Jana Unmüßig – HAUS

I had planned to see only a couple of performances in Tanztage, I thought perhaps one a night over a few days with Sunday off would be plenty. Then I found that each performance was a double bill. Lucky for me then, that the performance I wanted to see, Hermann Heisig’s Themselves already Hop! was preceeded by Jana Unmüßig’s HAUS, which, barely a week into the year will have to be met by an avalanche of superb performances in the coming months not to make it to my 2010 theatre list.

The Sophiensaele Festsaal is in itself a beautiful decrepit venue, high ceiling with peeling paint and rust-tainted girders, vast windows along both sides and the circle above, stripped for the most part of its floor retains only the metal and rivet skeleton of the balcony railings and arches behind. Quite a perfect setting for one of the most minimal, intellectual and considered performances I’ve seen.

Yes, I though HAUS was brilliant, even with its flaws, and had some debate afterwards with Jakob, wanting entertainment and Dy, who I think was nearly as taken as I. As with Clint’s Get a Leg Up, Jana has compiled this piece chronologically from three previous works. She quotes Walter Benjamin in the programme notes:

„Die Geschichte stammt aus China und erzählt von einem alten Maler, der den Freunden sein neuestes Bild zu sehen gab. Ein Park war darauf dargestellt, ein schmaler Weg am Wasser und durch einen Baumschlag hin, der lief vor einer kleinen Tür aus, die hinten in ein Häuschen Einlass bot. Wie sich die Freunde aber nach dem Maler umsahen, war der fort und in dem Bild. Da wandelte er auf dem schmalen Weg zur Tür, stand vor ihr still, kehrte sich um, lächelte und verschwand im Spalt.“

Walter Benjamin

A first sign of conceptual minimalism on arriving, the seven (and then later I discover an eighth) dancers in muted clothes, almost could be rehearsal gear, but with enough attention to detail to obviously not be thrown together, some standing, some sitting, by the walls on either side, or closer in, at the back. They wait, very still and patient. Silence.

For the fifty minutes not a sound of music. Once, one of the dancers makes a sound twice, like, “Uh”. I think. It could have been from elsewhere. Much later, almost at the end, another sound, like someone rattling chopsticks in a large glass of water. Maybe it wasn’t there. In-between only the sound of dancers, their clothes, their bodies moving on the floor, walking, occasionally louder in the rare moments of momentum, and because of the state of dance reduced to first instances, beginnings and then finishing, the silence was enormous.

(I am sorely tempted to unleash a diatribe against those in the audience who could not refrain from coughing, hacking, shuffling and otherwise showing their inability to remain attentive for a mere fifty minutes, as well as damaged the opening minutes, instead I will suggest that using a handkerchief or the crook of your elbow (“Dracula Sneeze” did win ‘Most Creative’ word for 2009), does muffle and render far less audible your tuberculotic outbursts.)

This is not a performance that lends itself to a linear, temporal description. Nothing much happened, yet it happened so fast and continuously that I felt I missed half the work every time I looked down to scribble another note. After the microscopic beginning, fingers and wrists twitching, puzzled looks (or perhaps exceedingly concentrated directing of gaze), a leg is thrown. On the left side of the stage one stands, another sits for perhaps half the performance, not once moving. The same over the other side.

Three walk in a circle, jump a little, two arrange one so they can be lifted onto one of their shoulders, a moment of classic contact improvisation. That’s all. It stops. No continuity. Not contact impro. They look at each other. Some laughter from the audience. I wonder if this is nervousness rather than appreciation of perceived comic value. One staggers around, falls to the floor, inelegance and undancerly, yet also becoming of that of a dancer, beautiful.

With the other four performances I’ve seen in the last two days, this one for me will remain special. In the discussion after, a woman asks of Jana and Hermann Heisig, why do they refuse to dance? Jana answers that she sees her work absolutely as dance, and this is rather a question of the definition of dance and the location of its frontiers.

I have been reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others whenever I find myself staying with Gala. She discusses the nature of photography in depicting atrocity. What is important in this is the veracity, naturalness and unartificiality that the camera confers upon that which it documents. In this, she describes how the fascination with these qualities affords an amateurism unavailable in other artistic mediums. Paraphrasing, she says unlike becoming a painter or musician, which takes years of training, anyone can pick up a camera and become an artist, a photographer with their first shot, that this apparent guilelessness of the genuine causes professionalism, training and artistry in the medium to be denigrated.

Thinking upon this in regard to bodies in dance performing, there are, I would suggest, similar tendencies. One is away from or antipathy towards technique and training, that the over-trained body is held in lower esteem than that of the ‘natural’, non-dancer. Another is a choreography consciously distancing itself from technique, again with attention paid to similar qualities. (Still another might be regarding the relationship of dancers with a high level of proficiency and training to the idea of ‘genuine’ movement as it might emanate from a specific, individual body.) That both of these might combine into dance that may seem to be made from people coming from any discipline but dance is perhaps of less importance than the often overly self-conscious avoidance of considering what more might be done in dance while pointedly coming from within the history of the artform.

Or perhaps to say what I find quite entrancing in HAUS was this extremely considered attention to dance and choreography in and of itself.

Two dancers with legs spread hang over, fingers on the floor propping them up and when released their torsos make small oscillations, bouncing with an uncanny precision and unity. Later all eight break the rhythm walking across the stage, rearranging themselves, at times I think of Trisha Brown. Often I find it mesmerising. It seems to be the beginnings of movement, though not an itinerary or listing of movements, but rather the set from which all possible movements can be extrapolated. Jana says later that it starts out with a lot of material, trying different relations, but then crystalises very fast. She also says it concentrates on working in the present tense, watching people watching you. And the rehearsal is as devoid of music as the performance.

Dy says perhaps it is painful, to rehearse, to perform, to watch, occasionally boring also, though possibly to venture into such territory is the point. Forsythe describes watching rain hit a window, it is something fascinating and either you get it or you don’t. I wonder about the unconsidered aspects of such a work, that it comes from its own particular milieu and within that what is taken for granted. What, for example, might the work look like if performed in the costumes of Hermann’s Themselves Already Hop!, yet pointedly without making the clothing mean something, as the neutrality of their dress infers? Dy asks her if she would exchange costuming, Jana laughs and says yes.

Making events, movement and gestures visible lies at the core of my work as a choreographer. I observe, look and sketch like a painter paints scenes; then I work on these first drafts, to hone, add detail and paint over anything that seems irrelevant. The appearance and disappearance of the perceptible and visible is held together by a thought in movement. It is a thought in movement that comes from me and is therefore unique and subjective. And at the same time, it operates on the level of the disappearance of that individual view. This is because I move in a similar way to the way described in the text by Walter Benjamin in my piece, like the painter who strolls “along the narrow path to towards the door” to disappear through its crack.

Jana Unmüßig