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Pieter Ampe

At first glance the work of Pieter Ampe appears to revolve around jokes and quips. His unusual appearance is to blame. Ampe is a relatively small, slightly balding man with a huge ginger beard. The opposite of the traditional image of a dancer. But it is those blue eyes in particular that often dart back and forth, a little watery, to then sparkle when he laughs. It seems as though he has suddenly been struck by a bright idea for some kind of mischief or other. When you see Ampe it's sometimes difficult to stifle a laugh. However, appearances can be deceiving: Ampe applies his strong appeal more than once to evoke highly uncomfortable thoughts.

As a performer Ampe has made an important contribution to diverse pieces, such as the groundbreaking work The Song (2009) by Rosas. However, he became famous mainly due to Still Difficult Duet (2008) (produced while he was studying at P.A.R.T.S.) and Still Standing You (2010) (produced under the auspices of CAMPO in Ghent, where he has been in residence since 2009), duets he created with the Portuguese Guilherme Garrido. Both were a huge global hit. They strikingly sketched the friendship between two (heterosexual) men. In the first piece both men court the favour of the spectator. They cannot tolerate one another. Yet they cannot do without each other. This is what it's all about: how men can be someone's best friend and greatest rival at the same time. This is evident when the two dance completely naked in perfect unison. They soon sabotage each other, first sneakily and then openly. They roar that it is damn difficult to work together and handle each other roughly. This aggression is real, the pain genuine. But the pain is kept under control. They know what they are doing to each other. This makes the ritual aggression between men comical.

The merit of the piece is that it makes a situation recognisable via specific actions, separate from any story. Therein it is indebted to predecessors such as Fabre or Vandekeybus that use real pain and exhaustion as dramaturgical tools. However, Ampe strikes his own note: he primarily plays on the relationship with the audience by seeking attention. This psychological mechanism plays on the laughter muscles, although the laughter veils the embarrassment related to the crude, primitive, little flaws inherent to these figures.

These observations also apply to the two next works by Pieter Ampe. Jake & Pete’s Big Reconciliation Attempt for the Disputes From The Past (2011) is a duet with his older brother Jakob, a musician. Here the competitive drive between brothers plays a key role. Violence is absent, but there is plenty of embarrassment, now resulting from the shameless sentimentality that sometimes comes to the surface. The brothers derived inspiration from a film about Paul Simon when he was still part of the duo with Art Garfunkel. When Pieter leans his head on Jakob's shoulder, you immediately recognise the picture on the back of the album cover for ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. The piece is fuelled by such images. The brothers do not re-enact memories from their youth but their actions conjure up the nature of their relationship. For example, they exchange skills. Jakob demonstrates his ability with a concert of grumbling, moaning and groaning. Pieter takes the lead when they walk in circles although Jakob tries to continue directing. You increasingly observe their similarities in the detail, such as the way in which they hold their head. The work ends with their version of ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ by Burt Bacharach. Boredom and emotion unite in an inextricable, toe-curling and moving alliance.

For a coming community (2012) Ampe worked with Guilherme Garrido again, as well as with Hermann Heisig (DE) and Nuno Lucas (PT). The quartet plays out the many differences between the men. Heisig is a tall, lanky dreamer, Lucas is small, but has a beard that's as vigorous as that of Ampe. Compared to the mischievous Ampe he looks almost melancholic. Garrido is the hothead of the company. Such diversity almost inevitably leads to conflicts and situational humour, but that's where it ends, despite amazing discoveries, a little too much due to a lack of structure and time.

Ampe must have realised that this was a dead-end. In his solo So you can feel (2014) he is present, intensely physical once more, but here the 'embarrassing' serves as the driving force.

In an hour's time Ampe transforms the mood from a controversial flirtation with the audience to an uncomfortable confrontation with dark desires.

In this production he and the audience explore the murkiest edges of his sexuality. For quite a while he appears to simply play with the audience's attention. However, his extravagant dressing-up changes the atmosphere, especially when he climbs the audience's grandstand dressed in a cat suit made from netting, to perform a striptease transvestite show. The embarrassment felt by the spectators visibly increases. They no longer see the weird joker but are overcome by strange feelings they would rather ignore. The floodgates open fully when a naked Ampe covers himself in latex paint. The sadness and self-deception now pour forth. But it is not over yet. The action acquires the allure of a primitive ritual with a black and white film of a dancing, whitewashed Ampe, to which the ‘real’ Ampe provides a miserable contrast. The film, as fantasy, appears a sad spectacle in the reality of the stage. In an hour's time Ampe transforms the mood from a controversial flirtation with the audience to an uncomfortable confrontation with dark desires.

Ampe's latest work, the duet We don’t speak to be understood (2015) with Benjamin Verdonck revels in abject images once more and plays on the tension between two performers. The work puts forward misunderstanding and miscommunication in such a witty manner, but is less alarming than So you can feel.

Pieter T’Jonck

Pieter T’Jonck is a civil engineer-architect and publicist for De Morgen newspaper and diverse publications at home and abroad. He writes about dance, theatre, visual art and architecture. T’Jonck is also an adviser to DasArts in Amsterdam.