Monday, July 11, 2016

The Weirdest Thing I've Ever Seen

The Weirdest Thing I’ve Ever Seen: A Review of "7 pleasures"

“It’s NOT a sex show. It’s not.”

“...but, it’s a show about sex. How is it not a sex show?”

7 pleasures is a 100 minute dance performance hosted by Julidans, an eleven-day dance festival in Amsterdam featuring young dancers and artists on the verge of international breakthrough. This particular dance is the second performance in the festival from choreographer Mette Ingvartsen, a Danish dancer and choreographer who focuses on the pleasures and power of sexuality. Her first piece, “69 positions,” features Ingvartsen as the solo performer, wandering through the audience and using her body as a platform for sexual commentary and experimentation. In direct succession, 7 pleasures continues these themes with multiple dancers constituting the same sort of platform. The performance is intriguing, creative, tense, and by far, the weirdest thing I have ever seen. However, the most successful aspect of this performance is the relatability inherent in the breadth of Ingvartsen’s choreography, while evoking a multiplicity of interpretations and reactions within each of her audience members. While Ingvartsen titles her performance 7 pleasures, the dance very lucidly illustrates both the beauty and tenderness, and the darker, dangerous aspects of human sexuality.

The set of 7 pleasures
Ingvartsen’s performance sequentially traces through seven areas of human nudity, interaction, and sexual motion, slowly building in intensity, and running the gamut of personal sexual tastes. Her audience enters the black box theater, noticing first the physical set on stage: a random assortment of seemingly normal household items: a table, a sofa, a potted plant. Searching for their seats, the audience experiences a pumping, almost tribal rhythm blasting from speakers placed strategically around the theater. The effect is that of a dance club -- the audience secretly eyeing one another, bopping their heads to the music, and feeling the growing anticipation and electricity of the pending performance. What the hell are we about to see? As the music builds in volume and frequency of beats, the audience notices a muscular female, sitting in the center of the front row, completely bare-backed. Then, a male sitting a few rows back stands up and begins to peel off his shirt, while another female to his right stands up and does the same. Then their pants, and their underwear slowly drop to the floor as the audience is electrified with the absurdity of what is happening. Slowly, twelve naked dancers appear. At first, their nudity is shocking, inappropriate, and uncomfortable. Do they not know they are naked? That we can see them? That they are on stage? They meet in the far left corner of the stage, collapsing their bodies into one unified puddle of flesh.

The music stops and the theater is silent. Each audience member is hyper aware of the others, our breaths, our nervous giggles. And then the sequence of seven scenes begins. The first scene focuses on the sensation of human touch - the bodies slowly roll and push against one another, never losing contact as the puddle travels from the far left corner of the stage, to the front right. The motion of the puddle lasts roughly twenty minutes, with no music, and merciless fluorescent lighting.  Each body moves one inch at a time, the dancers’ hands maximizing contact with the other bodies. However, the hands always trace along the more “platonic” areas of the body: the arms, the glutes, the thighs, the neck, but never tracing penis, vagina, breast, or anus. The dancers are anything but shy regarding the display of their sexual areas, oftentimes contorting their bodies into folds that only displayed the flesh of their nether regions. Slowly, the second scene begins as the dancers separate and sensually engage with the objects on stage, focusing on tactile sensations. They rub their bodies against the table, sofas, the fibers of the area rug, and bite at the leaves of the potted plant. However, again only making contact with the objects with the non-sexual regions of their bodies. Suddenly, the man in the far left corner begins to violently gyrate, flailing his limbs (and genitals) to the beat of a pulsing sound. His motion spreads sequentially across the stage to the other dancers, and they vibrate to a lively punching rhythm harkening to wild, playful sex. They smile, they shout, they thrust, twerk, and pump gleefully with one another. This third scene, this wild rumpus, illustrates animalistic, carnal, and fun sex.

The fourth scene begins as the lights dim, the bodies slow, and the rhythm softens. The dancers engage with new objects, and begin producing slowly sensual sounds. One dancer peels and eats an orange, sucking and dripping its juice on the other dancers, while others engage with metal bowls and hanging lights, making slurping and suckling and ripping noises while performing seemingly normal, day-to-day activities like ripping a sheet of paper. They then begin to tie one another to surfaces, bind each other's’ limbs, and “suffocate” against sheets of plastic, illustrating “kinky” sex for the fifth scene. It is difficult to observe the entirety of each scene at once - the audience finds themselves observing the repetitive motions of one dancer at a time before shifting to another dancer, only to return to the first and see that those original motions are replaced by new ones. For the first five scenes, the dancers were indistinguishable, moving as a unified body, or individually in synchronized, parallel motions. However, the sixth scene disrupts this pattern.

The sixth scene is the most controversial and tense, transitioning from the consensual, but darker “kinky” scene, to imagery of violence, exploitation, and abuse. Slowly, the dancers become more aggressive with one another, forceful, and antagonistic in their motions. Half the dancers then return to their clothed state, slowly donning completely black outfits, some clothed-dancers wearing the hoods from their jackets. The remaining naked dancers arrange themselves on the sofa, bent over with their backsides towards the crowd, as the clothed dancers ominously surround them. A soft rhythm begins as the dancers then grunt in unison, a terrible, painfully guttural sound, reproduced on every eighth beat. A male and female clothed dancer pull down their pants to mid-thigh, revealing only their genitalia as they watch the naked dancers keeled over and grunting in submission. This scene is highly frightening, distressing, and strained, as the dancers transition into vigorous wrestling, evoking some of the same body motions associated with rape. Finally, the scene ends, and many audience members audibly exhale.

The seventh and final scene is musical, highlighting the vocal patterns of sex. A female dancer moans to a growing rhythm, as the other dancers add to her chant. This chant grows in volume, pitch, and variety, as the dancers return to tribal, active, vibrating motions. The chant is ritualistic and assertive, yet exciting and lively, building the climax of the piece, which ends in silence and a standing ovation.

The entire experience is overwhelming and digests slowly. It stuns, shocks, and forces a full spectrum of emotional and logical thoughts regarding one of our basest instincts as human beings. Ingvartsen successfully transports her audience into a world where we can examine sexuality together, in the same physical space, while individually responding to the imagery of her dancers. Some audience members could not contain their laughter during certain scenes, while some did not find the sixth scene threatening. Some were disgusted, some engrossed, some aroused, and others embarrassed. Overall, Ingvartsen provides such a variety of images and scenes that it is impossible, with any given sexual orientation or background, to avoid instinctual reaction. She forces her audience to confront questions, curiosities, repulsions, and attractions to sex, nudity, and one another; questions that we all foster internally but very rarely acknowledge.  7 pleasures, while bizarre, is a brilliant accomplishment for both the world of dance and sexuality, spearheaded by an outlandish, fearless, and diligent choreographer.

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