By Sintija Silina
Hashtags do not escape our conversation. Awareness of the time we are living in, assessment of the current economic, political and social climate, questions of our relations with the past and the future, of topical societal processes and the redefinition of values. If we are to call contemporary art “contemporary,” this should be taken as a starting point. That includes contemporary dance.
My conversation with Ben (the choreographer of Ben J. Riepe Company) takes place when I’ve already watched “Carne Vale!”. The performance was premiered in November 2017, but in the first weekend of February 2018, it by no means accidentally foretells the start of the annual Düsseldorf Carnival (yes, such an event is still a thing there). Since at the moment nothing else worthwhile is happening in Düsseldorf (where the company also resides), I decide to watch the performance both nights. And then, of course, it comes to my mind – I could use the chance to compare. Or to have a look at my own perception. Or the interaction between viewers and performers and how it changes the intensity of the performance. But the concept of comparison disappears when, during the conversation with the choreographer, we remind each other that the greatest measure of dance is a moment. Dance performances are and should be living beings (which is achieved by dancers, as well as the viewers’ participation), but concentrated in direction and content (which is the choreographer’s work).
The starting point of “Carne (in Spanish: meat, flesh) Vale (in Spanish: to recognize, to confirm)!” was the choreographer’s residence in Salvador, Brazil, where he arrived last year at the height of the carnival season. His work has always shown interest in the body as an instrument, witness, and creator, so the choreographer carefully and thoroughly found out all the notions behind the festival. The separation of the compound “Carnevale” in the title of the performance purposefully emphasizes an important part of the carnival – the significance of body. #bodymatters.
Carnivalesque expressions embody collective discharge through temporary disruption of behavioral rules, possibly to justify the need for the pressing daily boundaries afterward. An integral part of the carnival is a parade, which contains performative elements or objects – masks, grotesque costumes, performances. They are intended to give the participant an opportunity to get lost in the process so far that it is no longer possible to determine the limits of his/her personality. Or, more precisely, to give a chance to step outside those limits or walk all over them. The collective human/animal salutation in all its glory, as it turns out, is also a political move. The church turns a blind eye, the government provides the funding, and after the feast, the people feel as if they have blown off some steam, calmed down and even gotten rid of economic, political and, of course, universally human tensions, somewhat forgetting the need for changes or solutions to their problems. Sad, but true.
The opportunity to travel and watch people and their attitude towards life through their attitude towards their bodies has been another source of research on this topic. In general, Asia, with its modesty, almost androgynous attitude to the body and extreme suppression of instincts is a complete opposite to South America’s daily parade of eroticized bodies of both sexes at beaches, parties and pretty much everywhere. This general position also manifests itself in everyday movements, gestures, speech and their amplitudes. The choreographer has taken this aspect into account as well and paid particular attention to movements and gestures that expose or conceal the body. Operating with these antipodes, he has created the movement material, which is interpreted in the performance by excellent dancers – Simon Hartmann, Petr Hastík, Sudeep Kumar Puthiyaparambath, and Daniel Ernesto Müller Torres.
One of my first impressions of the choreography of “Carne Vale!”, which I got while I was still in Latvia by watching the trailer of the performance, was nudity. That made me skeptic right away. It has been a while since a naked body on stage no longer evokes an inquiring astonishment in viewers, and nowadays undressing in contemporary art has been so worn out that there should be quite a good reason to justify it – at least in my world. The time when it was surprisingly courageous or innovative has been “so yesterday” for long already. This approach is sometimes even predictably boring. So, to be honest, I go to Düsseldorf somewhat unenthusiastic and wondering how will the choreographer deal with this aspect. It turns out that performers are naked 80% of the performance.
However, I exhale with relief in the performance.
The variations of multi-layered ideas on the stage are not even possible to count. Like the revelation that nudity (skin) is ironically the most magnificent costume that both animal and human wear, and these two forms of life are celebrated throughout the performance. It turns out that the way they both live “under the same roof” can be gallant and even touchingly sweet. At least in Ben’s version. Viewers giggle and recognize some behavioral codes. There is a game, rivalry, ironic farce, and various shenanigans with objects that resemble phalluses (the performers also sing into them), as well as weapons or tools; the artists quite brutally use the most common adhesive tape to glue decorative cardboard details to their bodies, thus granting them other shapes and gradually, layer after layer, cultivating a new, yet unidentified and in both form and substance mythical identity.
