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Jan Martens / grip

Since humour, playfulness, irony and clarity almost always lie on the surface, for a moment, just a moment, you could view Jan Marten's choreography as light and airy entertainment. However it also has an irresistible force that sucks you in deeper. And, in the essence of the movements, you become aware of how intelligently and meticulously the dance pieces are constructed and how layer after layer the tight structures are filtered through substantive references. Martens likes to refer to American minimalism as a major source of inspiration in dance, especially Lucinda Childs and Merce Cunningham, but sometimes is not clear about whether the minimalistic movements feed the social statements or vice versa. However funny, colourful or playful, behind the expressionless gazes you soon perceive individuals that reveal something about themselves or expose a vision of worldly matters. The process of breaking through the individual occurs when the performer's mask fades, due to fatigue or a battle with the complex movements and spatial constellations, and 'being' one with the place comes à la Artaud: cruel and endearingly real. These are moments in which success and failure are intertwined. 

The high demand of virtuosity and persistent endurance sometimes generates errors; imperfections bring the perfection to life. Humanity. These events become a 'story' experienced simultaneously by the spectator and the performer. Within this small universe of intense concentration, of pure abstraction, a new reality is created that in terms of process also evokes considerable beauty and emotion. In addition to the hardness you also see tenderness there, besides the spectacular hounding effect with even a shameless show calibre, also solidarity and poetry and beauty, among the performers, but gradually also between the dancers and the spectators. An empathetic bond grows from the audience to the people on stage. United, they persevere through the growth process that lies in the performance

There is a dual, triple, multiple game at play. Purely constructivist, architectural movement structure, as well as intimate encounters, just like shameless entertainment.

Since 2009, Jan Martens already has an impressive number of productions on his list of achievements and the success he enjoyed from the outset, first in the Netherlands and Belgium, but soon also in the rest of the world, is in itself, a story that is equally as energetic as his choreographic work. After studying at the Fontys Dance Academy in Tilburg, Martens went to the Artesis Plantijn Conservatory in Antwerp, where he completed his studies as a dancer in 2006. After dancing for three years with the choreographers Koen De Preter, Pauline Roelants and Ann Van den Broek, it became clear that he wanted to be at the helm.

Being a child of the Internet generation, straightforward choreography no longer interested him. He was fascinated and inspired by the multitude of dance genres, styles and insights. He wanted to sample and recycle all these dance styles. It was not rare for a single work to contain influences from such diverse disciplines as yoga, rock, butoh, acrogym, contact improvisation and show. Yet this amalgamation did not lead to unbridled freedom, improvisation or coincidence. Martens creates frameworks, often in a traditional, minimalistic manner, and what is constructed inside them is subject to strict, well-considered control. There is a dual, triple, multiple game at play. Purely constructivist, architectural movement structure, as well as intimate encounters, just like shameless entertainment. Since, yes, the intention is to focus on the acts and thus a manipulative game is afoot. The game may be full of winks, in images that already make a mockery of good taste, which are, let's call them blatantly charming kitsch. This all emerges in an almost disarming transparency, a ‘what you see is what you get’ matter of factness: clear structures and open communication.

Even the metaphors are clear in Jan Martens' work. From his first major production I can ride a horse whilst juggling so marry me (2010), in which young women are dominated by a manic dependence on social media, irony, kitsch, cheerfulness and tragedy are played openly and exposed. The love duets are even more brutally honest with regard to the medium and the message: the movements, hard, brutal, distant or gentle, sensual or intimate directly conjure up emotions that explicitly refer to the perils and beauty of love.
There are certainly no frills involved in the work Martens created for and with the Dutch choreographer-dancer Truus Bronkhorst, together with choreographer Marc Vanrunxt. Straightforward, clear as day, nothing over the top, ruthlessly beautiful.

