'Cold Blood'. Pic: Julien Lambert

Festivals, Stage

Postcard from the Adelaide Festival ‘Turning up the Heat’: Dance into Images, Music into Dance

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The Adelaide Festival ran from February 28 – March 15, 2020. In this postcard HUMPHREY BOWER reviews Kiss & Cry Collective’s Cold Blood and Lyon Opera Ballets Trois Grandes Fugues.


The phrase ‘cold blood’ has associations with physical death, emotional detachment, and animals such as reptiles, fish, amphibians and insects that can survive for long periods without food because, unlike warm-blooded creatures, they don’t maintain a constant body temperature, and thus require less energy.

Belgian company Kiss & Cry Collective’s Cold Blood is certainly a show about death, detachment and resourcefulness, but it also deals with love, chance and ephemerality. There’s even a certain ‘cold bloodedness’ in its form of expression and means of production; as well as in its content – including some of the characters, events, and even the settings in which they take place. However I found the cumulative effect of the show surprisingly warm:lyrical, funny, moving, beautiful, awe-inspiring and even profound.

The genre of the show is a unique hybrid of micro-dance theatre, bricolage-object theatre and live-feed video. Co-directed by dancer-choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey and film-maker Jaco Van Dormael, it features three dancers (De Mey, Grégory Grosjean and Grabriella Iacono) and six set/object/lighting manipulators (Van Dormael, Ivan Fox, Bruno Olivier, Stefano Serra, Julien Lambert and Aurélie Leporcq) – two of whom (Lambert and Leporcq) also double as Steadicam operators.

The set (designed by Sylvie Olivé) consists of a collection of domestic objects, chairs tables and light-sources (lighting designed by Nicolas Olivier), surmounted by a huge projection screen (featuring live-feed and live-edited cinematography by Dormael and Lambert) that hovers just above the performers’ heads. The entire apparatus is a kind of split-level, parallel-reality dance-theatre stage/cinema, the moving parts of which can be observed either one at a time or as a simultaneous but contradictory totality in which any formal hierarchy is effectively abolished. As Van Dormael remarks in a program note: “We were looking for something where the dance was not serving the cinema, and the cinema was not serving the dance.”

The genre of the show is a unique hybrid of micro-dance theatre, bricolage-object theatre and live-feed video.

The choreography (by De Mey and Grosjean) mostly involves the dancers’ hands, and sometimes extends to their entire bodies. The performers are clad in basic black (costumes by Béa Pendesini and Sarah Duvert), but occasionally more flesh is revealed, and their movement repertoire is drawn from a wide range of styles and sources (De Mey is a contemporary and colleague of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and hails from the generation of Belgian contemporary dance makers who came to prominence in the 80s and 90s).

However everything seems to emanate from or culminate in the hands, which are the principle focus of the images, both as these appear onstage and (in very different form) on-screen. As De Mey remarks in a program note: “the camera sees what the audience’s eyes can’t see, and the audience’s eyes see what the camera doesn’t see. It’s very much the idea of a story within a story within a story.”

In fact the work’s ambiguous visual and narrative framing recalls the recursive art of Escher or the nested stories of the 1001 Nights. The deliberately unresolved conflict for ontological primacy between flesh and technology also gives Cold Blood a special place in the contemporary field of multi-platform performance, as well as situating it in a literary and cinematic sci-fi tradition that goes back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the most significant 20th century avatar of which is arguably 2001 (indeed Kubrick’s film is directly referenced in the show).

Cold Blood. Pic: Julian Lambert

The effect is one of deliberate disorientation or even de-differentiation, in which sophisticated theatre and cinema techniques ‘regress’ to a more basic stem-cell-like level of functioning, and are then recombined to induce a kind of oneiric delirium. In fact the work also belongs to a very French and even more specifically Belgian tradition of surrealism in literature, painting, photography and cinema, from Buñuel and Dalì’s, Un Chien Andalou to Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year in Marienbad to the paintings of Magritte and Delvaux – especially former’s visual paradoxes, and the latter’s dream-like images of women, architecture and nocturnal landscapes.

Dreaming, hypnosis and the inducement of a hypnagogic or ‘twilight’ state of consciousness are all explicitly invoked by the text, which is written by Belgian author Thomas Gunzig, and delivered in voiceover by actor Toby Regbo. Text and delivery are disarmingly yet deceptively droll, in fact this artful narrative framework – the hallucinatory style and content of which resembles a short story by Murakami – is crucial to the dramaturgy of the work, which might otherwise dissolve into a series of superficially textural and gimmicky technical effects.

The text takes the form of second-person monologue, and begins with a classic hypnotist’s incantation before counting backwards and telling us: “You are asleep.” What follows are seven stories of death by misadventure – each leading to a last memory-image before the final extinction of consciousness – which we are invited to experience as a kind of transmigratory journey (“You are becoming someone else”).

