Much has changed about the world since first-time choreographer Wim Vandekeybus created his groundbreaking work What The Body Does Not Remember in 1987. But 28 years on, what strikes you is how vital and of the moment the piece still seems. The nervous tension that thrums beneath the clash and crash of bodies pushed to their limits captures a very modern sense of urban malaise; it speaks to anxieties which if anything seem even more pressing than in the 1980s.
What The Body Does Not Remember holds legendary status in contemporary dance history, for breaking convention, dispensing with niceties and plunging its dancers into a raw, combative physicality. But underpinning the whirl of violent movement, flying bricks and tense encounters is a split-second-timed choreography; even the most explosive, spontaneous-seeming movement is tied into a rigorous pattern and a faultless logic. In some of the scenes, such as the still-awe-inspiring brick throwing scenario, with its sense of real danger, and the slapstick-like sequence where the dancers relentlessly and inventively keep stealing each others’ jackets and towels, this precision tooling lends the piece a circus-like flair. But the fast, angry movements in the scene where three women are subjected to uncomfortably intimate frisking – made all the more discomforting by the way they alternately repel and respond to the men’s touch – is just as tightly woven.
The ensemble cast negotiate Vandekeybus’s punishing choreography with awesome stamina – they also tune into his sparky humour, which manifests itself in moments of childlike wonder and/or fits of pique. Meanwhile, Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch’s uncompromising score – performed live by Ictus Ensemble at Sadler’s Wells – adds its own layer of drama to the piece: a percussion-heavy, often atonal cascade of sound that in the closing scene seems to veer into a wild mash-up of Dario Argento soundtrack and Chinese opera. Its driving impetus sometimes appears to exert a physical control on the performers, most extraordinarily in the first sequence, where two dancers are flung around the floor by the thunderclap bangs of a musician playing a miked-up table. De Mey’s beautifully choreographed Musique de Tables, a composition for six hands on three tables, is presented as a fascinating encore here – eloquently displaying how the composer is intimately concerned with movement as much as music.