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Being a visual artist, Jan Lauwers was an outsider in the world of the performaning arts when he created his first production in 1983, shortly after his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. It's possible that his interest in performance art led him to this point. Initially he founded the 'Epigonentheater zonder leiding van’ with Simone Moesen, a company that operated as a collective, in accordance with the spirit of the times.
In this clip from De struiskogel (1983) by the Epigonentheater zlv, the influence of performance art is clear. The piece portrays a family party. The company gathers around the banquet. However, the dinner is prepared live. It begins with one of the two chickens being beheaded on stage. The second chicken survives and pecks around the first one's blood. The real time sequencing and unpredictability of this activity, as well as their consequences (also among the spectators) are typical performance elements. On the other hand the family dinner is represented in a more theatrical manner although, due to the dominant use of mime, it evolves more around an evocation rather than a developed story. This provides an interesting contrast. A family dinner is often, as here, a moment during which people let their masks drop and buried conflicts flare up, under the influence of food and especially drinks. This psychological violence is afforded a counterbalance here in the physical violence carried out on the chicken. The psychological violence appears worse, being gratuitous and malicious compared with the 'necessary' slaughter of the chicken for food.
The tension we see here between what people reveal about themselves and what actually motivates them, especially sex, eroticism and the death drive (Eros and Thanatos) continues to be an important theme in Lauwers' work when he founds his own company Needcompany. But now, the visual, aesthetic aspect of the productions comes more to the forefront. Lauwers' pieces from this period consist of actions that are connected to a theme in an associative, often contrary or unexpected manner. The complex and fragmented visual language this produced was far from gratuitous because it arose from an intense personal need.
This is pre-eminently demonstrated in the Snakesong trilogy (1994-1996). Here Lauwers uses powerful stage images to make the force of unfathomable human instincts tangible in the literal as well as physical pitch-black stage events. The images are relatively abstract. Lauwers composes or sculpts his images with scenographic resources as well as the human matter available to him. The boundary between acting, dancing and singing is drastically reduced as a result.
Thus Lauwers automatically comes closer to dance in the broad sense of the word. More dancers increasingly appear in his casts. They often have a major say in the movement language. However the actors also have a lot of freedom. Lauwers leaves considerable space for his performers' personality and individuality. This evolution points to the recent work in which Needcompany is increasingly becoming a type of performance band, with Lauwers as the band leader, supplier of stories, but with (considerable) room for solos by the other band members.
The visual nature of his work does not mean that language no longer plays a role, but it is just one of the media Lauwers uses. He sometimes uses language more as sound quality and connotations rather than factual communication. He therefore has no problem allowing each performer to speak his or her own language. Needcompany's productions are often presented in three, four or more languages.
Lauwers composes or sculpts his images with scenographic resources as well as the human matter available to him. The boundary between acting, dancing and singing is drastically reduced as a result.
However, in the 2000s, his work took a different direction. Stories return, through the front door. They become a vehicle for Lauwers' pessimistic reflections about the state of the world. Nevertheless the productions testify to a more than contagious joy of performing, and thus appear to be an antidote to the misery in the world.
The Sad Face/Happy Face trilogy (2008) and especially Isabella’s room (2004) are the best examples of this evolution.
This clip shows that the return of the story does not mean Lauwers converts to a type of illusion theatre. He appears on stage as the storyteller, and consequently as the piece’s moralist to a certain extent, as well as the jammer, because it is not rare for him to jumble up the logic of the story. Or he suddenly appears with an entirely new vision. This forces the audience to position themselves. In this sense the work is indebted to the insights of Bertolt Brecht. His position as a moralist and narrator, the sometimes absurd storylines, just like the fact that the performers regularly burst into song and dance out of the blue, demonstrates a remarkable, albeit surprising similarity to the tradition of the melodrama.
The aspect comes fully to the forefront in Marktplaats 76 (2012). Melodrama enjoyed its heyday in Paris around 1800. In song and dance outrageous, bloody plot twists, involving the most extreme characters, were performed at top speed. A narrator invariably provided commentary and the moral. Thus the Parisians processed the terror of the Revolution, which was still fresh in their memory. Marktplaats 76 drives out our demons with exactly the same means. Although we have not experienced any recent revolutions, the fact that our world has been turned on its head is a foregone conclusion to Lauwers. The only difference: his morality is subtler and more subversive. Ultimately it is up to the spectator to draw his own conclusions. This too we know from Brecht.