These are actions that transform reality right before our eyes. That’s the visible part of the show. But then there is also the essential one – the historical and psychological layers and reflections loaded into the human body, bursting through the seams of the skin and pulsing in the face. The question – what are you? An animal and/or a human?
It pulses through the rhythm, created by the artists and the choreographer with extreme musicality, as they beat it into the white, square wooden podium, which is also the stage. With their feet, with the pipes, the dance – they are dressed in the rhythm while being completely naked. But not at the very beginning. Ben is smarter than that. He has planned the moment when we have lost ourselves in the warm-up dance in the beginning, and only then he dresses the dancers in the nakedness. We sit around and watch. We see ourselves through them. Through the mating roars, which turn into ethereal sing-alongs. Through ritual activities, recognizable interpretations of national dance movements, decorative costumes, objects, masks – it covers the real, turning into the false (or vice versa?)…
Oh, there’s everything. Ben also mentions that he is interested in a holistic art form – one of a multidimensional nature. I can see it too. I also see that it is important for him that art “happens in one’s head.” But he does it with expressive and well-considered visuality, which means that his performances are not only smart but also pretty. He admits that he himself takes care of costumes, stage design, and music in his latest works. I would never guess because it all looks and sounds too good to be done by just one person. This is like a finishing touch, making me unable to content my absolute rapture and blurt out the silly question: “Are you a genius?” He smiles shyly and responds: “No!”
We also talk about the fact that the future is happening now and that of the three decisive events of the mankind – the discovery of the use of fire, the industrialization, and the digitalization – we are in the epicenter of the last process. Every single day. What does this mean to humans in general, we are still asking, while we are installing ourselves in the new software. But we are still unable to evaluate what it means to the body. Some are even worried about what will happen at the highest point of the digitalization and what will be our emotional and intellectual connection with body processes and movement. Already today we reduce our natural aspects (brutally generalizing – “the animal”) to the level of instincts, subjecting all the rest to the intellect. And I’ve heard that “listening to the body” is archaic since you can pop a pill instead (meaning – take medications). Unable to understand themselves and their physical processes, some people even cry out in despair: “What for do I even need a body?!” (If it hurts all the time, then really – what for.) Something seems to be forgotten or lost on the way.
Nor can we ignore the paradox of humanity – moving away from the apparent manifestations of primitive traditions, today they are transformed into parallel formats. Carnivals, music festivals, Olympics… I tell him about Latvian boxer Mairis Briedis and his dance, which combines rough fight with professional elegance. And the audiences roar in arenas. Another carnival.
Unlike classical dramaturgy, the performance has two culminations. One is profane, the other is sacred; one immediately after the other. First, performers undergo visual transformation and ultimate bodily release during physical exhaustion. After that, still covered in sweat and barely regained their breath, they sing rhythmically (the rhythm is so strict that they don’t even spare the flow of the text and or the idea, chopping it in abrupt syllables), in a tonal/atonal manner:
“The beauty is in a paradoxical situation. On one hand, it spreads inflationarily: a cult is cultivated around beauty. On the other hand, it loses all transcendence and provides itself with the immanence of consumption: it forms the aesthetic side of capital… In the end, there is a pornography of the beautiful” (Byung-Chul Han, “Saving beauty”, 2015).
However, what I saw in the dance, added: “And yet, there is a carnivalic beauty in the paradox that’s vibrating all around us!”
Ben J. Riepe graduated from Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany. After graduation, he worked as a stage dancer at the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch as well as at V. A. Wölfl/NEUER TANZ. Riepe has been freelancing since 2006. He was affiliated artist at PACT Zollverein in Essen in 2013-2016. In 2008, his choreography “amour escape” (2007) was shown in guest performances in Latvia.