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Lisbeth Gruwez / Voetvolk

In 2008, Danielle de Regt wrote about Lisbeth Gruwez's second production Birth of prey in newspaper De Standaard, stating that the dramaturgy was rather flimsy, but that the dancer Gruwez easily got away with it because she was her own secret weapon. Or to put it another way, because Gruwez is an intriguing stage personality. This is indisputable.

Lisbeth Gruwez studied from the age of 14 at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp but ballet did not appear to be her calling. She went on to study contemporary dance for a year at  P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels. She did not complete this program because many choreographers and directors, and not the least of them, were knocking on her door. She debuted in The day of heaven and hell by Wim Vandekeybus in 1998. Then she joined Jan Fabre's company Troubleyn for As long as the world needs a warrior soul and especially Je suis sang (I am blood), an unprecedented success at the Festival d’Avignon. She delivered a decisive contribution to that piece with her a cappella interpretation of Son of a preacher by Dusty Springfield. She paraded around the stage, stark naked, with the teasing seductiveness of a stripper. She so effortlessly overwrote the archaic image of the witch-seductress with the contemporary perfection of a photo model. Later she created the solo Quando l’ uomo principale è una donna, with Fabre, a piece that also became a huge success worldwide in the film by Pierre Couliboeuf, thanks to her visceral interpretation of the man-woman who swims in a bath of olive oil. In between she also played remarkable roles in Images of perfection by Jan Lauwers and Foi by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. (On the sideline Gruwez also developed as a outstanding graphic artist, with a style that you could recognise immediately, although she has received little recognition for it so far).

In 2006, she formed a team with performer-musician Maarten van Cauwenberghe to produce her own work under the name 'Voetvolk', a West Flemish expression (Gruwez was born in Kortrijk) for 'infantry', or, by extension, people that play a subordinate social role. Van Cauwenberghe's role as a musician and manager of the company is not to be underestimated in this respect. The company's name says everything about the insecurity that the duo felt about their artistic position in the landscape. The quality of their work largely rested on Gruwez's extraordinary aura on stage, but at that time sound acknowledgment of this was missing in a landscape in which the intellectual discourse about choreography and dance was still predominant. The company name, however, proves that she explicitly related to this dance landscape, even if initially as the underdog.  

This was demonstrated by Forever Overhead (2007). The piece is based on a fait divers about a stewardess who fell from a plane. Gruwez tells the story in reverse order. First you see her tilted forward on her knees, spinning round, with a gigantic boulder in the background. Her movements are so bloodcurdlingly slow that they virtually acquires metaphysical proportions, even though you barely know what's happening. When she puts on a motorbike helmet, the movements become more confrontational, more challenging. Gruwez defies the gaze of the spectator. She dances like a true kamikaze. Time after time she falls with her helmeted head on the boulder on the ground. As if she wants to test her luck. Pathos all round, until she greedily slurps a can of cola. This woman is real; she is thirsty after all that effort. After this follows a coup de théâtre: to the notes of Dolly Parton's 'Nine to five', Gruwez plays a perky stewardess in a real show dance style.

As soon as you know the reason for the piece you are aware that it rests on first-degree expressionism, all in all a relatively predictable theatricalisation of an imaginary mortal fear. This does not detract from the fact that the piece works. This straightforward expressionism, to which Danielle de Regt refers in the review mentioned above, and in which Mary Wigman is cited as a reference, also plays an important role in the two following pieces by Voetvolk, namely Birth of prey (2008) and Heronerozero (2010), a duet with Rob Fordeyn. However, it suffices to watch the opening images of Birth of Prey to establish how accurately Gruwez, even without revealing her face, rolls the muscles in her back to represent the drama of (sexual) power and submission. It is in terms of content not very subtle, nonetheless these are resounding theatre moments.

Presumably Voetvolk has become fully aware of the naivety of such images. In recent years, and perhaps with the help of dramaturgical advice from Bart Meuleman, they produced works that no longer had to focus solely on performative sledgehammer blows. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend (2012) was a staggering meditation of the force of inciting religious and ideological sermons.

In the production Gruwez passes through all the stages of demagogue to ecstatic believer to the hypnotic tapes by Van Cauwenberghe that are predominantly based on sermons by the American preacher Jimmy Swaggart. In the slightly odious physical transformations Gruwez goes through, you obtain such a specific image of the somatic side of any form of fanaticism that the expressionistic of Voetvolk's art suddenly acquires a substantial critical load. It was the ultimate production in which Gruwez and Van Cauwenberghe revealed that they had closely examined the work of more conceptual choreographers, without betraying their own idiom.

This trend continued in AH/HA (2014), the first production by Voetvolk for a large cast.

Five weirdoes in pathetic, showy outfits stand shaking to a threatening soundscape. Until they drift towards each other and suddenly take note of each other, and especially of the audience. Grinning mischievously at the spectators and startling them by suddenly barking and yelling. After this they once again turn to each other. They lead each other into an ecstatic dance in slow motion. Deep sorrow and delirious laughter alternate until they take their leave to Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’. Richie’s famous sentence “I’ve been alone with you inside my mind” fits perfectly with these five wounded souls that came together with a smile and a tear. The work is intriguing because of the way in which it exposes a missing correspondence between what the characters want and what they reveal. Once more: expressionism, but then in a form that illustrates how variable the transition between thoughts and feelings and their physical expression is, instead of simply betting on the fact that bodies are always 'true'. It is a theme that also emerged in Lisbeth Gruwez dances Bob Dylan (2015). At first glance the dance is a simple, direct response to a few of Dylan's evergreens, but the setting, with Van Cauwenberghe as DJ, explores the deeper considerations: you never dance truly alone. You always dance with someone else in mind.

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.