JENNIFER M. SCHAFFER
The show happens every hour, on the hour, on any given street in Amsterdam. The performance is four-fifths dance, one-fifth circus. The ‘dancers’ are diverse, from the very young to the very old, but the expression they wear is near-uniform: a casual sort of focus, an ease incongruous with the task at hand. The music is experimental, arrhythmic, and loud; the stage is near-symmetrical but unbalanced. The audience, half-stunned, half-scared, tries mostly not to get killed. The dance that happens on the streets of Amsterdam throughout the day moves past junkies and street performers and the red-lit windows of prostitutes, past the sweet fading odor of the ‘koffiehuis’ and over the bumped bridges of the canals. The artists’ only props are their bicycles. But even for the dullest-faced Dutchman, coasting on his familiar daily path, the act of bicycling through the streets of Amsterdam is an art, replete with its own unspoken choreography, music, and philosophy. “What tips do you give tourists who begin to bike around Amsterdam?” this reviewer asked the front-desk man at a local bike rental shop, who only laughed, “Pay attention.” Perhaps this is the only formal instruction the Amsterdam bicyclist need receive. The rest, it seems, is a practiced improvisation.
Underscoring every performance is a beat. For the bicylists of Amsterdam, that beat is the sound of the streets. The light-up crosswalk signs in Amsterdam make sounds like the click-cluck of wooden clogs, faster when the pedestrians should be walking and slower when they should be standing still at the curb. This, paradoxically, means that the metronomes of Amsterdam beat faster when its dancers - the bicyclists - are stalled and waiting, and thump slower when they soar fast down the street. The result of this inverse relationship between the tempo of the music and the speed of the performers is tension, the fast beat evoking impatience, the slow beat offering a weak counterpoint to the speed of the performers. Over the crosswalk sounds the cityscape drones on in a dozen languages. The canals cannot be heard from the streets; the wheels of the bicycles pass quietly on. The music of the dance of the bicyclists never crescendos, denying the bicyclists one element they lack: drama.
Their faces are, after all, still, in spite of the clear gravity of their motions. Men and women place babies on the handlebars of their bikes – an absurd act, akin to strapping a baby on the hood of a car – and young men share bike seats with one or two more boys. While the individual dancers appear to give varying degrees of thought to the costume they don in the morning, the uniform seems casual but “smart,” button-down shirts and loafers prevail. The performers do not smile, they do not wear jazz faces or wave jazz hands, instead they hold their chins still and lifted as if in a ballet. Their expressions are simultaneously cold, concentrated, and reckless. The dance of the bicyclists has a strong current of nihilism flowing beneath it, as the bicyclists pass by without protective gear. The “audience” of pedestrians carry an awareness of the performance’s inherent danger for its performers – and those performers’ apparent disregard for death – gave this reviewer chills.
The choreography appears to have come together without great forethought – the dancers know well enough how to interact with each other but the pedestrian interlopers, on their feet, pass awkwardly across the stage and are made to feel as intruders. Watching the dance of the bicyclists of Amsterdam, this reviewer saw the ruthless current of nature riffed on by many other, more traditional forms of art. The single bicyclist stalled at a red light holds her body like a dancer holds a pose, with the kind of ‘pregnant’ stillness that marks masterful silence. As soon as she needs to begin again, she does so smoothly, one foot pressing down and the other rising up, her movements refined by hours, years of practice.
One has little time for appreciation of the backdrop during the dance of the bicyclists. The backdrop is, in its shining canals and brick walls and patent prettiness, a hazardous distraction for which the audience has little time and the performers have even less. The focus is the motion, the straight lines of the bicyclists aligning in parallel or perpendicular to the buildings, never at any angle but a crisp multiple of 90. From afar, at the moments in the choreography when the dancers are more sparse, the backdrop of the blue construction walls near Centraal Station or the low safeguards of the canal bridges work to frame the geometry of the bicyclist: two perfect circles, four or five straight lines, a curved spine and an uncovered head. But for the most part the stage is secondary to the action; the bike lanes run through the middle of the streets, turning Amsterdam’s buildings and inhabitants into a maze for the performers to navigate, streams of trams and tourists that remain predictable for the most part, save the odd wandering teen on her iPhone or the freshly-arrived visitor unaware of where he should be standing. These are the elements of chaos which disrupt the modicum of order that the bicyclists have agreed upon. The chaos inserts spikes of fear into the performance, which is, after all, one of life or death.
Dancers, in this reviewer’s opinion, are the most disciplined of artists; the body is their medium, and so every moment of the day is spent with their instrument, in their instrument. The canvas cannot be escaped. In the most powerful of dance performances, the audience may leave feeling as though the dancers could not exist outside that singular performance which seemed so convincingly to swallow its performers whole. After an hour spent attentively watching a show which at the same time it threatens its dancer’s life truly is its dancer’s life, this reviewer left relieved, impressed, and disturbed. If we judge a work of art based on the meeting of its artist’s goals, then the bike ride that brings a single biker to his morning coffee, to his job, or to his bed is successful, with aesthetic pleasure and a reawakening of the unintended viewer’s sense of mortality as a mere but nonetheless welcome afterthought. But if we judge the dance of Amsterdam’s bicyclists by another standard, if we place the aesthetic before the practical, our pleasure before their ‘purpose,’ another verdict results, one which sees in the crude, fast performance something crooked, something off -- a fast ballet laced with hubris or nihilism or some fatal combination of both.