Boris Charmatz used them in enfant (2011), Jan Martens drew upon their talent in Victor (2013) and Wim Vandekeybus in Talk to the Demon (2014): the moving power and intense appeal of an untrained child's body. It is a power of which choreographers Joke Laureyns and Kwint Manshoven have been aware for quite some time. From their dance company kabinet k’s beginnings, they have opted to place the purity of these young bodies alongside the loaded aspect of aging bodies, the detail in damaged bodies or the dexterity of trained, professional dancers' bodies. They are concerned with the beauty concealed in the difference, in the diversity of different dance languages on stage, much more than the one-sided focus on children. Nevertheless over the past decade, kabinet k has evolved to become the most important Flemish 'youth dance' or 'children's dance' company, or ‘dance for and with children’ - whatever you call choreography for children.
The battle of words is more meaningful than it appears. Each fight for emancipation is linked to the pursuit of a fitting vocabulary to describe their practice. Two decades after the youth theatre has matured, it is now time for youth dance to occupy its own place in the 'adult' dance landscape. kabinet k is a pioneer in this evolution - in 2011, with a 'State of youth dance' Joke Laureyns advocated for an adult approach to dance with children. This concept, related to the equality of dance and 'youth dance', runs parallel to the idea, on a broader ‘human’ level, that a child is not a special kind of animal species that belongs in a separate cage, but is a fully-fledged person from the outset. This also means that from a choreographic perspective each body, even the untrained, lanky or gracious body of a child, is an equally interesting 'dancer's body'. (Youth) medium, (young) person and (child) body are each approached from an 'adult' perspective - the essence of kabinet k's oeuvre is embodied in this three track vision. Laureyns: "We like to start from a position of 'neutrality': the simple point of a vibrating body that is bursting with energy."
Since 2002, kabinet k has created a number of productions with children on stage that have not gone unnoticed, initially under the auspices of youth theatre houses: Dromen hebben veters (fABULEUS, 2003, nominated for the 1000 Watt-prijs), Shelter (KOPERGIETERY, 2005), Questo Ricordo (CC Hasselt, 2006). The duo's dance language grows organically from the work on the floor and contains traces of everyday acts and the play of their young performers. Virtuosity is not a goal in this respect, authentic presence on the stage, all the more. The improvisation sessions that produce the dance material are never inconsequential child's play: Laureyns and Manshoven always work in a targeted manner and steer according to a chosen theme. In Unfold (2009, Theaterfestival 2010 selection) they focused on ‘growing’. To the fragile music of singer-guitarist Niko Hafkenscheid three children and one adult dancer test the space and each other, to see how far they can spread their wings.
One child stands in front of a gauze curtain, to which a collage of items has been stitched. The child moves a finger along the items and a voice-over speaks the simple and sometimes amusing observations through a child's eye that views the world for the first time totally consciously: 'How long it takes to grow up/What a stabbing pain you feel in your bones as you grow/How you can sometimes feel your heart beating in your mouth.' When the list comes to an end, a rattling sewing machine starts up - each new stitch adds a new experience to the familiar, connections are sewn together.
A second child appears, the body seems to unfold like a flower bursting into bloom in the sun, a little timid - the girl tests her limbs as if using them consciously for the first time. Meanwhile an adult dancer has appeared that takes the young body on his shoulders, carries and supports it, more clearly later, when a child walks on the adult's feet until being able to continue independently. What do you need to learn how to walk, except a parent that supports you but lets you choose your own path?
In Unfold the mood is still and dreamy, as in a painting by Johannes Vermeer – visual art also represents a major source of inspiration for kabinet k. Laureyns: "I realise that occasionally the boundary between dance and visual art is extremely narrow in our work. But just because it is slow and minimalist this does not mean it isn't dance - if you eliminate everything that is light and technology, there is still the vibrating body, the sense that the skin is glowing. I still refer to kabinet k’s creations as dance, because the human presence is crucial."
However, not all the productions can be condensed to this modest register; kabinet k also has an energetic, exuberant side. These different traces - the reflective, minimalist dance language versus the explosive, baroque - clearly lead back in the diptych i see you (2012) to the personalities of the two makers. Independently Laureyns and Manshoven create a short biography for themselves, a child and an older person, around the element of 'the gaze'. Laureyns’ contribution is black and white and circumspect, in contrast Manshoven provides a physical, colourful dance portrait. She is the head, he the legs, as Manshoven described it in an interview with De Morgen.
If one compares kabinet k's productions one notices a shift over the years. The unconscious, playful and self-evident research into their own language increasingly makes room for a more well-grounded, more content-related focus - call it a 'more political' interpretation of the dance language. Manshoven: “We are now much more conscious of our responsibility: we have a forum so we must have something to say." In a production such as rauw/raw (2013) this is clearly translated in a globally committed awareness. Seven children aged between 8 and 12 brace themselves for the blows that life deals them. How powerful is the will of a young mind, how resilient a young body? Inspired by, for example the BBC documentary Poor kids (Jezza Neumann, BBC, 2011) kabinet k created a dance production about lust for life. A worn mattress and a few stones lying around represent the silent testimonies of children's lives in which living predominantly revolves around surviving.
A small group of children drag along tins of food and crouch around a gas fire like small, hungry animals. If a can refuses to open straight away, there is always a stone: the lid is violently crushed and the ravioli splattered all round. Small hands grab, stuff chunks of raw food into their gaping mouths, children sneeze it out, or balance on a rolling tin can - how much cheerfulness simmers beneath this poignant scene. An older woman (Kristina Neirynck) and an adult male (Manshoven) move between the children but don't seem particularly concerned about them. An older child washes a younger one because he's covered in ravioli - the woman looks on indifferently.
The adults in rauw/raw play an explicitly negative role: they are the ones who are absent, on whom the children cannot rely. They express themselves in a strikingly rough dance language: children are grabbed by the hair, thrown on the floor or held upside down by their ankles. However the violence stems from powerlessness. Manshoven: "The adults are the broken ones. Not the children."
The adults do not assume their responsibility but the children do. This striking reversal belies once more the 'blurring boundaries' for which kabinet k stands: children are equal to adults as effective thinking beings, with a human consciousness and an autonomous will. Or as Laureyns puts it: "I don't really understand this boundary between children and adults. I believe every individual is valuable, however young. As long as he or she takes responsibility. And a child can do that just as well as an adult."