Stage elements The Dance of Things

Eva Meyer-Keller “Pulling Strings”
Eva Meyer-Keller “Pulling Strings” | Photo (detail): © Eva Meyer-Keller

On contemporary stages, it is not only dancers who dance. Things are also set in motion, thus shifting the dividing line between subject and object.

Three spotlights are pulled along the floor using long ropes hoisted along pulleys on the ceiling. They are swaying a bit, their yellow cones of light juddering along the floors and walls like searchlights before rising up into the air to perform a brief, hovering dance to the rhythm of the clacking equipment.

In the choreagraphy Pulling Strings, Eva Meyer-Keller portrays the rooms of a theatre by putting things she discovered there in relation with one another and setting them in motion. There has been a growing interest in a theatre of things in recent years, for example in the work of Philipp Quesne. The special magic of his performances stems from a shift in the meaning of things, for example when huge rubber air bags are transformed into a leisure park. This choreography, which can be defined simply as the organisation of movements in time and space, makes the dance of things the interesting feature. These two trends are not new, of course, as artists have taken a special interest in materiality since the beginning of the modern period. This trend is being continued in a special way on contemporary stages.

Object become subjects, dancers become workers

Living beings, including dancing bodies, of course, are inevitably in constant interaction with their environment, and their existence is worldly and temporal. Things, in contrast, are passive. They are self-contained, worldless and timeless. It is when they are used by subjects that they become objects or things. Through being used, particularly in the theatre, unanimated objects can be given expression and become actors. They are put into a state between subject and object.

This, in turn, has consequences for the subjects on the stage, for the performers’ or dancers’ role and posture. Instead of actually performing themselves, their concentration and body tension focuses on the things they handle, which in turn adjust and manipulate, another aspect to which Eva Meyer-Keller alludes in her title Pulling Strings. The dancer is a stage worker whose presence is a physical necessity rather than a choice, and whose stage appearance involves carrying out instructions rather performing.

Sophisticated stage machinery

In Pulling Strings, the performers wander about aimlessly for minutes on end, carrying things about, pulling strings and pressing buttons. The meaning of their activity is not immediately obvious to the audience – they only realise what it is all about when the sophisticated machinery starts to move. Then, at PACT Zollverein in Essen, for example, the crossbeams with spotlights move towards the ceiling, while reels of rope with small black stones suspended at their ends clatter as they unravel on the floor. Eva Meyer-Keller takes a playful interest in power relations and relations between things. She enables observers to perceive the mechanics and means of the places she portrays in her spatial portraits and sets them in motion. A performance artist who studied visual arts as well as dance, she has also devoted herself to things in her earlier works. In her widely-travelled performance Death is Certain (2002), she used cherries as her subjects to portray a diverse range of manners of death.

Raining metal confetti

In Mette Ingvartsen's The Artificial Nature Project, the theme is not so much things becoming actors as the accumulation of material. The stage floor is covered in metal confetti. Seven dancers togged up in working clothes that cover their faces and heads set the confetti in motion. It takes ever new forms reminiscent of snowstorms and water fountains, flying sparks and surging waves. Ingvartsen, a Danish choreographer, who studied with P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, createdEvaporated Landscapes back in 2009, a choreography using light, mist, foam and sound. She used special theatrical effects as her protagonists and the only performer was the choreographer herself, who operated the technology.

Human beings and the world

In the Artificial Nature Project, too, humans move first. The dancers transfer their energy to the material, which in turn develops its own dynamism. This industrial by-product is made into fleeting, artificial landscape pictures reminiscent of natural phenomena. Like natural phenomena, artificially-created phenomena, too, are ambivalent. While being magical and idyllic, they are also threatening. The dancers are workers, while the protagonist is an amorphous mass. But this distinction is constantly oscillating. Those who use their physical strength to set the material in motion nearly disappear behind it and are threatened by it, and in the end, it is the performers’ clothing that protects them from the metal shavings.

These works, which address the theme of objects on the stage, also discuss peoples’ interaction with their environment and habitats. While created or shaped by human hands, these always elude complete human control. While providing space for creative activity, these habitats can also take a threatening turn and objects can become menacing. And in contemporary dance, objects can themselves become dancers, a medium of movement.