(Big Girls do Big Things): ijsbeer danst intrigerend Zwanenmeer

Première (Big Girls do Big Things) van Eleanor Bauer: 12 maart, Vooruit, Gent

Op het Brusselse Working Title Festival, december 2009, toonde de Amerikaanse choreografe Eleanor Bauer een try-out van (Big Girls do Big Things). De afgewerkte voorstelling gaat dit weekend in première. Als Bauer het basisniveau van de try-out heeft behouden en de ruwe kantjes ervan heeft weten bij te schaven, dan zou dit wel eens een van de revelaties van het seizoen kunnen worden. De voorstelling houdt het midden tussen dans en cabaret. Op een nu eens hilarische, dan weer uiterst kwetsbare manier toont ze het publiek hoe een jonge vrouw annex choreografe omgaat met de wereld van vandaag en met de vooroordelen die ermee gepaard gaan.

Tijdens het Working Title Festival volgde ik een workshop danskritiek bij Anna Tilroe en Pieter T’Jonck. De deelnemers kwamen uit alle hoeken van Europa. Vandaar dat de voertaal het Engels was. Ik schreef voor de workshop een erg beschrijvende recensie over de try-out. Ik herhaal ze hier, onvertaald, met excuses voor eventuele fouten tegen het Engels, dat niet mijn moedertaal is. En met een waarschuwing voor verscheidene spoilers die het beschrijvende karakter van het artikel met zich heeft meegebracht.

‘The lights shine on the black floor of the stage. In the left back corner stands a ladder, with a white, furry carpet in front of it. The scene is surrounded by long, black curtains. Too long curtains. They hang to the floor, forming a great mess of wrapped and folded cloth. In the background, you can hear Sibelius’ second symphony. A strangely refined element to this otherwise quite unfinished-looking scenery. One by one, the onlookers seem to notice that something is already going on, and start studying the stage and the elements on it. Only after a while, dancer-choreographer Eleanor Bauer appears from the right back corner of the stage. She is wearing an unbecoming, old-fashioned-looking kind of bathing suit with a tiny skirt or tutu attached to it. Concentrated like a gymnast about to do her complicated jump, she walks towards the carpet. Only now, the performance has really started, the anticipations of the audience getting rewarded. This game with expectations will prove to be one Bauer likes playing.

It soon turns out that the polar-bear carpet is actually a costume, which the dancer carefully glides into: first one leg, then the other, followed by the arms, one by one. This new skin does not seem to fit: it is far too large. Afterwards, we will understand that by this none-fitting skin, a first hint to an interpretation of the entire performance is being given. Not yet, though… we just watch curiously what she will do with this strange attribute. Bauer zips the hood (the bear’s face) and starts moving inside it. Although it is clear that she is making some very precise movements, the exact choreography is difficult to see. The bear turns into a shapeless mass out of which from time to time a furry living creature seems to arise, then disappear again. Finally, a fixed bear-like form appears that starts crawling to the other side of the stage. There, it finds two cymbals with which it starts playing, with each movement becoming slightly more human inside the still too large skin. The cymbals puzzle the creature. What can it do with them? Put one on its head? Put both over its ears? It does everything except what you expect: it never bangs them together. Instead, it explores new ways with it, out of the ordinary. When it accidentally creates a noise by dropping one of the cymbals, that scares it for a second. But it learns from the experience: now it knows what it is doing and although the noise is still scary, the second cymbal is being dropped purposely, and with a smug expression. You might start thinking that the creature is forming itself, so is forming its personality, or are we jumping to conclusions, now?

The performance is a succession of very diverse scenes which all can be read in the light of the same interpretation. In today’s society, a young woman, in this case a dancer or choreographer, probably named Eleanor Bauer, needs to find her place – and this is never easily done, especially if you do not choose the evident routes that seem to be outlined for you. For example: you crawl into the skin of a persona you would like to impersonate, be it a polar-bear, a diva, a rap singer or a model. But what if it sticks to pretense? What if you will never be any of the above? Is that bad, or is it just a way of becoming your own person?

