The titles of the six sections of Wim Vandekeybus’ What the Body Does Not Remember (身體不記得的) are simple: Hands, Stones, Towers, Frisky, Poses and Stamping. The setting is equally sparse: a bare stage, edged on two sides with a row of lights on the floor; a white screen at the back of the stage and a metal clothes rack with a row of brightly colored towels hanging on it. A desk makes an appearance, as do some chalky plaster blocks, two white wooden chairs and three small white feathers. Such a bare-bones approach means there is nothing to distract the audience’s focus from the dancers and the movement — except the dancers themselves.
Such is the intensity and focus of the nine dancers of Ultima Vez — who come in as wide a variety of sizes as they do nationalities — that it was easy to get caught up with what one dancer, or pair of dancers, was doing Saturday night at the National Theater and to miss out on other action.
The minimalism of What the Body Does Not Remember, with its incremental buildups and abrupt breaks, builds on both tension and humor over the course of the narrative-less work.
The piece opened with two dancers walking onto the stage and lying down. A man walks on, sits at the desk and begins to move his hands around the miked top. His finger strokes and hand slams were cues for the dancers on the floor, who toss and turn in plank position, moving faster in response to the commands, still pinned to the floor. Saturday night’s show was apparently one of the first times that a male dancer was at the controls, and the pair on the floor included a woman. Usually a woman controls two men.
The next segment starts with three dancers and plaster blocks of different sizes. The dancers use the blocks as stepping stones or pedestals, carefully balancing themselves on top before picking up their last block and repeating the process. More dancers enter and begin to run around the stage, bounding over one another or into each other’s arms. Then the smaller blocks are picked up and tossed around and before you know it dancers are hurling themselves around the stage, throwing blocks up in the air and tossing each other out of danger’s way.
It looks spontaneous, madcap and exceedingly risky. Elements are repeated in the final section (Stamping), where the dancers stomp around the stage, first one leg at a time, then full jumps with knees raised high and hard landings. Then three dancers on the floor twist and turn to avoid the feet of their colleagues stomping around and over them. The casualness is a facade; in each segment, the dancers’ terrific physical and technical control plays against what appear to be instinctive reactions.
There is plenty of humor. In one segment, dancers steal jackets or towels off one another. In a segment with chairs, a woman dancer seated in one chair tries to copy the moves of the male dancer with the other chair — even though he is horizontal on the floor and she is upright — as more dancers pile on or around her.
For those who had never seen Ultima Vez before, What the Body Does Not Remember was a great introduction; it may have been made 26 years ago, but it remains fresh.
Simplicity, focus and humor were also key to the second production at the National Theater this weekend, where Germany-based Taiwanese dancer/choreographer Chen Yun-ju (陳韻如) showed her first full-length work, In∞out (呼∞吸), in the Experimental Theater.
Two women and four men clad in T-shirts and slacks walked onto the floor, formed a line facing the middle bank of seats and proceeded to blow up balloons and slowly let the air out. They repeated the sequence to the right bank of seats and then the left bank, but sans balloons the third time. Regrouped at the back of the set, they stood, holding their breaths, until one by one they were forced to exhale and walk off the set.
Then Chen appeared with Liu Yancheng (劉彥成) for a duet that began by focusing on small movements of their hands or a limb, then widen to encompass the whole body, before they separated for solos — hers centered on contractions of the torso, his on his hands.
Chen crafted a series of delicate, light-as-air pairings and solos for herself and Liu, with the other six dancers acting as sort of a Greek chorus, coming on for more breathing movements or a round of quiet murmurs and then laughter. Each segment was delineated by a quick blackout.
The piece ended with a final, collective, spotlit circle as the dancers inhaled and exhaled under a microphone suspended from the ceiling, with about two dozen balloons gently floating on currents of air around them.