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Karolien Verlinden/Tuning People

For choreographer Karolien Verlinden, everything starts with reality. Not with the epic, grandest gestures, but in subtle daily movement: how people walk, how they sit on a bench, what their body language betrays about how they interact with each other. Verlinden (°1981) has something to say about this human movement idiom, although this never results in productions-with-a-story. Rather than simply showing reality itself, she examines how she in her dance language can get as far as possible from that recognisable basic material, how she can distort or abstract these everyday movements so that they reveal a new, different reality – a reality that is a bit crazy.

During her training years it became cleare that she would not follow the path of pure dance, but that she wanted to develop a dance idiom that would also express something else outside itself, in a way that is accessible to many people.

Verlinden’s vocabulary is difficult to put in a box. Trained at the CODARTS University of the Arts in Rotterdam, she has a strong dance-technical background. But it also became clear during her training years that she would not follow the path of pure dance, but that she wanted to develop a dance idiom that would also express something else outside itself, in a way that is accessible to many people. The encounter with sound artist Wannes Deneer and director Jef Van Gestel resulted in 2005 in the establishment of the collective Tuning People, and in productions in which sound, theatre and dance reinforce one another, in varying proportions, but always in conversation with each other.

So, ‘dance theatre’? ‘Visual’ dance? Or ‘sound dance’? There is something to be said for all three. Verlinden acknowledges Pina Bausch and Jonathan Burrows (and his work with Matteo Fargion) as a source of inspiration, but the names of visual artists such as filmmaker Jacques Tati or photographer Erwin Wurm are also mentioned. The liaison between movement and sound is also a lasting fascination. The first collaboration between the Tuners developed around a ‘sound suit’ (Tuning People#1, 2005) in which the soundtrack is created by the movements of Verlinden via electronics attached to the body. The mix of theatre, dance, sound and visual art takes form for the first time in the production Tape voor kleuters [Tape for toddlers] (2011), in which the play of children becomes the occasion for a colourful, associative performance for children four and older. The observation of daily reality (a child’s play) is distorted by the Tuners and enlarged on the stage into a joyfully absurd universe. 

With a mass of tape (waste obtained from a tape factory), different worlds are pasted together and just as easily crumpled up into a ball of plastic – they are ‘fluid’, like the fantasy of children. From the beginning the two boys (Van Gestel and Deneer) create a web full of obstacles for the dancer (Verlinden) who tries to enter through a door, a typical element of slapstick. A bit later, the web turns out to be a forest. The three characters are initially dressed in sleek grey, white and black, with austere fake moustaches, but the arrival of a blue ‘tadpole figure’ – a typical figure drawn by children with only head and limbs – will bring about the evolution to an explosion of colour and light.

In the collaborations within Tuning People, it is obvious that a balance must be sought between the desires of each maker; that concessions must therefore be made. In order to be able to develop more freely in their ‘own’ discipline, Deneer, Van Gestel and Verlinden also regularly create outside the collective, although for Verlinden the use of sound as an alienating element seems to be a standard feature. In dUb (2015) for example, the young performers dance in stocking feet, but using sound dubbing, the suggestion of different spaces is aroused: you hear the sound of footsteps on gravel, in the snow, in puddles.

The starting point is simple theatrical situations: the dancers appear with objects (a coat rack, a briefcase), they roll out a carpet, they vacuum … But the way they move about the stage, their manner of walking, becomes more and more formatted, more abstract and absurd. In addition, these silly walks are named (‘step-step-jump’) by a voice-over, as a result of which the words gradually form a chanted soundtrack. To the beat that emerges, the individual movements of the performers gradually become collective, creating a pulsating group dance.

Verlinden’s poetics are clearly visible in dUb. The starting point is the desire to break certain fixed expectations on the part of the audience, to point out the ingrained nature of certain routines. What happens when this reality does not behave as expected? When you blindly walk to work each day, and one day a wall appears in your path? Breaking through a certain pattern of movement is abstracted by Verlinden into a dance idiom and then placed again in a recognisable context, resulting in a disruptive effect. Think of the animated movement pattern of footballers or basketball players, and then take their ball away.

