Strange but not interesting: Sarah Vanhee, Me and my Stranger  

Sixty minutes of the most trite, tedious and downright amateur theatre I have ever endured, Me and My Stranger is a patronising and wholly superficial narration of what it might mean to be “strange”. There’s very nearly an interesting point here about the linguistic parallel between “stranger” meaning “foreigner” and “strange” meaning “unfamiliar”; but Sarah Vanhee is not the woman to make it. Instead, she settles for a series of uncritical summaries of other people’s work, quoting Hannah Arendt and showing lengthy portions of documentary film Vers Nancy, without combining these disparate pieces into any sort of thesis.

To these unmediated borrowings Vanhee adds a motley collection of Belgian vox-pops, poorly filmed and edited with distracting jump cuts and sound errors. Vanhee doesn’t appear to have rehearsed her live performance either – her spoken text is full of slips and stumbles, increasing the impression that the artist has put little effort into either creation or preparation of the work.

A potentially rich and engaging issue is diminished into a wafer-thin summary without commentary or interest. Mid-lecture, Vanhee suggests in her monologue that the piece “raises a number of questions about our lecturer.” Not really – I’m far less interested in Vanhee than she seems to be in herself. The only question this banal and incoherent waste of an hour raised for me was, “when can we leave?”

Part of iDANS 2010

It’s off to work we go: Maria Baroncea, Eduard Gabia and Dragana Bulut , EIO  

Bearing in mind perhaps William Morris’s notion that “nothing useless can be truly beautiful”, with E.I.O Maria Baroncea, Eduard Gabia and Dragana Bulut have set out to create something practical and with purpose. Half of the audience become participants in the piece by “working” for an hour using objects on the stage; the workers here control not only the means but the mode of production.

On the stage are rolls of fabric, plastic, string and wire, planks of wood, ladders, tables covered with tools and materials. The workers shuffle in, looking a bit bewildered, and each picks up an object to start “work” with. Participants chalk circles on the floor, build structures out of planks and chairs, wind and unwind string, measure out the surfaces. The watching audience have been asked to choose “the best worker” to pay after the event, so the process of labour demands our attention.

Sometimes the actions of one worker defeat the efforts of another. A tall bespectacled gentleman carefully erases from the floor the chalk circles carefully placed there by a woman ten minutes earlier. One worker builds a rather attractive model animal out of bendy rollers; another deconstructs the model and places the rollers rather more prosaically in her hair. Several workers hang out a string of inflated balloons on a line of string; later somebody else pops them one by one.

As the piece progresses, sculptures form all over the space – a pyramid of planks downstage left, a tent upstage and a towering monument built of chairs and ladders at the back. Every available surface is wrapped in string and plastic. The working environment is transformed by some silently agreed process of collective bricolage.

Towards the end, it’s apparent that many workers have run out of ideas and some look obviously bored. The pace of work slows and those still active tend to add aimlessly to what already exists –another flower or feather atop structures that were built earlier. The workers lack purpose and the work lacks a defined use – and I think maybe Morris was right about uselessness.

Part of iDANS 2010

Fabian Barba – A Mary Wigman Dance Evening  

A silver-clad figure struts across the stage, hands akimbo, to the sound of Chinese gongs. Ecuadorian dance artist Fabian Barba is performing an evening of solos by Mary Wigman based on her first tour of the United States, and the effect is uncanny – Barba inhabits not only Wigman’s choreography but her costumes, her delicate hand gestures, and her somewhat mannered facial expressions.

The performance comments on the enactment of a feminine persona on stage, but Barba resists the urge to camp it up. Dressed in female costume (but not in drag – he has shaved neither leg nor torso hair and wears no makeup) Barba enacts the graceful hip shifts and wrist flicks of Wigman’s short solos, effectively becoming the choreographer herself for the duration of the performance. The material is shown cabaret-style, with a costume change and a musical intermission between each piece, immersing the audience in the chandelier-lit 1930s ambience of the setting.

The movement palette is minimal; Wigman/Barba favours simple stepping patterns up and down the stage, shaping the space with liquid arms and hand flourishes that often appear oriental or tribal. One striking sequence, Sturmlied, features the performer in a diaphanous red cape covering the face, whirling the fabric through the air like dust in a sandstorm. Finale Drehmonotonie finds Barba circling incessantly about the centre, pacing the stage like a caged beast in a silver ballgown.

Special mention must go to Sarah-Christine Reuleke for her loving recreations of Wigman’s costumes, a procession of backless silk gowns, Egyptian-inspired wraps and elegant shawls that are as fascinating to watch as the choreography itself.

Strange and oddly-mannered at first, the Wigman style has by the end of the performance become familiar, the final encore welcome. Just as Barba takes on the persona of Wigman in his enactment of her choreography, so we in the audience, gradually warming towards this unaccustomed style, become identified with her earlier audiences. This thoughtful, multi-layered recreation reveals the performance as not mere historical artefact but as a constant and living process refracted through both audience and performer.

Part of iDANS 2010