Katarzyna Bester on the latest edition of the BalletOFFFestival!

Katarzyna Bester on the latest edition of the BalletOFFFestival!

We encourage you to read Katarzyna Bester’s text summing up the fifth edition of the BalletOFFFestival.

Katarzyna Bester
Guest Performance Curator

Entering the liminal or performative situation requires,
among other things, discipline and concentration, a clearly defined goal,
or perhaps the negation of all goals and a surrender
of inner self to become something else.                                                                                                                                             Marvin Carlson*

Performative processes are largely the result of evolution and the need for adaptation. There is no development without progress and progress usually involves change. Radical change is a transformation. A transformation is rather a metamorphosis, actual transition from one form to another, from one condition to a different one or even a change from one ontological status into a new one. The process of transformation is accompanied by a moment of particular excitement provoked by the awareness of the momentousness and uniqueness of the given event, entering new, still undiscovered areas. The sense of transition combined with the celebratory air of the festival period built up the atmosphere of the fifth edition of the BalletOFFFestival. With the jubilee edition, the event expanded its area of activity primarily by introducing guest performances by outstanding foreign and Polish artists, but also by intensifying the international aspect of the residencies, which have formed the framework of the programme to date.    

The fifth edition of the BalletOFFFestival was entitled TRANSFORMATIONS and the presented works raised the topic on a number of planes, using various means of expression.

When dancing, the performer often faces the issue of reinventing their body, using it to create malleable matter ready for immediate reaction.  One of the residency premieres talks about it in a literal manner, treating transformation as a change of the ontological status, an almost alchemical metamorphosis. In a joint choreography called “impenetrable silver”, a group of residents use the noble transition metal as matter supposed to trigger a transformation. In physical contact, in putting it on the body, in immersing in it, what is human – pure silver – is to become reinvented, to emerge.

What triggers change? Mechanical means, stimuli, such as physical contact or sound. In Iwona Olszowska and Ferenc Fehér’s work, everything starts with a sock which – thrown as if in a game of tag – activates the dancers’ inner selves and individual movements. Later, however, items of clothing or the trance beat not only trigger change, but also hold the group together, they create a moving mass which evolves together, almost like a herd, as animal rituals and primaeval tribal motifs are typical of the Hungarian artist’s work. In “Trans_Miss(i)on”, the dancers (including Marta Wołowiec and Monika Świeca – two dancers from the Kraków Choreographic Centre) are sent into a trance by the beat, which functions like a drum used by primitive tribes, but also by the rhythm of breaths and finally, by an item, for instance a playful graphic T-shirt with a space print. The assumption behind it activates the physics of the outer space both within and beyond the body. This state is crowned by an evolutionary process, which in the Around Centre Group’s (Grupa Wokół Centrum) performance progresses along an evolution axis, transitioning from one phase into another in a road metaphor until it integrates with the intergalactic universe.

Change is also triggered by the other, the culturally alien. In “Black is the colour”, the point of a culture clash is the subject of death and funerals, which function completely differently in the Asian and European contexts. The Vietnamese choreographer starts with a farewell ritual, combining various ways of understanding the phenomenon, fundamental to man, in an interesting manner in terms of stage design and costumes. On the one hand, therefore, dancers enter the stage dressed in black suits, yet underneath, close to their bodies, they are wearing colourful costumes. This is to emphasise this most visual difference, i.e. the Christian colour of mourning, black, and the white of a Buddhist ceremony. The women keep a vigil around the body/grave, expressed by a multifunctional metal mesh in the performance, just like members of a Vietnamese family do for three days, yet they are wearing high heels, which may suggest that they are leaning over a European body, maybe a woman’s body, maybe their own. Quan Bui Ngoc’s performance is, in fact, a study of femininity, an attempt at creating, arranging a situation of liberation for it. As the artists themselves said during the post-performance conversation, it is primarily about liberating/“taming” the topic of death. Giving it texture and colour, treating black simply as one of the colours in the palette. Music, or rather the sounds generated by Peter Lyczkowski, lead them, yet don’t assist them, in their attempts to find themselves, their movement and individual acceptance of the inevitable state of eternal rest. The musician’s status on stage is autonomous. Using fanciful instruments and samplers, he dialogues with the four Polish dancers, stimulating the phases of their transformation. 