This shift from realism to absurdism is more than an aesthetic decision.  There is also an ideological undertone, rooted in Verlinden’s interest in sociology. The behaviour and expectations people have with respect to each other, but also uncovering the way in which these expectations allow themselves to be manipulated, creates a slightly subversive touch in her work. By confronting an audience with the self-evidence of certain patterns of thinking and acting, Verlinden calls these patterns into question – like the seemingly innocent misunderstandings in the films of Jacques Tati punctuate the illusion of an always smooth running society.

It’s not just about patterns in motion – as in dUB – but also patterns in fixed ideas or prejudices, as in Synchroon [In sync] (2017).

Three uniformly dressed performers walk confidently on a treadmill. All have a neutral facial expression and seem to want to move simultaneously – a desire that is doomed to failure. Despite their fierce attempt at equality, different ‘types’ of bodies remain manifest in the perception of the viewer: a coloured body, a female body, ... A voice-over asks questions of the audience: ‘Who is single?’ ‘Who likes men?’ ‘Who has not brushed his teeth?’ Each spectator answers these questions for him or herself, based on their prejudices about the bodies they see moving in front of them.

It is telling that Verlinden likes to work with non-professional dancers. In dUB this is a group of unskilled young people, in Synchroon two dancers and one actor are on stage. After all, the aim of the choreographer is never to create a technically perfect dance, because Verlinden’s attention is precisely focused on the imperfect, the deviant, that which is not virtuoso.

In the acceleration of the tempo and the treadmill, the bodies become increasingly different from each other, with small accentuated differences, until they finally end up naked – distinctly different and at the same time very vulnerable. To the questions asked from the beginning come surprising answers. As a result, Synchroon is also a choreography of a psychological process in which each spectator sees his or her unconscious prejudices debunked.

It is telling that Verlinden likes to work with non-professional dancers. In dUB this is a group of unskilled young people, in Synchroon two dancers and one actor are on stage. After all, the aim of the choreographer is never to create a technically perfect dance, because Verlinden’s attention is precisely focused on the imperfect, the deviant, that which is not virtuoso. As a teacher at the Maastricht Academy of Dramatic Arts, she teaches actors who, in her own words, inspire her because their physical language is often based on awkwardness, on lack of control, where skilled dancers with impeccable control can hardly surprise her. Behind the clumsy is hidden great beauty – the spirit of Tati again lurks around the corner.

The preference for the spontaneous freshness of non-professional dancers yields possibilities, but also limitations – not every imagined dance phrase can be realised. The same tension between freedom and limitation occurs in the choice of Tuning People to regularly create productions for children. The gaze of such a young audience is open and without narrative coercion, but a production for preschoolers, for example, inevitably clashes against substantive and practical boundaries. For the Tuners, however, the ‘target group’ is never a given; it presents itself in the process of the creation. Thus first there was the fascination with the colour, the texture, the sound of a piece of tape – only in the second instance the idea to use that material in a production for preschoolers. At the same time, Verlinden also has a socially inspired desire to bring a young audience into contact with an accessible form of contemporary dance. After all, the children of today are tomorrow’s potential dance audience.

Anyone surveying the career of Karolien Verlinden will discover in all aspects of her work an organic combination of artistic choices and social sensitivity. In this sense, there is an immense logic in the way her dance language has evolved since 2005. From the austerity of ‘pure’ dance during her education she made the leap to an especially theatrically coloured idiom in which the choreography served the drama (Tape voor kleuters, Pitsers, Halve Mens, …), to return to a more autonomous form of dance that, unlike the first years, is now used as the key to a recognisable ‘drama’: breaking through routines in dUB, challenging prejudices in Synchroon.

The overarching idea that spans all this form development has remained fairly stable: the notion that there are several realities within the one visible reality, that within reality, with its sometimes suffocating normality, there remains a treasure of undiscovered, imaginative worlds.

Author:
Evelyne Coussens

Evelyne Coussens writes as a freelance cultural journalist for the newspaper De Morgen and various cultural media, such as rekto:verso, Etcetera and Staalkaart. She teaches cultural theory and policy at the Artevelde University College Ghent and a practical course on art criticism.