In 2018 ZOO celebrated the company’s twentieth anniversary with How to proceed. In this work, the performers generously offered a glimpse into their creative process. But behind the apparent collective celebration of this event, a certain darkness seemed to have already taken root. A latent anguish made several furtive appearances in this previous creation but became diluted within the project’s seemingly festive spirit. ‘I was wrestling with my personal and professional life, the dance industry, the state of the world I’m living in’, says Thomas Hauert. Affected by the toxic atmosphere triggered by crises of an ecological, economic, migratory and political nature, these concerns continued to infuse the choreographer’s reflections, shifting his research and practice towards other areas of interest. The new creation, If Only, carries in its essence this feeling of disenchantment.
Two years after How to proceed, the choreographer returns with a bold project that gives the company’s work a new direction. Aficionados will no doubt be bewildered by this radically new proposition, which breaks sharply with the characteristic dynamic of the world of ZOO. Thomas Hauert, Liz Kinoshita, Sarah Ludi, Federica Porello, Samantha Van Wissen and Mat Voorter, emblematic figures of the company and partners in previous projects, thus review the rules of their own work. The confidence and liberty that have been constantly reinforced throughout the projects are for that matter one of the company’s trademarks: collective and collaborative work is always at the centre of the creative process. Rearranging ZOO’s DNA could not have been accomplished without the precious and experienced collaboration of this team.
Caught up in a continuous stream of agitation, a need to slow down the pace imposed itself. Having choreographed, in recent years, pieces characterized by overflowing and exhausting energy, it was now time to let go: this new research seeks to explore other forms of presences and materials, pared-down and stripped of the potentially appealing dynamics one might expect from dance. Going against the consumerism and the ubiquitous speed that pervades our lives, the bodies slow down, become limp, hesitant, devoid of the mandate of efficiency … Re-appropriating time, finding new scales of virtuosity and developing a slow dance were among the rudiments which fed into If Only.
The performers share the stage with Thirteen Harmonies, a work by John Cage recorded for this new creation by violinist Wietse Beels and keyboard player Lea Petra on a Fender Rhodes. Thirteen Harmonies is a transcription for violin and keyboard (by Roger Zahab in 1985) of a larger work by John Cage titled Apartment House 1776. Commissioned by several American orchestras for the bicentenary of the independence of the United States in 1976, Apartment House 1776, performed by musicians and singers representing the members of the communities living in the United States more than 200 years ago (Puritan Protestants, Sephardic Jews, Native Americans and African Americans), is based on 44 works by colonial composers. Far from the naive optimism and unshakeable faith (in God, in oneself and in the conquest of the American continent) exuded by the original hymns, which were imbued with liturgical accents, the sound of Thirteen Harmonies becomes both recognizable and strange, haunted by mysterious silences. They evoke a sense of hesitation, doubt, vulnerability, regret.
In these randomly de-structured compositions, the result of a formal and chaotic filtering process, John Cage manages to transmit, through a sensorial experience, a sceptical attitude towards the history that is inseparably linked to the music of the era of the pioneers. The colonial ideology, the violence against the indigenous peoples, a nation built on the work of slaves: a critical and frank look at the past is implicitly present in the music and allows the fragments of original compositions to be heard, like the remains of a misguided vision. Instead of celebrating a glorious past, Cage proposes a transparency which allows glimpses of the other side of history.
Among the different sources which initiated this new direction, two reveal reflections which have fed into the thought processes of Thomas Hauert: The World of Yesterday by the writer Stefan Zweig, which looks despairingly at the past and at the changes under way in European society at the dawn of the twentieth century. This book would moreover be Zweig’s last, as the author took his own life after having posted his manuscript to his publisher. The digitalization of the company’s video archives was also the opportunity to address ‘the dances of the past’ and the traces which remain of them in the memory and/or body of the dancers. During the rehearsals, over the course of a conversation, a dancer compared this work to ‘ruins of dance’. This allegory clearly grasps the intentions of the choreography: a succession of fragments interspersed with stillness, gestures suspended in their momentum, uncompleted, aborted. These fragments and these reminiscences of past dances emerge in the bodies nevertheless, between appearance and disappearance, between the need to communicate and inner withdrawal.
On stage, the six silhouettes display a greyish palette, far from the multicoloured figures typical of Thomas Hauert’s shows. Passed through the filter of melancholy, If Only has lost the colour of an ideal, like the faded image of a distant memory. The casual clothes worn by the dancers give the impression that they bear a dark history; with its murky lustre and uncertain tones, the fabric seems to have been muted. A ‘post’ dance takes shape delicately among a filigree architecture (designed by Chevalier-Masson) that evolves as the performers manipulate it. Tied to two moveable speakers, several threads connect to modular sculptures with molecular shapes. Suspended on either side of the bodies, these light sprawling nets stretch out and retract like the limbs of a plant with a lanky and angular skeleton. In the middle of this subtle symbiotic mechanism, a new scale of attention turns our gaze to the meticulous writing of movement and the fragility of the solitary bodies. Revealed by the transparency of Cage’s music, each gesture, each impulse becomes a micro-event, punctuated by random embraces which occur like possible promises of hopes.
If the choreographer does not hide his pessimism regarding our future world, If Only nevertheless seems to wish to kindle the life instinct that emerges despite the mind’s resignation. A glimmer breaks loose and emerges from this dark lull. In Survival of the Fireflies (2009), the philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman wrote that it was up to us to avoid the disappearance of these precious ‘fireflies’, these glimmers in the dark which we cling to in order to keep going. ‘We must […], in the breach opened up between the past and the future, become fireflies and thereby form once more a community of desire, a community of emitted glimmers, of dances despite everything …’ A form of resilience emerges through this funereal dance: an obstinately luminous gesture therefore, despite everything.
Wilson Le Personnic, March 2020
Concept & direction Thomas Hauert
Created & performed by Thomas Hauert, Liz Kinoshita, Sarah Ludi, Federica Porello, Samantha Van Wissen, Mat Voorter
Musique Thirteen Harmonies (1985), John Cage and other musics (in progress)
Musical interpretation, voices Lea Petra (Keyboard), Wietse Beels (Violin)
Sound Bart Celis
Scenography Chevalier-Masson, Bert Van Dijck, ZOO
Light Bert Van Dijck
Costumes production Isabelle Airaud
Production ZOO/Thomas Hauert, DC&J Creation
Coproduction Théâtre les Tanneurs, Bruxelles (BE) / Charleroi Danse, Centre Chorégraphique de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (BE), Festival de Genève – La Bâtie (CH), Centre Chorégraphique National d’Orléans – direction Maud Le Pladec (FR)
Support Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles – Service de la danse / Pro Helvetia – Fondation suisse pour les arts / Ein Kulturengagement des Lotterie-Fonds des Kantons Solothurn / Wallonie-Bruxelles International / and the tax-shelter of the belgian federal government