Review: Celis | Eyal – a combination to forge an evening of opposites

Sharon Eyal's Half Life. Photo by Axel Lauer

Amidst the copious performances of The Nutcracker that Berlin’s Staatsballet are churning out over the festive months is a impressively modern programme showcasing the works of two renowned contemporary choreographers, Stijn Celis and Sharon Eyal, who combine to forge an evening of opposites: lyricism versus techno, tenderness versus palpable sexuality and an unforgiving treatment of the body.

Celis’ Your Passion is Pure to Me is a heartfelt interpretation of Nick Cave’s tenderest tracks, which makes the audience wonder why popular music isn’t used more often in contemporary dance. Avoiding the trap of mimicking the lyrics verbatim, Celis’ dancers instead coexist with them, mirroring their sentiments with their heartfelt performances yet not being slaves to the music’s every beat and crescendo, making moments when they do catch unexpected accents all the more satisfying. The movement language used is varied and differs for each performer, perhaps denoting the dancer’s involvement in producing personal material.

Stijn Celis’ Your Passion is Pure to Me . Photo by Axel Lauer
Stijn Celis’ Your Passion is Pure to Me . Photo by Axel Lauer

One woman’s articulate limbs that glide through the air in a solo to Cave’s Love Letter are juxtaposed by another, more grounded male dancer who slides and spirals across the stage floor. There’s a certain sense of sparseness to the work, as the small cast barely fill the stage, and moments of silence in between each track allow time for consideration and for the lyrics to settle. This calm progression from song to song is interrupted by the insertion of an experimental track, in which a female dancer performs sharp, fast and angular movements. Birdlike and less emotive than the previous choreography to Cave, this section of the choreography follows the manic plucking of the accompaniment. Other dancers join the solo dancer to perform manic jigs, looking like bouncing twitching cells or molecules. Whilst this aims to provide a moment of stark contrast to highlight the warmth and emotionality of other sections, the sudden change makes the Your Passion is Pure to Me, which is otherwise heartfelt and considered, feel incongruous.

After the interval, the lights suddenly drop for the second work of the night, which transports the audience from the ornate setting of Komische Oper to a Berghain-esque nightclub in a way only Sharon Eyal could pull off. Her piece, Half Life opens as a techno, electronic bass starts pounding, and two contorted bodies can be distinguished on the hazy stage performing harsh repetitive, and tantrically hypnotic movements.

Sharon Eyal's Half Life. Photo by Axel Lauer
Sharon Eyal’s Half Life. Photo by Axel Lauer

Spatially restricted as if crammed onto a grimy night club, their limbs pop and jolt as the rest of the cast emerge from upstage in a primal pack, stepping sultrily onto the stage as if stalking their prey. The two groups merge, and so ensues 30 mins of phalanxes writhing, shaking, caressing their bodies and performing sharp unison gestures reminiscent of voguing. Fluctuating between orgy-like madness and grotesque scenes of demonic possession, Half Life’s movement language remains similar throughout, with one performer stalwartly performing the same idiosyncratic marching step for the majority of the piece without breaking her steely focus, despite her fellow dancers jerking and jolting manically behind her. Intense repetition is a fascinating staple of Eyal’s oeuvre, but how long can she keep repeating herself before the hypnosis wears off? Maybe pushing movement – and dancers- to their limits is the whole point of her work.

Reviewed on 10th December 2018 at Komische Oper Berlin

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