Cows in Space

2008 re-run

In 1997, Thomas Hauert creates a company called ZOO. Along with four fellow-dancers (Mark Lorimer, Sara Ludi, Samantha van Wissen and Mat Voorter) he creates the project Cows in Space. The premiere takes place in Kortrijk, Belgium, in February 1998. It is a big hit from the start. The production receives the Author Prize and the Jan Fabre Prize at the prestigious Rencontres chorégraphiques internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis and is presented at lots of Belgian and international stages, taking the company as far as Japan. For its tenth birthday, ZOO took Cows in Space.

“Imagine a herd of cows, seen through the window of a moving train. Even if they are standing still, their position in space creates a fascinating game of structure, intervals and speed, combined with the perspective and the speed of the train where the passenger is seated. The image of the cows through the window evolves following a set of very precise rules. This observation was the occasion to use the principle of this phenomenon as a composition tool and to create an optical illusion, where the audience does not pass in front of a static formation but instead the dancers recreate an apparent movement on the stage.”

Ten years later…

Cows in Space contains the elements that are also present in ZOO’s later work: the exploration of the human body’s movement possibilities (beyond the traditional cultural and aesthetic forms) and the coordination of a group of moving bodies, conceived as one single living being.

Incited by Thomas Hauert, the dancers disassociate themselves from their bodies’ usual movement forms. Every single joint offers its own, specific possibilities. The combination of these individual movements can take an unlimited number of forms. In an atmosphere of playful curiosity, the dancers explore the greatest possible diversity of forms, rhythms, qualities and mutual relationships with space and external forces. ZOO based its name on a book, used by the group as study material. This choice suggests a vision of man as an animal species – a very peculiar species indeed.

One of the main methods used by the group to explore the world of movement possibilities, is improvisation. It is experienced as a tool to disconnect the body’s potential from the mind’s limitations. We are not talking about a completely free improvisation, because a body that is set totally free, tends to choose the easiest way out. It is, therefore, assisted improvisation, where tasks, rules and forces are imposed to break the dancers’ conditioning. This is e.g. the case of the “assisted solos”, where the movements of one body are in fact formed by three bodies: the soloist’s body and the one of the two assistants, who act on the soloist.

The idea is not that much to break down things or to nullify forms and codes, but rather to turn the body back to “zero” and start building something new, using human anatomy as the base. After the dancers have been temporarily extracted from their usual movement patterns, they try to apply the new parameters to their bodies. The principles are practised again and again in order to discover all possible varieties and subtleties and to create a new kind of virtuosity – because the body needs time to learn. The disorderly impression that the spectator has at the beginning of the show, is a consequence of his own conditioning. In reality each one of ZOO’s proposals is a coherent movement system, an alternative to known (and recognised) systems, but applied with outmost rigorousness. The stage is not life and dance is free to invent movements without any practical use. Thomas Hauert aims at maximal complexity, guided within a certain structure.

Cows in Space not only focuses on the individual but also on the group, on the “body” formed by the dancers together. If the exploration of the individual body leads to the expression of diversity (chaos), the group work creates cohesion, communication and connection (order). Thomas Hauert coordinates the five dancers’ bodies in Cows in Space with several tools to organise time and space. For the organisation of time he uses the music, composed by John Adams, Bart Aga, Alex Fostier. Acting on factors such as the dancers’ mutual positions, paths and speed (the dancers being like cows), the organisation systems create fields of tension in the space between the dancers. These fields are so complex that the spectator cannot understand them with his intellect. He only observes the body, moved by the laws of organic evolution, rather than by mechanical logics. Still, these movements are meticulously determined, because they are so complex that it would be impossible to calculate them instantly. In ZOO’s later projects the principles of spatial organisation have become increasingly flexible and reactive, without ever losing subtleness. Order is guaranteed by the dancers’ trust in each other, rather than by the presence of some authority.

The concept of trust, central in ZOO’s choreography project, is also translated by the company’s structure and working process. ZOO defines itself as a collective, where every dancer contributes his own creativity to the group. Every dancer is free, but at the same time responsible. However, the structure is not horizontal: on top of the dancers’ individual reality stands a shared reality, proposed by Thomas Hauert. This common trust in the initial proposal is essential for the project, because it allows acceptance of the apparent chaos in the process. The discomfort, caused by the lack of order or authority, becomes comfort from the moment we accept that we cannot have everything under control. If we can let things go, we can create a much richer complexity than what could be controlled by reason.

In Cows in Space dance is abstract, in a sense that everything is about the body and movement. Dance does not have any narrative or figurative dimension. However, the spectators do not perceive the show as something abstract. Even if the dance performance does not illustrate anything, it proposes a model that can be very meaningful. The artistic project seems like a micro-utopia, an alternative vision of man, power and society. It is in the first place a very generous vision. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” Thomas Hauert sang in Walking Oscar (2006). The question goes perfectly with the sentence: “To love you, I am prepared to take the risk of falling” from Do You Believe in Gravity? Do You Trust The Pilot? (2001).

Denis Laurent (2007)

Concept and direction Thomas Hauert
Dance orginally created and presented by Thomas Hauert, Mark Lorimer, Sara Ludi, Samantha van Wissen, Mat Voorter
Dance created and presented by (re-run) Thomas Hauert, Mark Lorimer / Martin Kilvady, Sara Ludi, Samantha van Wissen, Mat Voorter
Light- and set design Simon Siegmann
Original musical score Bart Aga (Sambal Oelek in collaboration with Alex Fostier)
Preexisting music John Adams, Shaker Loops
Costumes (re-run) OWN
Production ZOO/Thomas Hauert
Co-production: Dans in Kortrijk, Kortrijk / De Beweeging, Antwerp / Charleroi Danses
Residencies Danswerkplaats, Kortrijk / Plateau, Brussels

10 May 2009
Chiassodanza Chiasso (CH)
21 September 2008
14 September 2008
Festival Arts Alive Johannesburg (ZA)
01 April 2008
20 March 2008
CC Genk Genk (BE)
07 March 2008
STUK Leuven (BE)
06 March 2008
STUK Leuven (BE)
30 January 2008
De Brakke Grond Amsterdam (NL)
29 January 2008
De Brakke Grond Amsterdam (NL)
26 January 2008
Kaaitheater Brussels (BE)
25 January 2008
Kaaitheater Brussels (BE)
25 September 2007
Kaaitheater Brussels (BE)

Cows in Space