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Wim Vandekeybus' Draw from Within is Explosive, Terrifying and a Test of our Stamina for Live-Streamed Dance

by Mindy Aloff
September 27, 2020
Draw from Within
Rambert [Dance Company]

Choreographed and directed by Wim Vandekeybus, Maria Kolegova and Luke Jessop, Assistant Choreographers
Isabelle Lhoas, Costume Designer
Martin Collins, Broadcast Director
Francesca Moseley, Producer
Derek Richards, Broadcast Producer
Performed by the Rambert Dance Company (Benoit Swan Pouffer, Artistic Director)
Live-streamed to New York, September 26, 2020
Flemish prodigy dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and photographer Wim Vandekeybus (b. 1963) made his U.S. debut in 1987 with his then-year-old company Ultima Vez. Installed in the black box of The Kitchen, he brought his first work for the theater, What the body does not remember, made that year. Fiercely athletic and emotionally iconoclastic, it made a sensational impression and won a Bessie. The next time he and Ultima Vez came to New York, two years later, they brought Les Porteuses de mauvaises nouvelles (“The bearers of bad news”), another astonishing collection of streaming storyless scenes for an ensemble of men and women of child-bearing age. I saw that one: Its seventy-five minutes or so of flying-sweat activity were what some of us used to call task-driven, except that the tasks consisted of saving the lives of your colleagues and yourself while performing a relentless reality show of true physical risks—without net or safety harness. As all these were causing the audience’s jaws to drop, memorable set elements—several frozen blocks hanging over the dancers’ heads—steadily dripped. By the end of the show, the blocks had demystified themselves, melting into fully unfolded, cooled shirts for members of the cast. This, too, won a Bessie. (Aggressively risk-taking companies, from Spain to Japan, and offering several genres of dance or movement-based practices, passed through New York during the late 1980s and ‘90s; it amazed me that the theaters could afford the insurance for them. I didn’t then want to contemplate the type of physical discipline necessary to achieve those terrifying examples of bodily exactitude, and although I’ve evolved since then, I’m still not sure I want to.)

Since then, Vandekeybus and Ultima Vez have visited New York several times, including in 2013, when a brand-new cast was on view in a revival that year of What the body does not remember. On the Web site of Ictus, the contemporary music group in Brussels who performed the score for the revival (composed by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch), there is an unsigned comment that sounds to me as if it had been written by the choreographer. Whoever the author, it has relevance to Draw from Within, the work—or, to use Vandekeybus’s term, the performance (he doesn’t seem to recognize “dance”)—realized this time not by Ultima Vez but rather by nineteen members of the virtuosic Rambert [Dance Company] and a guesting child. Its unique, ticketed projection to New York audiences, in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was visible as live-stream in real time between 8 and 9:10 p.m. EST from Rambert’s London-studio building. (Unique projections to South Korea had taken place on September 24th and to the UK on the 25th.) “What the body does not remember is neither Eden nor virginity,” it reads. “[R]ather, it is the moment that cannot be repeated, the event that only happens once, the forced choice made in seconds when facing the gravest danger.”

Within the work I saw tonight there are many representations of “the moment that cannot be repeated,” smoothly transforming into one another as they are distributed according to different locations where they take place in the building. Two collegial men on the rooftop overlooking the nighttime city begin to practice different dance traditions—hoofing, Flamenco—accompanying themselves with snapping fingers and stamping. Then, at once, the light on the roof goes out. “So finally there was nothing. . .,” one man says. There are nightmare moments, air drawings with bloody kitchen mitts, with knives, and, as punctuation at one point, a quivering piece of organ meat, presented next to a naked man hung up off the ground (drawn and quartered?). Dancers draw cursive patterns with leaps and barrel turns and acrobatic ascenders and descenders. Or they blow out the flames at the end of burning things and, putting their bodies through many kinds of danced circles, draw on the air with smoke. A woman in white with delicate braids confronts a colleague in a manbun with teasing intimacy; he tries to touch her, represses the impulse, disappears, and is drawn back to her with dark menace in a different, colder light. The sound score as well as the lighting proceeds in continuous transformation—a Sergio-Leone whistle accompanied by a piano, industrial Brian Eno sounds, the occasional song. Here, as if a moment from Bosch, a woman, “gives birth” to a nearly nude man clinging to her upside-down, her screaming as her music. In a late scene of night terror, a woman becomes part of a playlet that seems to be drawn from her memory or anxious anticipation; she makes herself pregnant with a pillow, which a man with a quasi-medical costume removes. In a moment that could have been drawn from the mind of Pina Bausch, the little girl returns, hands the woman the long white dress that had been stripped from her, and, with an enigmatic smile over her shoulder, leaves. The last image is of an empty, windowless room with an overhead lamp swinging, or orbiting.

Seventy minutes of wordless performance on Zoom is not promising, but Vandekeybus made almost all of those minutes tolerable through the changes of location, variety of the lighting and score, the stubs of drama from scene to scene, and his and his cinematographer Emma Dalesman’s direction of the framing and close-ups or distancing of the cameras. The Pina film of Wim Wenders comes to mind; perhaps it suggested strategies to keep one metaphorically turning the pixels when a storyline isn’t available.

Draw from Within was prepared using “the latest UK health guidelines” (at points in the performance, a few of the dancers wore transparent masks) and, the press release suggests, it was devised “to bring the prestigious UK company back to life after lockdown” by transforming “its state-of-the-art studios on London’s Southbank into a fantastical world.” The performance showcases both the building, from rooftop to basement, and the marvelous dancers, now airborne as solitaries, now closing in on one another for a crush or a confrontation. Now their bodies are as fluent as fish, now their faces light up with specific, directed expression that seems to articulate sentences. One can discern monologues, dialogues, trialogues, even, all without verbal language. The heart of the whole seems to be drawing, the marks of an implement made by a moving body or part of a body. To the sound of a trumpet with a pronounced vibrato, the work begins with an elementary-school-aged girl (Olive Engler, “The Drawing Girl”), viewed by a camera as she draws on paper. Are the events pouring forth her impulses? Or is she meant to be a model for us to follow scene upon scene with only adults visible, a gentle guide to suggest that they are drawing the “moment that cannot be repeated” from their own impulses. Is it the truthfulness of action, of the open-bodied explosiveness and the twisted images of hobbling pain, that is drawn—i.e. extracted—from within? Early in his education, Vandekeybus did study psychology, and he performed for a few years in the grotesque, even sadistic imagistic theater of his compatriot Jan Fabre—although, from my experience of both, I’d say that, unlike Fabre, Vandekeybus’s challenges to dancers don’t spill over into discernable humiliation of or cruelty to them or prolong any assaults on the audience’s imaginations. He draws the audience on a journey from nerve endings to neurons, ending with a light drawing itself on our retinas as it orbits. Perhaps the tension between the opposing definitions of “drawn” is the core subject of Draw from Within.
Rambert's Adél Bálint. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.

Rambert's Adél Bálint. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.


Rambert's Liam Francis (F) and Conor Kerrigan. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.

Rambert's Liam Francis (F) and Conor Kerrigan. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.


Rambert's Simone Damberg Würtz (F) with Juan Gil and Alex Akapohi. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.

Rambert's Simone Damberg Würtz (F) with Juan Gil and Alex Akapohi. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.


Rambert's Salomé Pressac. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.

Rambert's Salomé Pressac. Photo credit Camilla Greenwell.

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