The group work The Dog Days Are Over (2014) offers the same clarity but brims with energetic overkill. Persistent minimalism of slowly changing space - and time structures in which dancers with spartan discipline walk and jump on the spot, dressed in multicoloured costumes that exude the cheerfulness of a circus and with the subtle emotion of the inevitable mistake. On which leg do you jump?
In the solo work Ode to the Attempt (2014) the critical, hard, tempestuous dancing, slightly more extreme and more challenging, goes hand in hand with amusing attributes and anecdotal references, with pastel and cheerfulness. The sampling continues.

What follows is a sample from Martens' diverse work. 
The first two videos are trailers of two ‘love duets’ Martens created. First, A small guide on how to treat your lifetime companion and then, Sweat Baby Sweat, both from 2011.

Hard, unrelenting, frenetic yet not cool. Little expression provided by facial gestures but screaming out from the body. Here, just as in Sweat Baby Sweat, the next love duet created by Jan Martens, comes the expressionistic side of the choreographer. No visual or physical feats but the naked reality of human feelings. It is spellbinding. How confrontational can dance be? Since there are so few visual and virtuous stimuli, you automatically look more closely, focus on the details of the body parts, looks, minimal gestures etc. You absorb them, they also become part of you to a certain extent. Empathy is an interesting characteristic when observing dance.

The movements of this second love duet – hard, brutal, distant or gentle, sensual or intimate  - conjure up emotions that explicitly refer to the perils and beauty of love. One could say that each movement is a metaphor for the relational processes that loved ones go through and yet, for which it is so difficult to find the words. But this is a positive thing. This conflict between word and heart provides the body with the opportunity to speak, or at least: to search for a suitable language to express things for which no words exist or for which there is too much reticence to express them verbally. A language that the spectator should perhaps first read using the body's sensors. Embodiment is a fine word for it. Your body absorbs, and via its own communication channel to your heart, whether or not via a detour to the brain, you revert to your own experiences and emotions, and to the dance movements in front of you.

The following clip comes from the production BIS, a solo for Truus Bronkhorst from 2012.

Truus Bronkhorst, a reputed Dutch choreographer, writes please stay leave come back on the walls with a contagious, virile, furious force. She allows the young choreographer Jan Martens to place her in the spotlight. A stunning, powerful woman, over sixty, with a body that captures all the allure of a dancer - not a ballerina, but a strong contemporary dancer - who knows what it means to stand on stage, be watched, be aware of her appeal, conscious of her slowly waning strength and youthfulness. Just old enough to derive strength from this insecurity and vulnerability, perhaps also anger, the power to perform her act with force and vigour. Sans pardon. Martens calls a spade a spade. He manipulates her gently, almost tenderly, but with equal hardness. Bronkhorst knows how to cope. She was no pushover as a choreographer and dancer. And now she is old enough to display a generous dose of fragility in addition to the toughness, without being weak. It is humbling.                 

Lastly we turn to The Dog Days Are Over, the production hit from 2014.

The Dog Days Are Over is an abstract production in pure minimalist style: with tight lines, repetitive rhythms and careful shifts, patterns that slowly change, in space as well as time structures. And yet, this production does not appear at all to be the minimalism à papa (or should we say à maman? Indeed there are references in relation to this production to the stars of the genre, including Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown). The focus shifts from the architectural structures with which the dance is constructed in space and time, the macro level, to the micro level. The striking colours and diverse costumes introduce playfulness, humour, and winks. And then you penetrate deeper, into the detail: the bodies, how the battles with the physical are hard work, how they persevere, how they repeatedly draw on renewed strength and energy. A battle with oneself, as well as the constant vital connection with the group. The similarities and disparities. Certainly towards the end: when some are exhausted, the others carry them along, through the unrelenting hard rhythms, on their energy flow. Suddenly, human presence is in abundance. 

Katie Verstockt

Katie Verstockt is a journalist, teaches dance history and movement and is a dance coach. She teaches on the dance course at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp and has written for publications such as Knack, Ballet International and Ons Erfdeel.