Belgian dance-theatre artists push beyond boundaries

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      Belgium is not just a famous exporter of del­icious chocolate and beer. It’s also a hothouse of genre-mashing, discipline-jumping performance—making it a perfect source for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

      This year, its two newest ambassadors will give us a taste of the avant-garde dance-theatre scene in the country. Brussels’s Kate McIntosh presents Dark Matter, a wild, surreal hybrid of quantum-physics theory, home science experiments, and smoky nightclub antics, while Lisbeth Gruwez’s solo, It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend, sets increasingly frenetic, idiosyncratic dance to a remixed Jimmy Swaggart sermon.

      Speaking to the Straight over the phone before arriving here, both artists stress the importance of their home cities’ open-minded scenes to the boundary-pushing work they’re able to create.

      “We have a kind of anarchistic way of putting things together,” Gruwez says with a laugh from Antwerp, mentioning the country has been revolutionizing art forms since the experimental ’80s. “There’s not the history of theatre and respect for it that France has. In Belgium, we’re messing around with all the art forms. Yeah, it’s pretty exciting to be in Belgium.”

      “This town is really open to foreigners, partly due to its bilingual nature,” New Zealand export Kate McIntosh says of Brussels, where the dance artist moved in 2000. “There’s no fixed way to do things when the locals have to always decide what language to use. This is great for foreigners. There are cultures from all over the world here. And it’s also very easy to meet artists in other disciplines—there’s a very enthusiastic exchange between artistic boundaries. Actors and dancers are always doing things on-stage together, and also, of course, there are resources, but intelligently used resources—with a lot of grassroots, small funding.”

      Of course, McIntosh has never felt bound by artistic categories. She’s long integrated speech into her work, for instance. “It was a novelty to me, because in dance, you’re not really allowed to relate to the audience in that way,” says the copper-haired artist, who wears a glam emerald-sequin dress, looking like a lounge singer, as she stands at a mike as your host in Dark Matter. “In each work I think of myself as a kid playing with a toy for the first time.”

      That’s certainly the case with Dark Matter. To build the piece, she and her dancers started improvising with home chemistry tricks—exploring, say, the effect of vinegar on baking soda—as well as with props like wooden planks, paper bags, balloons, and rope that could show the properties of gravity. She also read deeply into the mind-boggling world of quantum physics, but came to a realization in the studio: “We hit upon the idea that the people on-stage shouldn’t know more than the audience,” she explains, adding the mix of physics and art melded magically. “There was just something about trying to dream up stories to describe the world or build small models to test them on and play with them. A lot of quantum physics seems almost dreamlike, far from what we think of as rational proposals. And then there were the feelings of the magic of theatre also kind of proposing an alternative reality.”

      Lisbeth Gruwez taps the evangelical fire of Jimmy Swaggart for her soundtrack.

      The result is a show where time, space, and existence are explored through a world of billowing smoke, homemade teeter-totters, and chaotic movement—an absurdist cabaret meets Bill Nye the Science Guy.

      It’s fun stuff, but it also tries to grasp at the meanings of the universe without serving up clear answers.

      “I had a really nice response from an audience member, a guy in his 70s who had been a lecturer in physics,” says McIntosh. “I said, ‘Tell me, did I do anything wrong?’ and he said, ‘That’s not the point of the performance. It is really that we have to remind ourselves that we just don’t know.’ It has a dark side to it that is definitely quite frightening that makes us feel very small and unsure.” But McIntosh says she prefers to embrace the unknown in a more positive way, to express the infinite possibilities of the universe.

      Gruwez’s It’s going to get worse, too, was all about discovery in the studio. The solo artist had been experimenting with gestures and nonverbal communication when she started looking for a speech to set the piece to. She turned to a friend’s extensive, offbeat vinyl collection, and found the Jimmy Swaggart sermon, in all its evangelical fire. (The title is an actual quote that she thought fit our uncertain times well.) Gruwez had to do some research to find out who the American televangelist was, but knew the oration would be perfect for the show.

      “It was somebody that could really work on the audience and bring them into a trance,” she says. “When I watched old video, I saw he’s really good at it, pacing around and all the drama and overacting. The audience gets more and more in a trance as he gets more intense.”

      From there, Gruwez started studying speechmakers from Adolf Hitler to Barack Obama, and the gestures they use to emphasize their words, rolling them all into a strange new physical vocabulary.

      Maarten Van Cauwenberghe performs a live mix of the speech, a soundscape that grows more and more intense. By the final section of her piece, Gruwez is shaking ecstatically. “It’s what happens when there’s a good energy between the audience and the orator,” she explains. “If you shake for about 10 minutes it does something to you.

      “It’s really interesting to see what you can do,” she adds, explaining she starts the show by “caressing” the audience like a good speechmaker before building to the trancelike state. “It is almost a tango. If I can take them along, on good days when the audience is with me, it’s really a journey.”

      What it may not be, in strict terms, is simply “dance”. But then, its defiance of categorization is what makes Belgian work so fascinating.

      “I don’t like movements that are just movements,” admits Gruwez. “There’s always a theatrical thing in my work—always something about being a personnage [‘character’]. This solo was a long way of searching for this: how can you find movement that really truly communicates, rather than go around in space making beautiful movement?”

      It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (January 22 to 24); Dark Matter is at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from January 28 to 30, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.