The Wire's Deputy Editor heads to Berlin to investigate the relationship between contemporary dance and avant garde composition
From Jlin’s collaborations with the dancer Avril Stormy Unger and choreographer Wayne McGregor to work by electronic artists like Pan Daijing and Agnes Gryczkowska and Alexander Johnston’s duo NAKED, whose acts involve confrontational choreography, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in cross-disciplinary productions between music and contemporary dance. A recent residency at London’s Iklectik combined Butoh performances by dancer Mujimaru Fujieda with music by pianist Aya Ogawa, electronic musician Pascal Savy, and the improvising group Butoh Techno.
Last December, I went to Berlin for Labor Sonor: Choreographing Sound, a festival exploring how composers and dancers create work together, translating their practices over three evenings of performances (which are now available to watch online) and a weekend symposium. Labor: Sonor has been organising concerts and events in Berlin since 2000, commissioning musicians and artists from other disciplines to work together, with themes including Translating Music, Moving Music and Transmit Power.
Labor: Sonor Choreographing Sound specifically investigated the relationship between contemporary dance and avant garde composition – how can composers who create work that is less rhythmic, lacking in melody – or sometimes in any sound beyond the breathing, footfalls and movement of the dancers? How can dancers and composers find common vocabularies to create a piece and respond to each other’s gestures? Merce Cunningham’s strategy was to create dance works while composers wrote music for his pieces – without knowledge of each other’s work before its completion; here, the focus was the opposite, centred on direct communication. Collaborations were often jarring and funny, adapting to mistranslations across media.
The definitions of composition and dance were both as loose as possible. Opening the first evening’s pair of performances was Secret Security, a series of three pieces by Hanna Hartman for electronics and office supplies, manipulated by magnets on the surface of an overhead projector. These dancers – clips and screws, pompoms and angry clouds of iron filings –appeared to challenge each other to fights, chase each other in lovesick circles or offer parental protection. Given minimal information and Hartman’s buzzy, rumbling score, the effect was like the Heider-Simmel illusion, where viewers of a crude animation of some moving polygons are encouraged to empathise with the shapes and imagine relationships between them and a narrative.
This was followed by Kaffe Matthews’ 42 bits and then she lies, a collaboration between Matthews, at a sound deck at the side of the stage, and the dancers Jacob Ingram-Dodd, Helka Kaski and Louise Tanoto interacting with a suite of objects, mostly detritus and portable radios, exploring the stage as if it were an adventure playground. In the symposium the next day, Matthews discussed how she and her dancers developed a language for the performance. In an early idea the radios that were used were an attempt to “bring in the voice from the outside world” in objects that could be carried. It was an interesting idea: with speakers as moving sound sources, tuning in and out of station range, they became unpredictable actors in an even more porous dance.
Andrea Neumann’s composition with and for the dancers Fernanda Farah, Lee Méir & Hanna Sybille Müller was organised around actions that were timed – based on an ethnographic approach to studying routines, and breaking them down into actions. Why Does Moving Air Create Sound built itself from units of motion based on breathing patterns and relationships between the dancers: they shuffle, wobble and beat their limbs against each other, fold over, stand shoulder to shoulder and stare. The movements speed up and at one point they seem to be vibrating. While Neumann’s score played beforehand, there was no sound while the dancers performed beyond bodies coming into contact with each other and the floor: anything that could be considered rhythmic was an emergent sonic property from the sequence of actions. Separating the dance from the score this way – though they had been composed in tandem –inverted Cunningham’s approach.
Matteo Fargion took the opposite approach in The Solo Piece, a performance where words dictated gesture. An imperious simon-says voice called out moves that were focused, obsessive and Beckettian: touching knees, ears, head in turn. The piece’s strength and humour lay in the microgestures that were off script; an eye roll or shrug of exasperation while trying to obey awkward and robotic calls to action.
On the final night, poet, composer and Wire contributor Yan Jun’s Meta Music No 2 was designed to interest and then antagonise the audience. Dancer Takako Suzuki sat in a chair facing the audience, staring us down for what felt like hours, occasionally pacing the stage, removing her shoes and jacket, rustling around behind the curtains at the back of the stage or climbing up into the audience seating area and just sitting there for an uncomfortable while. Yan Jun’s instructions were open, based on a few stripped down principles: “no representational/expressive gesture” and “don’t show a trained body” are two of these. He also explained that “the slow motions give the body a chance to suspend from its social functions”. What the piece did was to stretch time and break down whatever social expectations framed the encounter. By the time the piece ended (with an audience member, possibly a plant, leaving, it wasn’t clear whether this was out of disgust or frustration, until he climbed up and down the steps outside the theatre, echoing the dancer’s earlier action), somehow the audience reached some kind of telepathic consensus and began to applaud.
Finally, Brandon LaBelle performed his piece The Withdrawn, Toward, Then, composed with África Clúa Nieto, María Escobar and Jorge de Hoyos. LaBelle had spoken earlier about sound’s ability to penetrate and connect bodies – but in his performance, he meandered from one point of the stage to another, telling stories about childhood; turning on the kinds of lamps that might sit on a child’s dressing table – while a projection of the dancer de Hoyos contorted his body into agitated arcs and lunges, flailing inside the corner of an empty room, bounded by the projection screen. Ghost or memory, this disembodied figure twisted itself into rhythmic flurries; but it could not escape the frame. LaBelle’s words reached out to connect these onscreen actions with the meditative sounds of his pacing feet and the wood-on-wood scrapes of a sawhorse table he assembled, scuffing boards around the floor. It was probably the most interdisciplinary performance of the lot.