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Kris Verdonck / A Two Dogs Company

The work of Kris Verdonck and his company A Two Dogs Company is a maverick in the contemporary dance world. Trained in theatre, the visual arts and architecture, Verdonck would not readily label himself as a choreographer, nor is it easy to assign his work to a single discipline. Nevertheless since the early 2000s, the body has played an important role in his oeuvre and more specifically the uncanny relationship between 'body' and 'object', between 'man' and 'machine'. Yes, with inverted commas because Verdonck pulls these poles so far apart that the difference between dead and living matter starts to blur. "Where does man end and the machine begin?” asks Marianne Van Kerkhoven in an essay related to the production I/II/III/IIII (2007). Who knows. Perhaps even: who cares? Man has long stopped being aware of the many interfaces that influences his view of the world: Siri's speech technology sublimates the loneliness of the modern individual and in response to a simple question, lists all the single restaurants in the neighbourhood; the Apple Watch monitors your health even more closely (making it all the more compelling) than a personal coach. That's the focus of Verdonck's work.

Verdonck's research into the obtrusive impact of technology on our human and worldview goes far. In the mirror of his performance work, often at the intersection with installation art, the spectator no longer sees himself reflected, but sees his digital counterpart. In M, a reflection (2013) the actor Johan Leysen played stone-paper-scissors with his doppelganger in the form of a hologram. Two minutes later they both give up. Nobody can win in the visionary world that Verdonck sketches, in which man is imprisoned in an endless loop of digital doubles.

Verdonck's research into the obtrusive impact of technology on our human and worldview goes far. In the mirror of his performance work, often at the intersection with installation art, the spectator no longer sees himself reflected, but sees his digital counterpart.

The 'dancers' that Verdonck puts on stage have also long exchanged their sweating bodies for shiny metal. Surprisingly enough, the sensory impact with the live performance is not as great as you'd imagine. For DANCER #2 Verdonck places a rumbling Alfa V6 engine in the spotlight that catches fire a few minutes later - a brutal metaphor for the climate crisis as a result of man's vain self-destructive instinct. DANCER #3 shows an exuberant solo of a jumping robot that is raised up by a pulley each time it falls. He charms everyone with his playfulness. However the anthropomorphic emotion (i.e. of a thing to which we assign human qualities) soon turns out to be the opposite: does this being ever stop jumping? Perhaps the possibility to genuinely fail (with death as the ultimate end) is still the only criterion that distinguishes man from the refined digital code.

This tension also permeates I/II/III/IIII, along with EXIT (2012), one of the thoroughbred dance productions in Verdonck's oeuvre, good for selection at Het Theaterfestival in 2007.

I/II/III/IIII is a merciless allegory of how man in his everyday life is disciplined by the machine. The body is the ultimate place in which this standardisation registers – even to the point of the body sacrificing itself and being sentenced to the role of extra. At the same time Verdonck displays the body as a possible site of resistance.

The title I/II/III/IIII refers to the four identical, anonymous dancers that carry this pas de quatre. Or, to be more specific: that are carried through it. The four are suspended from a rail with cables, obscured behind a gauze curtain and are thus invisible to the audience. During a lecture in the context of his retrospective in Z33 (Hasselt), Kris Verdonck explained that this 'instrument of torture' - as he significantly called it - largely determined the dancers' autonomy. Just as in the performance Heart (2004), in which a woman is smacked against a wall by a cable attached to her body every 500 heartbeats, Verdonck intensifies the difference between forced control and loss of control. The dancers are in fact pre-programmed to perform an extremely difficult, because it's highly controlled, synchronised choreography– first as a solo, then as a duo, trio and quartet – but it is the machinery that ultimately determines their movement space, rhythm and degree of interaction. As Daniëlle de Regt states in her text ‘Esthetica voor te ver gevorderden’ (Aesthetics for the too advanced) in Etcetera (2008) it is no coincidence that the choreography plays with the codes of romantic ballet, with its gracious pirouettes and floating jumps. Here the dream of the weightless body, expressed by the ballerina that reaches for height, symbolises man's desire to become God. But where man thought to have found his partner in crime in technology, it is precisely this that leads man to his downfall and restricts his freedom. Moreover technology is often used at the service of surveillance, as well as big business politics. Beneath the unearthly beauty of I/II/III/IIII also lurks a deep violence that explains the disquieting character of Verdonck's work. The dancers are like carcasses hanging from a meat hook, merely 'operational' beings that are no longer the subject of their beauty but unresisting objects, incarnate puppets as described by Heinrich von Kleist in his essay ‘Over het marionettentheater’ (About the puppet theatre) (1810). This essay, alongside the repertoire of Beckett, Heiner Müller and Daniil Charms, is one of Verdonck's main sources of reference related to the relationship between God, man and object. It is a simple step from tableau vivant to tableau mort at A Two Dogs Company.

I/II/III/IIII is a merciless allegory of how man in his everyday life is disciplined by the machine. The body is the ultimate place in which this standardisation registers – even to the point of the body sacrificing itself and being sentenced to the role of extra. At the same time Verdonck displays the body as a possible site of resistance. The more dancers that appear behind the gauze, the more cracks the refined image starts to reveal. The material weight of the dancers’ bodies, as a vital remains of a possible lost law of nature, means that one spins faster on her axis than the other. However hard they try, they remain four different individuals that can never perfectly coordinate a logical reproduction. It is precisely this humanity that surfaces now and again, which means that Verdonck's dystopias about the future never degenerate into resignation.

Reading tip: Marianne Van Kerkhoven and Anoek Nuyens. Listen to the bloody machine. Creating Kris Verdonck's END. International Theatre and Film Books Publishers & Utrecht School of the Arts, Amsterdam/Utrecht, 2012.

Author:
Charlotte De Somviele

Charlotte De Somviele is a teaching assistant on the Theatre and Film Science course (UA). She is a freelance writer about dance and theatre for publications such as De Standaard and is part of the editorial team of the Etcetera theatre publication.