August 20th, 2006


Bitches without britches

The Tanz im August season hadn't been going well. I'd been very tempted to walk out of the Michèle Anne De Mey company's performance at the Schaubuhne on Friday night. Not only because I realized I'd seen the exact same piece ten years ago at London's Place Theatre, but because the dancers -- a cross between the white-teethed, uncool "cool" characters you see on German cigarette billboards or the cast of sitcom Friends -- were just so fucking irritating. The idea was that they were just messing around, jamming, interacting informally with each other the whole time, telling each other hilarious jokes, massaging their legs and flashing "winning" smiles, then occasionally breaking into complex, tricky and quirky group routines as if by accident. Finally came the piece de resistance, where the floor got wet and the dancers took turns to skid across its surface or fly over the stage on a pulley. But what infuriated me was the sense of relaxed non-performance. Despite all the tricks they had up their sleeves, the dancers seemed to be dancing (to bombastic Beethoven) just to amuse each other. There was an extremely irritating sense of "repressive desublimation" about their refusal to admit they were performing for us. And they all just had irritating faces and clothes. Dasai.

Louise Lecavalier's show was also a tremendous bore, though the actual choreography was more admirable. This ex-La La La Human Steps dancer, with her horsey Billie Whitelawish face, looks good for her age, just like David Bowie, with whom I last saw her dance. But, like Bowie, she seems to have hardened her habits, lost her ability to startle. She's resting on her laurels. Her piece, broken into two equally tedious halves, just seemed to go on forever. Nothing happened. The first half had classical music and some music stands on the stage. The second had a very annoying piece of skittering electronica that kept seeming to fade only to come back, sentencing an increasingly weary audience to another ten minutes of... well, of Louise shuffling around on the side of her shoes, wearing a tracksuit, apparently mimicking a schizo bum she'd once seen on the Toronto subway. In slow motion. It just went on and on.

I was beginning to wonder whether it was me. Had I lost interest in dance? Did you have to be super-attuned to technical prowess to get this stuff? Or was it the fault of the festival curators for foisting old, safe, yuppie-ish or academic stuff on us?

Then along came Ann Liv Young's show, Solo. KAPOW! Brilliant. Faith restored. Roadmap to brilliance in own artform sketched out: just tap into primal bitch energy.

It was in a studio up on the 3rd floor at Podewil. Mirrors and a brightly-lit kitschy set faced an audience seated on low black foam scaffold benches. When the performance started, instead of going down the lights went up, blazing white fluorescent light off the pinky plastic highlights and chintz curtains and chairs. A funny fatty Japanese-Mexican guy in an afro wig controlled an iBook and mixer on a trestle table while two overweight women slutted around wearing riding hats, black bathing suits, white stilettos. They blew up black balloons and sang along to energetic pop music. Suddenly they stripped naked and the trailertrash swearing upped a notch. What obnoxious bitches, worse than Britney!

On paper, it should have pushed all my "hate this!" buttons. Here was American South (Young is from Roanoke, Virginia) trailer trash style, girls behaving badly, an iTunes playlist approach to narrative (it was basically a karaoke show, with the girls singing along to hits), way too loud, with slovenly overweight bodies and a fuck-you attitude. But five things pushed the obnoxiousness over into marvellousness. First, that it was so OTT. The girls not only got naked, but actually pissed as they danced. Secondly, there was such fantastic energy, unbridled delight. The songs were very well-chosen (I enjoyed hearing Young sing along to "Feelgood Inc" by the Gorillaz). Thirdly, comedy. This was actually a very funny piece. Watching two dissolute naked women spraying chocolate sauce over each other then hosing it down with mineral water was hilarious. Fourthly, it was (only moderately) sexy. Snatch was being thrust in our faces in such an unashamedly lascivious, stripperish way. And yet there was no sense of spurious, affirmative redemption, no sense that this was "raunch feminism". Fifth, there was a brilliant control, a formal organization undercutting the appalling stroppiness of the performers. The colours and shapes and lighting were great (Ann also makes and sells craft work, which is rather beautiful).

The "bitches without britches" approach shouldn't have worked for me, but it did. I came away from this brilliant performance with my belief solidly reaffirmed. Not just in dance, but in art's capacity to zap bolts of positive energy through an audience. Young taps into the amazing, brash energy of adolescent girls on a bus trip, singing along to crappy chart hits. (She only graduated three years ago, so she's pretty close to that energy herself still.) When the three cast members lined up, shaking their fatty bodies at us, it felt like some pagan campfire orgy or artlessly arty community centre evangelical meeting -- but without any religion whatsoever, just obnoxious, infectious enthusiasm.

I got a sense -- and I love getting this feeling of "art envy" -- that there was a message for me in this work, something I could learn from and use in my own work. I suppose, in a nutshell, I'd sum it up with the hellish proverb of William Blake: "Energy is eternal delight". Ann Liv Young is, in the words of one critic, "Pina Bausch on steroids". Last night, she was the aestheticized essence of Saturday night poured into a pink bottle and shaken.