The Blind Poet (2015) demonstrates a further evolution. The piece is two things in one. It is a portrait of an international company that, as was once the tradition, tours the world stages as one family sharing joy and sorrow. It predominantly consists of drawn-out solos, in which highly personal (and genuine) announcements are made, sometimes in a totally hysterical self-praising, then reverting to painful, disappointing confessions. At the same time it is a flaming criticism of the narrow-mindedness and xenophobia of Europe. Two hours of fantastic, thrilling, moving, funny, tragic theatre, which effortlessly blends personal tragedy and the major tragedy of politics and history in an unparalleled manner.
Grace Ellen Barkey, Jan Lauwers' life partner, co-founded Needcompany in 1986 and choreographed and performed in many of its productions. She also created three individual works in a coproduction with Theater am Turm in Frankfurt: One (1992), Don Quixote (1993) and Tres (1995).
With their mix of dance, text, imagery and music she creates an unrivalled, anarchic madness on stage that easily exceeds (AND).
One mainly revolved around Flaubert's journeys to the East to escape his melancholy or to forget his love for Louise Colet. The production was characterised by an associative structure, with text excerpts from Flaubert and Gontsjarov, songs, choreographic pieces and short sketches. However Barkey evoked a mood rather than offering a penetrating analysis of the melancholy. Don Quixote continued on the same track. She does not recite the story but confronts Mil Seghers, in the role of Don Quixote, with four other actors. You obtain an idea of the way in which the ridiculous knight views the world. What drives someone to all-consuming but platonic love for a Dulcinea who has never even heard of him? What desires lurk beneath the surface? How does a dreamer that has as little as possible to do with an all too 'realistic' reality survive? Barkey dressed the story up with song and dance but what mainly endured were the few extremely moving images of a helpless Seghers.
From then on Barkey's work takes a different direction. Rood Red Rouge (1998) does not refer to an author or work but is derived more from her youth and stories her father told her. However the piece ends as an associative performance about the tricks the memory plays on us. It uses the same images, but places them in very different registers, which means their meaning is always different. This demonstrates the fickleness of the memory: how memories are rarely objective, but a more or less creative mishmash of fact and fiction. This theme continues in Few Things (2000), a highly irreverent interpretation, in the form of a 'funky Chinese Opera' (Barkey's words) of Bartók's opera ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’. Here, Barkey translates Bartók's themes in a brilliant, albeit still irreverent, associative and witty manner into dance and movement. It shows once more how greed, doubt, fear and lust possess and shape the body. An outstanding cast perfectly embodies this dangerous cocktail. Therefore the themes were not particularly new but their effect was wilder and more targeted.
In (AND) (2002) Barkey definitively found her voice. It is an adaptation of Puccini's Turandot, but what an incredible adaptation. She gives the story of the princess that does not want to marry an unhappy end. The piece acquires the form of a living doll's house in which the craziest things can happen. An incredible opportunity for a first-class cast (Angélique Willkie, Tijen Lawton, Kosi Hidama, Julien Faure, Benoît Gob and Maarten Seghers) that pull out all the stops for this evil, irreverent fairytale about human failure.
Over the next few years she created a series of pieces with the designer Lot Lemm, such as Chunking (2005), The Porcelain Project (2007) and This door is too small (for a bear) (2010) and lastly MUSH-ROOM (2013). With their mix of dance, text, imagery and music she creates an unrivalled, anarchic madness on stage that easily exceeds (AND).
The action seems like a Disney film that has got out of hand with scabrous and bizarre scenes.
This clip from This door is too small (for a bear) is a prime example of her unique theatre. The piece is a story of an adorable teddy bear (Benoît Gob) that comes to life and tries to bring order to his environment. He walks around a stage full of washing machines, drying racks, irons, all of which come to life and appear to have a will of their own. Creating order in the chaos is therefore not going to happen. The action seems like a Disney film that has got out of hand with scabrous and bizarre scenes. However, the bear remains his decent, orderly self, even when dolls in brightly coloured knitwear raise hell behind his back. It is an open reference to the visual artist Mike Kelley’s scornful parody of an innocent childhood.
Without judging Barkey leaves the story for what it is. Her performers now display all kinds of tricks to the audience that often have a sexually explicit tint, apparently with the aim of seduction. However the chaos disappears as suddenly as it emerged: large perforated screens with an Eastern undertone move back and forth across the stage. They create mysterious intermediate spaces in which the dancers perform duets. It ends up as a harmonious Eastern dance. The dancers appear totally happy. But after everything that played out earlier, one cannot help but harbour some doubt.
Pieter T’Jonck is a civil engineer-architect and publicist for De Morgen newspaper and diverse publications at home and abroad. He writes about dance, theatre, visual art and architecture. T’Jonck is also an adviser to DasArts in Amsterdam.