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Wim Vandekeybus / Ultima Vez

When he formed his own company, Ultima Vez, in 1986, the element of the raw physical action came to the forefront in his first production What the Body Does Not Remember (1987). Only in his later work did it appear that there was always much more at stake than the physical spectacle alone.

After his studies in psychology and photography, Wim Vandekeybus started his career as a performer with Jan Fabre. In De macht der theaterlijke dwaasheden (1984) he played one of the two iconic naked kings. In this work a conceptual analysis of the theatrical reality collides with the raw, physical reality of the performers. Both aspects must have been extremely appealing to Vandekeybus. When he formed his own company, Ultima Vez, in 1986, the element of the raw physical action came to the forefront in his first production What the Body Does Not Remember (1987). Only in his later work did it appear that there was always much more at stake than the physical spectacle alone.

These clips reveal an important aspect of Vandekeybus' oeuvre. It revolves around the notion of reality on stage even more so than in Jan Fabre's work. In What the Body… dancers throw stones at each other in a particular scene while they walk faster and faster around the stage. This action involves real danger. Only their flawless reflexes save them. Vandekeybus’ fascination for almost animal reflexes stems from his youth when he visited farms in the area in which he was born, with his father who was a vet, something he frequently refers to. However, there's more. Another scene, named 'Frisking', evokes the feeling that something is afoot here and the dancers are not simply pretending. The men grope the women. Initially it looks like a routine inspection that is also performed at airports. However, they become increasingly audacious, until the action is so disturbing that the thin line between fiction and genuine physical violence is almost breached. The women's reactions also betray this feeling: they increasingly approach the limit of real anger.

In Paris, for instance, a row arose around the scene in Sonic Boom (2003) in which Germán Jauregui Allue deliberately injured himself with a piece of broken glass, causing Vandekeybus to fall out of Théâtre de Ville's favour for a few years.

Showing things in such a direct manner has always been taboo in Western theatre. Vandekeybus occasionally got into trouble for it. In Paris, for instance, a row arose around the scene in Sonic Boom (2003) in which Germán Jauregui Allue deliberately injured himself with a piece of broken glass, causing Vandekeybus to fall out of Théâtre de Ville's favour for a few years. At the same time this unique approach earned Vandekeybus incredible global success. Another success factor was the prominent role of the music. The score by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch largely determines the tone in What the Body…, and later on, Vandekeybus was also able to convince (rock) musicians, and not the least (David Byrne, David Eugene Edwards), to write a score for his pieces or even, in the case of Mauro Pawlowski, for example, to join the cast live.

Vandekeybus was always, and still is, fascinated by what happens between people in unusual situations or marginal positions.

Vandekeybus' signature lies firstly in the physical material, but in the early pieces by Ultima Vez you already see the rudimentary contours of a story, for example, in the confrontation between men and women. Vandekeybus was always, and still is, fascinated by what happens between people in unusual situations or marginal positions. He often works with other artists, non-artists, with dancers and performers of all ages (even children,) and backgrounds. It has led to pieces in which music, dance and text theatre come together in a most unusual alliance. His introduction to the blind Moroccan Saïd Gharbi inspired Vandekeybus to create Mountains Made of Barking (1994), a piece featuring blind performers.

He thwarts a simple reading of the text. If the text seems psychologically realistic, he instantly links it to an alternative, absurd action. Thus Wim merges poetry and motion in a surrealistic framework.

What also stood out was his collaboration with the author Peter Verhelst in pieces such as Blush (2002) and Sonic Boom. The actor Titus Muizelaar hit the nail on the head when he described Vandekeybus’ method at the time: "This piece is like fabric. Poetry and motion merge, you cannot tell where one flows into the other. It is under Wim’s strict control. He thwarts a simple reading of the text. If the text seems psychologically realistic, he instantly links it to an alternative, absurd action. Thus Wim merges poetry and motion in a surrealistic framework. As an actor this affects your concentration. You have to apply a different measure. In this piece I conduct a discussion while six dancers drag me along on a blanket. The fact that you have to constantly watch your balance is enough to unbalance you. Amazing."  

In the action itself, he demonstrates that love and cruelty have more to do with what's in your head, with your demons, than with what others do. In his inimitable way he involves the audience in a relentless battle for love, attention and power.

These experiments with the interaction between the physical and mental reality of the performers or the surrealist disruption of the story, are created by Vandekeybus instinctively, in the actual work process. The choreographer often goes into overdrive: at times the boundary between pure madness and absurdity is no longer far away. This drastic break with the conventional theatre logic paved the way more than once for unexpected meanings and contents that are consistent in their way, with a conceptual or 'post-dramatic' approach to theatre. This is no coincidence. Vandekeybus was the very first Flemish choreographer who, with The Day of Heaven and Hell (1998) took a risk with a piece based on texts and images by Pier Paolo Pasolini. This author also linked the sense of instinctive, physical action to an intellectual discourse with a predilection for 'dangerous thoughts'. A recent production such as Talk to the Demon (2014) is one of the finest examples of Vandekeybus’ talent for linking physical action to a powerful concept. Here, in the action itself, he demonstrates that love and cruelty have more to do with what's in your head, with your demons, than with what others do. In his inimitable way he involves the audience in a relentless battle for love, attention and power.

Lastly, an overview of Vandekeybus' work would not be complete without referring to his work as a photographer and filmmaker. Vandekeybus incorporated film clips in his work at an early stage. Puur (2005) is entirely construed as a dialogue between a Super 8 full-length film and what takes place on stage. Galloping Mind (2015) is his first pure full-length film. Here Vandekeybus uses children from orphanages and reception centres to recount a modern myth about twins. This film was also partly funded by the sale of Vandekeybus incredibly powerful photographic work.

An overview of Vandekeybus' work would not be complete without referring to his work as a photographer and filmmaker.

The Ultima Vez organisation has long been more than simply the production organisation for Wim Vandekeybus' artistic work. The company's generosity is manifested in diverse ways. Since its beginnings Ultima Vez has taken young artists under its wings to give them the opportunity to develop their own path - these recently included Seppe Baeyens and Vincent Glowinski (street artist ‘Bonom’). Its home base in Molenbeek also provides shelter for several other art organisations and the dance studios are made available to other dance makers when possible. Ultima Vez also organises dance lessons, master classes and artistic projects for amateurs, professional dancers and children from the neighbourhood.

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.