In the context of interculturalism, the artists making up the international iCoDaCo collective went in a slightly different direction. The premiere of “it will come later”, prepared over many months, was created in the team’s usual system involving series of two-week residencies in the countries of each of the artists taking part in the project. This time, they included Hong Kong, Wales, Sweden, Hungary, and Poland. In this case, the intercultural strategy was based on the concept of an extraterritorial meeting rather than the idea of exchanging cultural experiences. This unmarked area, universal in its qualities for each member of the international group, was the area of the laws of physics applicable in our space-time continuum. The activity of overriding importance was that based on pushing, supporting, and balancing the intertwined bodies, which moved within a rectangle outlined by the audience. This purely physical activity was, however, accompanied at times by very intimate contact, and the strength and concentration that each of the performers put into this seemingly simple activity added a sense of drama to this peculiar fight for survival. Yet survival should also be understood purely physically here, as proper position or arrangement and the stamina to hold the position in a structure of intertwined bodies. Although many more interpretations suggested themselves, generated by the spectacular “wall” rotating in the middle, as the creators stressed, it was not their intention to go beyond the objectivity of human motor activity.    

Such concept of building movement should also be treated as a methodological key to reading the performance, which is in constant process and in which the dancers do not fix their movements, but surrender to the effect of objective factors such as the physical laws governing the body and its surroundings, which in the situation of the presentation are subjective at the same time. Treated in such conceptual manner, community is therefore formed anew and a little differently each time, which seems to be a fascinating aspect of this performance.

In general, the process of transformation seems to be fundamental to the idea of residencies as such. They involve arranging a meeting and providing a space where artists may surpass each other as a result of joint creation, which is often an exercise in the art of negotiation and compromise. The creative, but also rather difficult power of mutual friction was mentioned both by choreographic duets and interdisciplinary groups of artists. Anticipation of the results is always accompanied by excitement, and on the part of the organisers – a sense of responsibility for the final work of art, the festival “child” in a way J. Exactly five of them were “born” in the fifth, jubilee edition of the BalletOFFFestival.

Basia Bujakowska’s project undermines and transforms the very definition of contemporary dance, heading decidedly in the performative direction. The performance emphasises once again that physicality on stage is not about pretty gestures and beautiful figures. It seems obvious today, but Bujakowska goes even further, claiming that she is no longer interested in choreographic exploration. What does the Kraków artist bring instead in the second part of her project entitled “I am love” (Jestem miłością II)? She creates a mature analysis of our, also very much Polish, characteristic of being stuck in clichés, the most hackneyed subject of all time. The artist is not disgusted by any form and uses a broad range of means, from cabaret and karaoke to video clip aesthetics. Loops, camp gags, and fantastic videos lead, however, to a nihilistic and rather Gombrowiczesque conclusion that we are trapped in a spell of form produced by our own or other people’s notions. The unfunny truth that Bujakowska exposes, having a thoroughly good time, is that…:  there is no truth or authenticity, no matter how we understand it, neither on stage, which is an artificial convention in itself, nor beyond it, because in everyday life, our bodies are subject to the regime of cultural and pop icons. Thus the transformation mentioned by Bujakowska involves regression rather than evolution. It is a metamorphosis of the body’s biology into a plastic cast.

The issue of change imposed on our minds and bodies by popular culture and public discourse is also raised by Magda Jędra’s performance, “Kingdom” (Królestwo). Active presence in the virtual world immobilises our actual body stuck in front of the computer and as a result of immersive mechanics, it gives the biological body the motility of digital avatars. Magda Jędra’s and Iza Szostak’s “blind eyes”, with the effect produced through the use of contact lenses in combination with movements reminiscent of computer game characters, give the impression of a deep transformation of the performers’ bodies. Jędra and Szostak’s kingdom is a post-apocalyptic world of mutant people and animals. Other than Bujakowska, the artists make an attempt to leave the artificial form, to emerge, to express themselves. The dramatic attempts to utter a sound/word by Szostak, leading to complete exhaustion, make up the piercing image of an inability to release the inner self, an inexplicable block in the transformation process.     

The issue of the influence of media imagination, including pornographic imagination, on the development of the image of women and its cultural role is raised by Fernando Belfiore in his performance/show. “D3US/X\M4CHIN4” is a provocation directed at the imagination of the spectators – women’s conception of women, men’s conception of women, women’s conception of men’s conception of women… machine humans’ conception of human machines. The performance involves both a very evocative confrontation with the audience and a play on the aesthetics of American superhero movies. Belfiore dangerously verges on the kitsch and cheap obscenities, but perfectly balances the means, embarrassing then scandalising the spectator. The provocation gives rise to the most important questions for the performance: who objectifies these four lascivious women? The choreographer making them into toys equivalent to household appliances and construction tools that fill up the stage? Us, the spectators, in the recesses of our speculations and notions? Or maybe it is the other way round and we are the victims of the sexist gestures and images used consciously and deliberately by the performers. Beneath this shell of stereotypes and cultural roles, however, there is an individual body and a woman/human who dreams, feels, and yearns… for her true self.

