„Instead of learning to live, we are learning to die” (Liner note on Broadside Ballads by Bob Dylan)
Unlike the Bob Dylan song quoted in the title, the performance Let Me Die In My Footsteps, choreographed by Brussels-based upcoming Brazilian artist Renan Martins de Oliveira, starts under extreme pressure, without sound.
We only hear harsh breaths, and immediately sense the compulsive energy of the four dancers, Soňa Ferienčíková, Karolína Hejnová, Martina Hajdyla Lacová and Benjamin Pohlig. They are pushing and pulling each other until their physical limits, grabbing the other where they find a spot to grab, almost drowning in need for touching and connecting. Whenever they happen to let go of one another, a mysterious force like a gigantic magnet pulls them together again. As if they could not exist without each other, like atoms of the same molecule or inseparable twins, their movements are synched in a suffocating dependance.
When the guitar starts playing (this time pre-recorded by Gašper Piano), reflecting the feeling of being on the edge, the tension rises even higher. As if gravity didn’t work in this space, one’s weight exists through the impact on the others. The connection stays even if they are separated into smaller groups, through vision and the attraction between the dancers, like an invisible elastic band connecting them. We can see on their strained faces the desire to let go and the effort to hold on at the same time, and for moments it is unclear which force is stronger. They are tormented by their desires and needs just like by the powerful forces of physics, attraction and repulsion.
The longer we are watching them, the more it feels as if not the dancers, but the space was swinging-moving, like being on a ship on the sea. A change of perception occurs, because the togetherness of the dancers seems to be the most stable and the strongest bond or entity in this room, even firmer than the walls of the theatre. How long can this go on? What could ever divide them?
But slowly the distances and the personal freedom starts growing, and parallel to this, the touches are becoming gentle like caresses. There is a sudden softness contradicting the fierce pressure, even the music goes fluid and airy, instead of the staccato electric guitar. The dancers become more and more organized and start to move to the same rhythm, following each other’s steps, marching like a train or a centipede. The arms are hugging instead of grabbing each other, and for once, there is no need to push and pull, they all want to share the same movement.
The steps are getting wider, and they are slowly letting go of each other. The music goes off. There is a still point, where we see a different quality of togetherness, a new-found unity. Or is it rather conformity? An order, that emerges from giving up on their individual desires and drives? Is it the result of exhaustion, or is it a conscious, rational compromise, after figuring out that co-operation can indeed work better than chaotic anarchy? But suddenly the stage goes dark. Is this the end of the performance? For me, it could have been. I have felt satiated by what I have seen so far, the path and progress the dancers went through – taking a lot of risks by physically hurting themselves, ending up torn and wounded – was so intense that a relief was very welcome.
Still, like a surprise twist, the dancers go into the back corner of the stage, sit down and take their shoes off. The guitar melody gets distorted, and we see a familiar but broken relationship between the four. It is clearly not the same as before, like old friends meeting and missing ‘the social glue’ that held them together. What could have changed? Could the bare feet be a metaphor for returning to a natural state, the release of social pressure and customs?
The music starts playing again, but this time more melodic, while the bodies are slowly sticking together again. The movement is slow, poetic, gentle and fluid, speeding up by every minute. But the game is getting rougher and wilder, the extreme stimuli are overwhelming the senses. The dancers are already shouting and laughing euphorically, while they are lifting each other swiftly, hardly touching ground, almost like flying.
This might be the utopia, the ideal state they had been striving for, where every person (up)lifts and carefully watches out for the other, making the daring movements less risky by sharing the responsibility and each other’s weight. Even though we have already experienced a unity, a willfully shared community when they were walking together, joining the same rhythm and the same direction, now we see that there could be another, even more rewarding quality of togetherness, which is of mutual benefit, while each person still retains the individual freedom of movement.
Whilst this is rather an optimistic ideal future, it is open whether the present (the world we know) is ‘the unison with no fun at all’ or the constant pulling-pushing into different directions, still not having the strength or the self-consciousness to let go of each other. Either way, both states have a system-creating power, an underlying organizing principle in them, as it is a basic human need to find harmony, integrity, our place in the world. It is strongly a matter of development of individual consciousness vs. society’s structures, even the level of democracy, which way we are heading.
If the first part of the performance was ‘the way we are learning to die’, slowly giving up on our ideas, dreams and hopes, blending into the crowd, the latter could be ‘the way we may learn to live’. Here’s hoping we could. And for this, we don’t need to start over and remake the world, we only have to start the change within ourselves, just as we saw from these four wonderful dancers.