus’ later work, which are famed for their seamless melding of film, video, text and dance, reflecting his own exploration of a multitude of disciplines, including photography and filmmaking as well as their collaborativeness.
“If movement was to be only dance, it would not say anything to me? I am not interested in performances which develop linear-like from A to Z. They only lie. Our mind doesn’t work like this. I am fascinated by things which are not ‘right,’ which do not match with the rest of our life, things which we don’t want to show,” he said years ago about What the Body Does Not Remember.
Vandekeybus likes extremes. He loves to push boundaries — his own, his dancers and his audiences. His work is equally cathartic for all involved. Often the movements appear so spontaneous that it is easy to forget that everything has been carefully worked out, and repeated many times.
“The intensity of moments when you don’t have a choice, when other things decide for you, like falling in love, or the second before the accident that has to happen; suddenly they appear, with no introduction, important for me because of their extremeness rather than for the significance to be given to them. The decision to use this as a basic material for a theatrical composition is at least a paradoxical challenge, considering a theatrical event as repeatable and controllable. Perhaps when all is said and done, the body doesn’t remember either and everything is a subtle illusion of lack which helps to define or exhaust the game,” he says in notes on the revival.
Intense is an oft-used word when it comes to describing Vandekeybus and his work, but he does have a humorous side, which reveals itself as sly sleights of hand and full-blown physical comedy. The trouble in watching Ultima Vez productions is that it is very easy to get caught up — obsessively so — with what one or two performers are doing, and to lose track of the entirety of the piece; it is easy to come away with the feeling that much has been missed.