When the Swiss, Brussels-based choreographer Thomas Hauert (b.1967) started cie. ZOO 13 years ago he had a concept for a piece where dancers represented a shape moving in space. First he attached the dancers together with ropes to maintain their spatial relationship. When the exercise proved troublesome he placed stickers on the floor, each dancer representing a different color, and when one dancer moved, they all shifted to the next point to keep shape. As the company has grown, so has Hauert’s approach. Today there is no need to tie people up, postage stamp the studio floor, or play connect-the-dots. Hauert now works with improvisation-based performance methods and has developed an inimitable practice that he uses to teach workshops across Europe.
These methods were recently seen in Hauert’s Accords (2008), which returned to Kaai Theater (BE) where it was performed by seven dancers, including Hauert himself. The mix of pre-recoded and newly composed music played a crucial role in this specific work by virtue of how it organized time as well as in its direct relationship with movement. Both the originally-scored music and sound design in Accords was anything but traditional. Peter Van Hoesen’s craftsmanship as musician and sound technician were so refined that his transitions between pre-recorded tracks created a sound environment that seemed to move through space. In one section, an abstract sound, difficult to identify as anything other than noise, circled the audience through the surround-sound speaker system. With each lap through space the sound made it developed and became sharper and more identifiable. Toward the end of the sequence it sounded as if a cicada were circling the theater, reminding everyone in the house of how immense space was. In contemporary dance, especially improvised dance, dancers are working with a concept of space that is beyond the limits of what they can see and can’t see. In a broad stroke, the concept can include the volume of space inside the theater, what events are happening in the world at large or even include larger ideas about the atmosphere. Van Hoesen’s ghost of a cicada trenchantly illustrated this idea through sound design.
The movement format of Accords was a mix of sections: groups, solos and duets in which the dancers performed improvisational tasks and games, which at times appeared choreographed due to the punctual timing and skilled technique of Hauert’s dancers. The stage was set with long rectangular pieces of black cloth hung upstage like banners, which in coordination with the lighting threw geometric shapes across the stage. In one particularly dimly lit group section the light design was so well done that the stage surface appeared to be moving. Standard dance performance lighting is often designed to accent, reveal, refresh and inform the passing of time. Here, again, Accords offered more unorthodox modes of performance by virtue of how well Jan Van Gijsel’s light design and scenography created a false sense of reality. This piece had moments of mysticism while displaying dancers in a state of sincere trust and complex exploration of movement. Accords could easily be used as an example of how sound and atmosphere embody and affect contemporary dance performance.
From the perspective of movement, Accords was even more successful than these the aspects I have just mentioned because its creation happened in real time. Improvised dance performance can often keep a similar style throughout the evening, no dynamic shifts, change in course, or surprises. Accords addressed all three of these qualities with such precision that it was hard for spectators to keep pace. The speed in the group sections was akin to leaves in the wind, the mass of dancers unpredictably going into tailspins and then dropping weightless into suspension. The slower sections looked like a water ballet with each shoulder rotation revealing a new leader guiding the swim in a fresh direction. This kind of movement was liable to conjure up a host of images– birds flocking in flight, ducks in a row down a five-class rapid– but one of the things that makes Hauert so compelling is that imagery is not the origin of his movement philosophy. This style of improvisational dance was created from the physical body. Without being metaphorical or illustrative, Hauert’s work is elastic, flexible to stretch and react, contract and project. He is a dance revolutionary in this style of contemporary dance and has surrounded himself with a team of matched ingenuity.
How dance relates to time and space raises cyclones of theories, directives and physical practices. Artists involved in dance can only attempt at pushing the doors of cognitive thought open each time they close in regards to the unattainable goals related to the art. As society struggles with concepts of demystification in regards to faith vs. science, the search for inspiration in the unseen is a theme that identifies the human race. Originally a spiritual practice, today dance is one of the few unchanged arts where the importance of what is unseen is comparable to that with which is seen on stage. Audiences and performers are blessed to be in proximity with a work like Hauert’s Accords which continues to push the envelope of what we think we know about space and time as it relates to contemporary dance.