The spectator is also the initiator or even the decision-maker introducing changes and directing the course of the interactive performance by the Czech group of Petra Tejnorová and Jaro Viňarský. In the small hall of the Ludowy Theatre’s Stolarnia Stage, the artists played a game of word ambiguity and term ambivalence with us. In a charming way, they mocked the theme of this edition of the festival, personifying emotions by attaching pieces of paper with their names to themselves. They arranged activities which engaged the audience, giving it the right to choose and decide how they should proceed. They managed the difficult task of blurring the line between the presenter and the onlooker and by establishing a new creative community here and now, they gave the audience a sense of “You Are Here” to take action.

During the festival, meetings took place not only in the situation of presentations, but also beyond the stage. Regular insightful conversations with the audience play a role which is no less crucial than the performances themselves. For the artists, they mostly constitute a moment of transition in itself, as they rarely like to talk about their activities. However, particularly in the context of this edition, the opportunity to face the audience, also coming from a different culture, seems invaluable. The chance to share the experience and share experiences constitutes one of the most significant bonds bringing together the community which forms as part of the festival. This also seems to be one of the most important tasks of the festival as a public event leading to individual change or at least some consideration through a communal experience. From the anthropological point of view, transformation as a liminal event has always been communal in nature within tribal communities, involving possession cults and metamorphoses in shamanistic rituals. It is also an exploration of supernatural states. In the case of Fehér and Olszowska, it is the change in motor activity caused by the movement of bodies in the physical conditions of the outer space. The states explored by Jefta van Dinther, in turn, were called simply transcendental by one of the spectators. The extremely accurate reference to the name of Stanislav Grof and his concept from the field of transpersonal psychology as an interpretive key during the post-performance discussion will surely remain in both mine and the creators’ memories.

“Dark Field Analysis” is an experience rather than just a performance. Two brilliant dancers, Juan Pablo Camara and Roger Sala Reyner, completely naked and surrounded by the audience, “serve” and expose their bodies, and before our very eyes, in the atmosphere of incredible intimacy, they travel deep into themselves, into each other, ultimately going beyond individual consciousness and physicality. All this is based on the unique movement of the Swedish/Dutch choreographer, which in this work – recognised by the critics as his best – is also the result of a distinct evolution, defining a new quality in his choreographic explorations. Van Dinther’s movement language is “dirty”, drawing on subculture iconographies and street aesthetics. At the same time, it is extremely organic, also animalistic. In his most recent work, the artist goes even further though, towards a scientific, biological close-up on the body’s physiological functions, watching a single blood cell under the microscope. The objectivity of science, in this case in a rather alternative form, as this is how the title dark field analysis method is perceived by biologists, is juxtaposed by him with an extremely personal perspective. The method once saved his life. As it turns out, it was used by a person close to his heart.

Jefta uses all kinds of forms of stimulating transformation. He starts with words, uttered continually by the dancers, which finally turn into sounds, and then into a song, sang in tune and incredibly well by the performers themselves during extreme physical effort, which amazed the audience. So Jefta refers to something very old, however it may sound, to community in musicality and to the musicality of the body. And just like Grotowski (yes, I have to mention his name here), he makes it a trampoline for a physical and mental transformation. However, it is the physical contact, the glances, the rubbing and touching that matters most. The other as a brother, the other as a threat, and finally, the other as a ladder I use to climb to another world. The beauty of the performance is hypnotising, yet elusive at the same time. The events and images penetrate the skin as if flowing straight into the blood, mixing with it, and mutating it irreversibly.

After Jefta’s performance, we do not want to leave, do not want to end it, just like we did not want to close the fifth edition of the festival. It might have been short, but it was very intense, and above all very fruitful. The recognition that the programme gained among experts proves that the festival is heading in the right direction of development. The fantastic atmosphere and creative results of the residency work show that the festival constitutes a comfortable place for the artists to meet and create. These wonderful moments become etched in the memory, and captured in Katarzyna Machniewicz’s amazing photographs, they will come back to us next year, just like the memories of the previous editions of the festival are coming back now in her photographs making up the “Intermediate States” exhibition.

When the existing reality transforms into a new one, still intangible,
undetermined, but already sensed;
when the old fades away, but is still present in the afterimage,
still echoes with shape, picture, motion or word;
when its only through implementation that the new can take its place
in the present there appear
the intermediate states.
Unhurried or instantaneous.
Unwanted or desired.
Slipping away, never (not) to return

Katarzyna Machniewicz
text for the “Intermediate States” exhibition

*Carlson, Marvin (1996). Performance. A Critical Introduction, London, New York: Routledge.