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Mette Ingvartsen / Great Investment

The Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen has been shaping her distinctive career path for a good ten years now. Her work revolves around specific themes and questions, but does not display the stylistic uniformity of an 'oeuvre'. She organises her work as research that gives rise to productions. In a highly physical manner these productions bear witness to what she gradually discovers, without acquiring the rigid form of conclusions. The living experience, the excitement of experimenting and discovering are always present. However direct or even simple her questions are at times, the outcome is often extremely confusing, but so thrilling that the work also appeals to a wider audience.  

She organises her work as research that gives rise to productions. In a highly physical manner these productions bear witness to what she gradually discovers, without acquiring the rigid form of conclusions.

She worked on one of her first 'studies' while she was still a student at P.A.R.T.S. Manual Focus (2003) examines how models of successful physicality influence the way we view actual bodies, how close we listen and how quickly we register flaws to which we react with aversion or a deep shudder. In this respect she was undoubtedly influenced by Xavier Leroy’s Self Unfinished. In Manual Focus three naked women attach a monstrous mask of a man to the back of their heads. A clever choice of movements almost instantly transforms the women into creepy beings with a spidery mode of moving. However obvious, it is still staggering how little is needed to totally alienate and dehumanise a figure that is as familiar to us as the body.

The next video comes from the production To come from 2005.

With To come Ingvartsen struck a totally distinctive tone and theme. The piece revolves around carnal lust and sex. The theme is addressed three times, in sharply contrasting scenes. In the first part, five figures, wrapped from head to toe in light-blue, skin-tight full bodysuits, engage in all possible, often explicit acts, like a catalogue of every way in which we can physically connect. The bodysuit eradicates any differences in gender. There are only distinct body contours. One could think of it as a catalogue by de Sade. The effect is extremely alienating. Despite the pornographic element of the images the spectator is not 'glued' to them because there are no faces, physical details or sounds. The spectator has to fill in the details, which is exactly what the blue - the blue key – of the bodysuits suggests. The blue key spurs the spectator on to derive pleasure from the actual mechanics of the bodies, without asking what this suggests or delivers.

The principle of the piece becomes so clear: recognition, followed by alienation, followed by newfound pleasure in the event itself.

The second scene has its own blue key principle. The dancers appear in regular city outfits while a blue screen is raised against the rear wall of the stage. Like a small choir dubbing a film, the dancers deliver an impressive concert of groaning and panting. This is the soundtrack that was missing from the first part, but because the picture is now missing, your attention slips from the performance to the actual sounds. The principle of the piece becomes so clear: recognition, followed by alienation, followed by newfound pleasure in the event itself.

The third part of the piece is the subtlest: the performers put their heart and soul into dancing to catchy swing music. They do so with great bravura, but also with just a hint of sloppiness that makes the dance seem like a spontaneous party, instead of a public performance. Here you see the hand of the true choreographer who knows how to achieve this ‘naturel’ artificially. However this part also contains a slight sting: when the music briefly stops and resumes with full force, the dancers continue to swing undeterred. So the moving body, like a thing with its own temptations, assumes a central role once more.  

Why We Love Action (2007) is a continued exploration of the temptations of the body itself, separate from a narrative context. What's more, this work also exploits the difference between film and stage. In this piece seven performers let themselves go completely, acting as stuntmen in action films. They do so in front of a green screen - a green key – that isolates their actions. But the performance does not combine these excessive events in a story; the actions acquire their own logic of cause and effect. This is a surprising experience, which reminds us what makes a medium like an action film so appealing. It is also fascinating how conveniently and convincingly the individual outbreaks of violence and force fit together. IT’S IN THE AIR (2008) explores the pleasure bodies provide when their possibilities of movement are tested, but is a lot simpler in terms of structure. Ingvartsen and Jefta Van Dinther spend an hour on two trampolines, simply having a ball.

This is how Ingvartsen and Mon de Palol demonstrate how the medium becomes the message. The same elements, shaken up and edited differently, each provide something very different, on film, on the stage and as a video clip. However, in all these media we collide with an idiosyncratic, wild type of body, which no longer fits with familiar performances by the human body.

The tension between the way in which theatre and film steer a body’s experience continues to fascinate Ingvartsen in All the way out there... (2011), a duet created in association with Guillem Mont de Palol. The piece opens with a film that, due to its setting in a desolate landscape and colour-saturated wide angle image is reminiscent of a Technicolor Western. The colours are so bright that the burned faces of the two dancers in the film are shocking pink. Only when they appear live on stage, you notice that the bright pink is achieved using makeup. As a result they suddenly look like freaks. Their action confirms this new perception: they start to scream, hiss and rant like madmen for no reason at all. They wave their arms and legs wildly, sway back and forth with their bodies or jump around like a horse that has been slapped on its rump. Now and then this crazy action stops completely only to resume with renewed fervour. When the tinsel arrives you could momentarily assume that we're observing frenzied gold diggers, but then the action is detached from such a plot by unexpected momentary cracks. Frenzied gesturing is a choreographic and compositional motive in itself here. When the pair suddenly flop down, exhausted, a second film follows. This time a close-up of their faces. You now instantly see that their pink colour is fake. The film is also different from the first: it is a video clip in which image and sound are rhythmically cut to produce a catchy, rhythmic pattern. This is how Ingvartsen and Mon de Palol demonstrate how the medium becomes the message. The same elements, shaken up and edited differently, each provide something very different, on film, on the stage and as a video clip. However, in all these media we collide with an idiosyncratic, wild type of body, which no longer fits with familiar performances by the human body.

