Wim Vandekeybus/Ultima Vez
London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
12 November 2013
Would the real Birgit Walter please stand up?
There’s a moment in Wim Vandekeybus’s current touring production for Ultima Vez in which the German actor Birgit Walter, playing a character called “Birgit Walter”, holds a series of scripted dialogues with professional actors documented photographically in a kind of visual-arts-project-cum-therapeutic-reconstruction of the “Walter” character’s lost relationships with her three dead children. The scene is dense with reference and self-reference, suggesting the near-madness brought on by Walter’s grief, the therapeutic role of art for the maker, the cathartic role of art for the viewer. But it’s all false, of course; the biographical Walter has not suffered the grief of losing three children and the story justifying her photographic project is as fake as the backdrops used to suggest kitchen windows, caravan holidays and supermarket aisles in the photographs that seem to document these conversations.
booty Looting, Vandekeybus’s 23rd production for his company, is full of this sort of thing – self-deception, self-justification, self-mythologising constructions that peel off in layers without ever seeming to hit the thing in itself. Plato famously banned artists from his Republic because art is illusory, a copy of a copy of an ideal. Vandekeybus plays with the notion of art as theft, cheerily nicking from his own idols and even from himself in a work that ties a dizzying series of knots in its own logic.
The piece opens with a two-minute reconstruction of Joseph Beuys’ 1974 installation I Like America and America Likes Me, in which the artist camped in an art gallery with a a coyote for a week wrapped in the Tartar felt that Beuys always claimed had saved his life after an air crash in WWII. Beuys’ work is a good introduction to the piece: like the work of “Birgit Walter” shown later in the performance, his felt-laden career as an artist hinges on the reconstruction of things that never happened.
Vandekeybus’s reconstruction of Beuys’ installation doesn’t only refer to Beuys’ own work, however – it refers to the conventions of contemporary dance practice itself, and some of the nuttier things that dancers get up to in the studio in the name of art. The company’s four dancers prowl the stage in low-slung, coyote-like configurations; they are at one and the same time contemporary dancers pretending to be coyotes and contemporary dancers pretending to be contemporary dancers pretending to be coyotes. Booty Looting isn’t afraid of opening a rabbit-hole or two in its exposition of performance and visual art; almost everything in the show refers to itself in a never-ending loop that will either delight or madden its audiences.
The cast – four dancers, two actors, Elko Blijweert on guitars and photographer Danny Willems – are all superb. Forced Entertainment’s Jerry Killick comperes the show, offering expositions and explanations that gradually unravel as the evening unfolds. Birgit Walter (the real one, however real that may be) is an imposing presence as the visual-artist-ethnologist-film star-Medea figure at the centre of the performance; scuttling around the stage with his camera, Willems is as much a part of the action as he is a documenter. And the images that flash up on screen throughout the performance, taken live onstage by Willems, are simply beautiful, creating a sublime alternate reality that is robustly deconstructed in the end.
The dancers are also fine performers, with tiny Russian bundle of fearless energy Elena Fokina and “cheeky Essex B-boy” Luke Jessop particularly standing out. Fans of Luca Silvestri’s Protein dance will recognise dancer Kip Johnson; and in fact, Protein fans will probably recognise several of the fourth-wall-breaking devices used throughout the show: dancers jostle for the opportunity to confess weaknesses and failings to the audience from a lectern, and narrate anguished feelings about an absent parent who will, by the end of the evening, come to kill them with a photocopier. The overall atmosphere is both humorous and discomfiting, one part Theatre of Cruelty to two parts Theatre of the Absurd with a dash of Vandekeybus’s own inimitable style of “dangerous dancing” thrown in for good measure.
Vandekeybus himself recently described booty Looting as “a big puzzle of different things”. The layering of concepts and the construction and immediate deconstruction of narrative and character that plays throughout the show might fairly be described as puzzling, but perhaps not a puzzle in the usual sense; with its anarchic structure, striking visual imagery, noisy and sometimes discordant rock soundtrack and the raw kinetic energy of the dance sequences, it’s less an object to be solved and more a genuine assault on the senses.