Dispatches: Springdance, Utrecht, NL, Double Bill Can You Repeat? and Les Sylphides

The first night of attending the festival I caught the double bill of Can You Repeat? by Turkish dance artist Ayşe Orhon and Les Sylphides by German choreographer Nicole Beutler. The evening itself, functioned more like a triple bill, as Beutler's piece was bookended with two different versions of Orhon's. Why exactly the two pieces were paired together is a bit of mystery, except that both address the choreographic process in certain ways, albeit indirectly in Beutler's case.

I was a bit surprised when I got to the theatre to find that the show was sold out, which is uncommon at this festival with it's largish spaces. Waiting patiently at the door, until just before curtain, I was able to snag a spare ticket from a couple who had a third for their friend who didn't turn up. Once I got inside the space, I understood why there was a shortage of seating. Rather than have the audience in the regular configuration the choreographers had placed them in a ring of chairs on the stage itself, making for fewer spaces than normal.

We sat in a circle, staring at each other in our creaky plastic chairs under the fluorescent lights until Orhon silently entered the space. Her piece was meant to retrace the choreographer's physical journey of discovery through the realization of the performance, though this didn't become entirely clear until the second half. She moved her body through a series of yoga-like postures, occasionally stopping and starting again. What was most interesting about the piece was watching, or rather listening to the audience react. At times she held us totally rapt and the room was completely silent, though you didn't actually notice this until she would break the moment, and the uncomfortable shuffling and creaking of chairs would ensue again. In that regard, the experience was very much like what a choreographer creating new material on a dancer experiences,
minus the interactivity; having moments of engagement when you're really into what's happening, and then losing interest and redirecting the dancer to try something else.

At the end of the piece, Orhon simply walks out of the space, leaving the audience to sit and wonder what exactly has just happened. No lighting change. No musical signal. Simply walking out. It was a bit remenisent of Stitch in that regard, as it forced the audience to look at each other an silently ponder what we'd witnessed together.

After a recorded orchestral overture, complete with audience noise, the dancers for Les Sylphides enter en pointe. Beutler's approach to examining the choreographic process was to challenge the concept of "new", something ballet choreographers don't do that often, by remaking the classic ballet of the same name (based on Mikhail Fokine's 1907 choreography and in the repetoire of just about every ballet company in the world). She uses three dancers who, according to the program notes have either left the world of classical ballet already or not yet joined it, though it isn't clear who's who based on watching the piece. The original work was considered by some to be a first, in that it was a ballet with no plot whatsoever; just a group of white clad sylphs (forest nymphs) dancing around the figure of a poet, and I feel like Beutler may be poking a bit of fun at this history with her reinterpretation.

Working silently the three women move through the classic choreography, though they take on not the role of prima ballerina, but that of the chorus girls. There are long moments were they are totally still, as they would have been in the original version of the piece while the star of the show got to strut her stuff. Beutler is also examining the heirarchical structures that have traditionally existed within dance companies giving us for perhaps the first time ever, an opportunity to focus on the dancers who would have traditionally formed the back drop for the main action.

The movements they are using themselves are nothing new, which is exactly Beutler's intention. What is new is the context in which they are presented. Moving the classical ballet vocabulary from a traditional large proscenium space, to a studio with the audience sitting in a circle, works to challenge the distance which usually separates dancers from audience. Indeed as the piece progresses the distance is further ruptured as the dancers back-bend into the laps of the audience's and ask for help to balance as they promenade.

Though the original choreography kept the chorus on stage for the bulk of the show, they did depart for a few of the movements, and Beutler holds to this tradition. During what would have been the solos and duets for the prima ballerina and danceur, the dancers take seats in the audience, stretching, removing their pointe shoes, and grabbing some water, leaving us to watch an empty stage where the stars would have been dancing.

Beutler and Orhon have played with concepts of beginning and ending in presenting these works in conjunction. After the dancers for Beutler's piece exit, we are again left in silence; no bows, no signal that the show is over, just silence. When it feels like the audience is just about ready to leave, Orhon re-enters in a differently coloured but virtually identical costume, this time with microphone in hand. She recreates the choreography of the eariler part of the evening, though this time she speaks in the voice of choreographer to herself as dancer. Spitting out commands like "That looks akward" and "Don't move your foot so much" Orhon gives us a window to the process of creation. As she's the dancer in her own choreography, she's playing with a split brained notion of creator/interpreter, moving as one and speaking as the other, and suddenly every gesture from before becomes clear, once we realize as dancer she is moving in reaction to the directions from her choreographer, who is actually herself.

Though there were occasionally moments of confusion, ultimately the two (or three) pieces in conjuction pay off, not so much by giving you answers, but by leaving you with questions. By examining the traditions of choreography, whether it's a work originally created over a hundred years ago and reimagined many times or watching the process of developing a brand new piece, these two choreographers have created an evening of work that will leave you thinking.

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