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Ula Sickle

The work of the Polish-Canadian choreographer Ula Sickle meanders between several disciplines, from film to installation - and sound art to live performance. Before she completed both the Training and Research Cycle at P.A.R.T.S., she had already obtained a degree in art history and theatre science. Between 2008 and 2010, Sickle also obtained a postgraduate degree in film and video art at Le Fresnoy, the French studio for audiovisual art where she was artist in residence at the time. This is where she met the sound artist Yann Leguay with whom she worked closely as an independent choreographer for several years.

Sickle and Leguay share an interest in issues related to perception and mediality. How do the classical parameters of a performative situation - movement, voice, light, space, time and sound - influence our perception? How are our senses as well as our cognitive experience of the reality mediated by technology? How can we consider the body as an extension of the technology and not vice versa? What is our agency in this rapidly changing cyber society? What is remarkable in the work of Sickle and Leguay is that they stage the relationship between man and machine in a low-tech fashion in which they remain close to the technical source. A body engages in dialogue with an amplifier, microphone or light source. The duo does not conceal the interfaces but sometimes affords the occasionally brutal materiality of the technology a visible spot on stage to better understand the way it works and its impact.

Sickle and Leguay share an interest in issues related to perception and mediality. How do the classical parameters of a performative situation - movement, voice, light, space, time and sound - influence our perception?

In Prelude (2014), for example, a production that was only performed in the Brussels Kaaitheater, the Norwegian singer Stine Janvin Motland tried to adapt to a sensitive, overstimulating environment: aggressive wind machines, nervous ticking fluorescent tubes and speakers that transmit white noise, putting her vulnerable body to the test in a highly direct manner. With the help of her extended vocal techniques – in which the possibilities of the human voice are explored to beyond what we consider recognisable - Motland explores the boundaries between the organic and inorganic, between the human and the digital. Due to Leguay's subtle live sound modulation often it is no longer obvious whether we hear Motland singing or whether her airy notes are being manipulated electronically.

The duo does not conceal the interfaces but sometimes affords the occasionally brutal materiality of the technology a visible spot on stage to better understand the way it works and its impact.

In Atomic 5.1, which is part of Light Solos (2014), a triptych of optical performances, a body also engages in dialogue with five strobes suspended from different places in the room. The flashes of darkness and light follow in rapid succession, which means that the dancer - Sickle herself - is never seen in her entirety, but only in bits and pieces that disappear the moment they appear. Leguay increases the intensity of this powerful sensory experience by shaping the raw sound produced by the strobes into an audio score that is a strong reference to its technicality - a process he previously applied in Solid Gold (2010) and Jolie (2011), in which Leguay reinforced the movements and breathing of the dancers in real time to make the physicality of the dance palpable.

The sight of Sickle's fragmented body in Atomic 5.1 externalises how the intensity, speed and direction of light rays manipulate our view. This is illustrated in the opening minutes of the performance.

Another common thread running through Sickle's oeuvre is her quest to break open the canon of contemporary dance, whose history is often too closely modelled on Western developments. Sickle derives inspiration from the hybrid and nomadic popular culture, preeminently as it is experienced in the metropolis of Kinshasa in DR Congo, where she has been working since 2008.

Sickle stands on stage as if frozen, and yet her body appears to subtly shift and change position according to the spectator's perception. Even though we know that she is physically present in the room, the twisted light and many shadows create the impression that Sickle is in several places at the same time. She almost becomes virtual, translucent, as if she is dancing with endless projections of herself. As a result of the subtle game of fictive and real movements Atomic 5.1 not only demonstrates how light functions as a medium - and constitutes the basic condition for what we see - but also how our system of perception is not so much a window that passively registers the outside world but is a device in itself.

Another common thread running through Sickle's oeuvre is her quest to break open the canon of contemporary dance, whose history is often too closely modelled on Western developments. Sickle derives inspiration from the hybrid and nomadic popular culture, preeminently as it is experienced in the metropolis of Kinshasa in DR Congo, where she has been working since 2008. "Popular dances in Kinshasa are incredibly rich, they mix diverse influences", Sickle explains. "They have their roots in traditional local dances, but also reflect a globalised media culture in which the Internet and media clips disseminate new trends and lifestyle ideals, as well as political events. Popular dances constantly evolve, that's why I believe they are so contemporary." Taking this insight as point of departure, Sickle often works with dancers that bring along an alternative movement history. In Solid Gold she traced, along with Dinozord, a dancer from Kinshasa, the story of hip-hop as an expression of black identity. In Kinshasa Electric (2015) she also put three dancers on stage that knew the Congolese nightlife like the back of their hand, led by the German-Israeli DJ Baba Elektronica who created an informal club atmosphere live. With their Nikes and shiny golden caps the trio would fit just as well in the trendy Berlin club Berghain or London's Fabric. What do cultural and national borders still mean in this electronic age in which roots and routes constantly intersect?

When the audience trickles in, Joel Tenda, Popol Amisi and Jeannot Kumbonyeki are occupied by their smartphones. They may not have the freedom to travel; they stay abreast of all the hypes via the Internet. This cross-pollination also characterises their dance, in which influences from popping, American hip-hop and breakdancing shine through, as well as traditional N’Dombolo rhythms, sensual hip movements and popular clips from Guantanamo Dance and Stromae.

The process of cultural exchange may well have reached cruising speed as a result of the digital revolution: in Kinshasa Electric Sickle demonstrates that this globalisation process should be understood more in terms of glocalisation: as a simultaneous exchange of the global in the local, of the universal in the personal, rather than as one-way traffic in which the hegemonic Western culture is simply assimilated. The colourful costumes of Jeremy Scott, against which the dancers repeatedly measure new characters, and the Coupé-Décalé music, a popular technique in the DR Congo in which samples are cut, repeated and moved around, reflect the same cultural hybridism. In short, Kinshasa Electric boasts a collection of cross-cultural references that constantly defer a fixed origin or form. What is still referred to as traditional, as contemporary? What is Congolese, what is Western? What is authentic, what is construed? In Kinshasa Electric identity is ‘always on the move’ and Ula Sickle turns these kinds of oppositions on their head.

Author:
Charlotte De Somviele

Charlotte De Somviele is a teaching assistant on the Theatre and Film Science course (UA). She is a freelance writer about dance and theatre for publications such as De Standaard and is part of the editorial team of the Etcetera theatre publication.