For years, maverick Dutch-Flemish dance artist Ann Van den Broek had been drawn to the colour black.
She’s been fascinated with both the negativity and positivity associated with it through history—from the Black Plague through to its status as a good omen in ancient Egypt, and from the danger of film noir to the seductive power of the little black cocktail dress in modern times. As she started to create her hit dance work The Black Piece, she also felt inextricably drawn to the dark.
“In the dark you can feel fear, because there are people and things around you that you cannot see,” she tells the Straight from Gaspé, Quebec, where her Rotterdam-and-Antwerp–based company WArd/waRD is on a tour stop. “But also you can do things that nobody can see, and there’s almost comfort in that.”
And so, inevitably, she hit the light switch in her dance studio and started to work with her performers in the pitch black to see what would happen.
“They were trying to improvise and feeling each other or feeling the wall, and immediately it felt like magic,” she relates. “All your senses have to be so enlarged—you’re really working with touch and your ears because you cannot see.”
But what most shaped The Black Piece was adding roving light back into the work. In the production, Van den Broek herself stalks the stage with a flashlight, illuminating her moving dancers throughout the night, while cameraman Thorsten Alofs also turns his lens on the action, projecting it live on a screen.
“When you suddenly feel the light or the camera on you, it enlarges everything,” the artist says. “It’s like, you perform for yourself in the dark and then the light catches you.
“For me as a choreographer, an important thing happened: that moment when the lights go out was really when there was safety and less stress in a way.…I was also creating in the dark without light. I had to keep asking, ‘Where are you now?’ ”
Turning out the lights had a strange, startling new effect on both the performance and the emotions it spurred. “It’s very intimate and very vulnerable,” Van den Broek observes. “Everybody has to work together to listen and to reach each other. The big challenge was to get so used to it that they could say, ‘Oh, I hear a breath in the dark and that person must be two metres away from me.’ They had to find security in the dark. Everything now is very fixed, the whole puzzle of the camera and the light and live sounds.”
Those sounds she refers to come from contact mikes, which create a score of breath and movement. Those and the live lighting and video are as important to Van den Broek as venturing into the dark.
“As a choreographer—I cannot say I am that anymore!” she muses. “I started to hate the light and sound always being done by technicians. I wanted to see more and more that the people on-stage are responsible for creating what you see.”
And of course, in the case of The Black Piece, for what you don’t see.
The Black Piece is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Tuesday to Thursday (November 6 to 8).