69 positions (2014) continues to explore this wild body, but this time explicitly in a sexual-erotic context. Moreover it is a kind of genealogy of the moment when the erotic body is no longer limited to a private setting but becomes the lever for wrenching open a narrow-minded public morality and atmosphere. Indeed, Ingvartsen welcomes the audience in a room in which signs and monitors hang from tubular frames. These documents depict the turbulent years of the Sixties, when nudity and sex acquired a political dimension. She leads the audience around the mini-exhibition and talks about her correspondence with Carolee Schneemann. In 1964, in the middle of the Vietnam War, this artist released the performance Meat Joy on the world. Men and women messing about with paint, meat and fish, and engaging with each other in an explicitly erotic manner. During her narrative, Ingvartsen starts to demonstrate the action herself. She occasionally involves bystanders and peppers her story with her thoughts. For example, she suspects that at the time sexual freedom was linked to anger about the war. Sex was political then, and vice versa. She also observes this in Anna Halprin, The Performance Group and Yayoi Kusama. Each time she portrays the actions.

In the second part Ingvartsen focuses on the way in which sex appeared in the art in the 2000s. Here, her own work constitutes the research object. She explains that nudity, on stage, is not the same as exposing yourself, but is an - unusual - costume. She now involves the spectators ever closer in the action, in a remarkably candid manner. This is also the case when in the third part she talks about new sexual practices such as stimulation using electricity or chemical substances. She doesn't only discuss them, she also demonstrates them. Yet this is not done in the pursuit of sensation. Her question - or proposal – to view and think about sex with a more open mind remains sincere and also acquires a tense form, somewhere between, dance, exhibition and lecture.

In addition to this series of works about physicality, sex and its mediatisation, Ingvartsen has also developed a completely different 'line of research', even though it too concerns experience. The Artificial Nature series is a series of works about questions such as: What would we remember about nature if it were swallowed up after a catastrophe? Would we gather together in the theatre to re-experience nature via simulations? What would things tell us then, what would they do with us? In these pieces things lead their own life. Ingvartsen searches for ways to allow things, and the forces of nature, to speak for themselves, to afford them an ability to act in a theatre space. Evaporated landscapes (2009) began as a piece about megacities. Ingvartsen suggested that such cities were only possible by displaying their natural borders, which led to an experimental landscape model. In this piece people observe a model from above, in which wind, mist and water have free reign. This appeared to evoke such strong reactions from the spectators, as if the simple simulations were talking back, that a second project, The Extra Sensorial Garden (2010) followed.

Both pieces were preliminary studies for The Artificial Nature Project (2012). Therein seven performers are surrounded by all kinds of mess, such as a hundred kilos of confetti, to conjure up unleashed natural disasters. They are almost invisible due to their dark suits. As a result it is as though you are experiencing the apocalypse from the front row. You see a world following a major catastrophe. Machines lead their own life and cause unexpected disasters. The piece is full of contradictory actions. For example, someone cleans up confetti while another activates a blower somewhere. Or someone tries to tidy up while the light flickers on and off. People and machines work against each other, as if the machines are no longer under control. It instantly raises questions about notions such as disasters: they 'exist' because people are involved, but in fact they are simply natural phenomena.

It is characteristic of the open-mindedness with which Ingvartsen can open up strange and even uneasy things for discussion from an unusual perspective, and each time finds a different form for it that nevertheless seems perfectly obvious, even if it is not.

Speculations (2011), a lecture-performance or – according to Ingvartsen – a performance with a discursive character, bridges the gap between the two series of works. In this piece Ingvartsen asks the question of whether you can present an imaginary world in such a way that it starts to influence the real world. Or how imaginary choreography could appear real. Or how you can evoke natural phenomena. She does this with words, with scarce moments of visualisation. She expressly appeals to the audience's imagination, without it having to do anything. “The audience influences the event, even if it is merely there, as things merely exist but still do something,” she explains. It is characteristic of the open-mindedness with which Ingvartsen can open up strange and even uneasy things for discussion from an unusual perspective, and each time finds a different form for it that nevertheless seems perfectly obvious, even if it is not.

Between 2013 and 2016 Mette Ingvartsen was artist in residence at Kaaitheater (Brussels). Between 2017 and 2022 she will be part of the artistic team at the Volksbühne in Berlin, led by Chris Dercon.

Author:
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.