Ultima Vez – What the Body Does Not Remember

“Similar to a game of Russian roulette. Anything could happen.”

Twenty-eight years since Belgian choreographer, Wim Vandekeybus, conceived What the Body Does Not Remember and it proves to be a truly timeless classic. A chalkathon of playful wit and quick reflexes from a company of nine, athletic dancers, all from across the world.

Together this cast form Ultima Vez, an international contemporary dance company with a strong base in Brussels and Flanders. Practical intelligence is needed as well as a strong sense of trust, as the dancers sprint in circles, lobbing blocks of a chalky substance of differing size, high in the air between each other.

© Danny Willems
© Danny Willems

Scenes quickly change between various scenarios of equal feats, a sea of calm settles the chalky mist before the energy brutally and rapidly increases again. Clear rules set boundaries that prevent the men and women injuring each other. A stamping sequence involves pairs of dancers interchanging from scrambling on the floor, to jumping on their feet, skimming the dodging bodies below.

What the Body Does Not Remember is a continuous flurry of motion that is similar to a game of Russian roulette. Anything could happen. I am kept on the edge of my seat uncertain with what a wrong step could cause.

Vandekeybus has developed an organic movement vocabulary that requires the dancers to react quickly, easily able to rebuild themselves after collapsing in a heap.

© Danny Willems
© Danny Willems

Peter Vermeersch’s composition compliments the action on stage, with a live orchestra, complete with percussion. Tense, irregular melodies add to the suspension and chaos on stage, inspired by the mathematical structures constructed by minimalist composer Steve Reich.

The musicians are integrated into the performance, with one of the players stepping into the bustle of the dancers and taking part in an interesting adaptation of musical chairs. This moment builds from one man placing a chair in positions other than flat on the ground, often lying on the floor in awkward positions. The other dancers then mirror him and pose as if in a photograph.

Tranquility gives a break to the hectic activity when a trio keep their own tiny feathers afloat. Zebastián Méndez Marín from Costa Rica, is a notable character in the cast with his joyful and cheeky manner. Marín engages my attention with his version of feather floating. His feather falls to the floor before he sucks it back up, clearly choking on the layer of dust coating the stage, caused by the blocks used throughout the piece, and then blows the feather back out again!

© Danny Willems
© Danny Willems

What the Body Does Not Remember is an unforgettable production and many gave a standing ovation. Before we could leave the auditorium three of the musicians use a table as an instrument, performing a complex score. They bang, scratch and swipe the table’s surface in complicated rhythms. This is a welcome development of what is performed as a solo at the beginning of the piece, when two dancers are manipulated by the two handed, musical choreography.

Ultima Vez will now tour across the UK before travelling around Mainland Europe until May, when the company will end up in Switzerland. Vandekeybus’s piece has been on a nonstop global tour since 2013.

Click here to see a timeline of where the work has been, since 1987, and if you are able to grab a chance to see such a remarkable piece of collaborative performance theatre near you.

by Nick Kyprianou