Today, everyone is expected to strive for the top. The sky is the limit. A little further in the performance, Bauer states this quite literally. She starts singing Patsy Cline’s Crazy. ‘I’m crazy for feeling so lonely, I’m crazy for feeling so blue…’ She starts with an amazingly low voice: a good voice, you can tell that immediately. Bauer reaches for the ladder, and at the end of the song, rises one step, while taking the song half a tone higher. Then she starts over. With her white, high-heeled shoes, the bear costume by now wrapped around her body like a short, sexy Marilyn Monroe-like dress, she really is the singing diva, here. Or is she? Something seems to be wrong with the picture. Would Marilyn ever be seen fidgeting with her dress, because parts of it keep coming down, so time and again she needs to tuck the ends in again? Would she have wet strands of hair hanging over her face? Would her skin be shiny with sweat and would an impressive drop be running down her elegantly bowed leg? Last but not least, would a successful singer climb up an ordinary ladder? Should she not be provided with a wide, glittering, glamorous staircase? In this entertaining, cabaret-like part of (Big Girls do Big Things), Eleanor Bauer presents us with a girl-next-door pretending to be a diva. The process of growing up, forming a personality by imitating that of others, and learning from each imitation which may fit her and which not. This image of the real-woman-with-everyday-clumsiness is exactly why climbing the ladder in those high heels seems such a risky business. No way Marilyn would ever fall down. You and I though…

By now Eleanor Bauer has repeated her song over and over and has finally reached the top of the ladder without tumbling down. She now sings in a very high voice and manages the tone. Yet, sometimes she lets us know that the accomplishment is not an evident one. Not only the dress bothers her. Now and again she has to concentrate very hard on the melody. She is not really embarrassed by these difficulties, though. Each time the ordinary woman shimmers through the diva-persona she is playing, she shows herself as a person who knows the strength of her failure. In those moments, the character seems to wink at the audience: we have an understanding here, we know this diva-thing is not reality.

The ambiguity of finding one’s place in the world — forcing the brackets between which your life finds itself in between all the things and thoughts and accomplishments our society is put together by — is being extended throughout the preview of (Big Girls do Big Things). Another convincing part follows immediately after the song. Bauer sits on top of the ladder, in a position that looks not at all comfortable. ‘It is lonely at the top’, the character states funnily. And then she starts out on a pure piece of cabaret. She says that she has done everything that there is to be done in today’s world, from taking coke and too many sleeping pills to voting for Obama’s promise of change and trying to save the polar-bears. However, those things didn’t offer her anything, because ‘nothing’ ever ‘happened’. Once more Bauer plays with the expectations of the audience, because only in the end you understand this text is not her own. She admits to have ‘stolen’ it from Karen Finley’s 1980’s performance The Constant State of Desire, which she has only adapted slightly to her own situation and time. It takes some scenes yet before the dancer is finally really dancing. Sibelius’ symphony plays again and Bauer takes to a ballet performance in which she reminds us of the black swan from Swan Lake. She mixes the choreography with elements of modern dance. In the end, she plays with the black back curtain in true Martha Graham-fashion, yet she gets entangled in it and finally disappears. The polar-bear- and swan-references don’t seem to be coincidences. On her MySpace-page, Eleanor Bauer states that ‘A crazy old dutch man once told me after a performance in Amsterdam that I am as if an Icebear that dances like a swan.’ The performance shows us that polar-bears can give an interpretation of Swan Lake that may be very different from the fragile white swans’, different from what one generally would expect of a dancer, yet an interpretation that is at least as intriguing.’

Op de site van het Kaaitheater vind je een pdf-versie van het artikel van Pieter T’Jonck dat in Staalkaart is verschenen. Dat biedt ook heel wat achtergrondinformatie over Eleanor Bauer. Meer teksten over (Big Girls do Big Things) en de andere deelnemers aan het Working Title Festival 2009 vind je hier.

(Big Girls do Big Things): première op 12 maart in de Vooruit, Gent. Daarna op reis. Als jij de afgewerkte voorstelling hebt gezien, is je reactie heel erg welkom.

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