Matthias Sperling’s Now That We Know explores a long-running preoccupation of dancemakers and academics alike: how performance invokes and reflects the mind-body connection. More text – than movement – based, this solo ‘performance lecture’ sees Sperling, who’s both a dancer and educator, swirl his own thoughts with ideas from neuroscientists, philosophers and fellow choreographers in an effort to prompt debate on the future of dance – where it could go if our conceptions of embodiment were broadened. “This is a space of investigation,” he tells us early on. “What would it feel like to get moving in our whole physical body?”
The threads of this question are intriguing and sit neatly at the intersection of dance and science. The self is, as Sperling aptly puts it, “mobile and in motion.” Movement is indeed “at the centre of what we are and what we can become.” But the framework he employs to consider these notions – imagining a future in which science has solved the mystery behind the mind-body connection – is convoluted and obscure. The accompanying language is likewise knotty, a pastiche of hippie-dippy patter and faux academic jargon so mired in performativity that it loses its sense of sincerity. Could such a hazy premise ever result in clarity? How can you debate such disconnected thoughts?
The show opens by a lone voice on a dark stage urging us to “take a deep breath – allow yourself to arrive, settle. Let’s open our hypnotic organs and feel our way through this process together.” Gradually the lights are raised to reveal its owner: a bearded, turtleneck-wearing crank with sunglasses and a rictus grin to match his sing-song voice. Cult leader, free-love guru, groovy Mr Rosso from Freaks and Geeks – any of these descriptions could apply. “Hypnotic organs” is just the start: over the next 45 minutes comes a torrent of similar verbiage, from casual mentions of “active inference” and “plasticity cascades” to a direct entreaty for the audience to “massage the epistemic horizon.” These terms, devised as part of Sperling’s hypothetical landscape, aptly mock the contrived lexicon so often favoured in academia, though they do little to elucidate the rather academic ideas he’s getting at.
Occasionally he offers more readily digestible edicts. “Our perception is something we enact,” for example, and “we should mobilise our capacity to adapt.” These are interspersed within references to imagined future developments, such as political manifestos communicated via physical choreography and intelligence testing based on the “conscious layers of our physical bodies.” Again, it’s a provocative but not particularly revealing tactic.
The performance is less than an hour, but with almost no variation it manages to seem overlong. Sperling’s hammy tone swiftly goes from witty to tiresome. And the dance – mostly limited to slow-moving lunges, crouches and outstretched arms – feels disconnected from the conceit he’s describing, neither imaginative nor stirring enough to give it life. Sperling has a patient natural charisma, and his timing within Joel Cahen’s thrumming sound design suggests meticulous, well-practised blocking, but these qualities are not enough to save this piece from its own tedium.
With both the performance and lecture aspects so diluted, Now That We Know ends up being neither. We’re invited on an experiential journey, but it reads like Sperling’s trip alone.