These bizarre, unforeseeable and/or otherwise ‘stupid’ deaths recall the pre-title sequences that used to begin each episode of the HBO series Six Feet Under, and are similarly detached and even cold-blooded in tone. The sole survivor of a plane crash (a toy plane suspended in a jar of cloudy liquid) wanders through a snowbound forest and freezes to death; the driver of a car forgets to roll up the windows while going through an automated carwash (feather dusters attached to cordless drills) and is bludgeoned to death (the image is suffused by red lighting gels); a restaurant patron dies of an allergy to mashed potatoes; the patron of a gentlemen’s club chokes on a bra-clasp (the pole dancer is an index and middle finger sliding up and down a metal stick); a man-eating serial cannibal commits suicide by taking an overdose (a dancer’s body writhing supine is filmed from above through a window-frame while the image tilts and rotates onscreen); and an astronaut asphyxiates in space.

An equally surreal succession of landscapes, settings and images includes clouds, forests, a frozen lake (on which one hand dances with another in the guise of its own impossibly independent shadow), six pairs of hands plucking invisible strings and fluttering like butterflies, forlorn highways, a drive-in movie screen, a bombed-out city on fire in wartime, an aerial view of nocturnal apartment blocks, and a rocket blasting off into space (a vibrating hair-dryer, two forks and three lamps against a background constellation of fairy lights).

Choreographic tributes include a Fred and Ginger routine (two hands with thimbles tap-dancing on a crystal tray); an Esther Williams synchronised swimming extravaganza (a kaleidoscopic fractal image of multiple hands); and an astonishing recreation of Maurice Béjart’s choreography to Ravel’s Bolero danced by six hands on a miniature model stage and covered by a 180-degree tracking shot until finally the actual house lights go up and the audience is revealed to itself onscreen. There are also playful cinema history references to Lost Highway, Black Swan, 1930s Hollywood musicals, and of course 2001.

The work’s ambiguous visual and narrative framing recalls the recursive art of Escher or the nested stories of the 1001 Nights.

All this is accompanied by an alternately ironic and sublime continuous playlist-soundtrack (sound design by Boris Cekevda) that mixes classical tracks by the likes of Ravel, Ligeti, Arvo Pärt and the Adagio from Schubert’s String Quintet with popular classics like Doris Day, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed’s It’s Such A Perfect Day and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

The overall production aesthetic is both domestic and exotic, miniature and spectacular at the same time. As Van Dormael says in the program, he and De Mey began by asking themselves: “Is it possible to make a feature film here on the table on our kitchen? And is it possible to dance only with the hands?”

The answer, resoundingly, is yes. And perhaps this has something to do with the nature of hands themselves – as opposed to the objects or artefacts that are the substance of so much visual theatre (as well as Kubrick’s anti-humanism in 2001).

As organs, hands (as opposed to paws) are unique to human beings and other primates (as even tools are not). They are also uniquely articulated (having more bones than any other organ in the body), mobile and tactile, as well as cognitive and communicative (think of counting and sign-language). As choreographed by De Mey and filmed by Van Dermael, they also possess an incredible degree of expressiveness. As the latter commented in an interview in The Guardian earlier this year: “When you film the hands, it’s the face and body at the same time.”

The success of Cold Blood ultimately attests to the relationship between its co-creators: a choreographer and filmmaker who are also life partners. Their mutual embrace of dance and cinema – and beyond this, their collaborative transcendence of the opposition between the body and technology – also points to a ‘trans-humanism’ beyond ‘anti-humanism’.

As Merleau-Ponty wrote, the image of two hands touching each other – and the exchange between them as they alternate between touching and being touched – testifies to a reversibility of ‘the flesh’ that situates us as living beings within the living, breathing context of something greater than ourselves.


In comparison with Cold Blood, the Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues was at least, on the face of it, a more rigorous exercise in ‘pure’ contemporary dance. However if what we mean by ‘pure’ dance is that it’s ‘uncontaminated’ by reference to anything else, then the evening was ‘impure’ in the sense that each of the three pieces it comprised was created in reference to a single work of music (Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge), and that therefore in that context they also referred to each other.

It should also be noted that arguably not all three works might best be described as ‘contemporary dance’, since the opening piece by Lucinda Childs could also be characterised as a kind of postmodern ballet, while the closing piece by Maguy Marin is perhaps more a work of dance theatre.

Nevertheless because of their common point of reference, and even more so by programming them as a set of ‘variations’ in response to it, Trois Grandes Fugues became a satisfyingly integrated work in its own right, much like the great sets of musical variations by that composer (in particular the Diabelli Variations and the last movement of his final Piano Sonata, which were composed during the same period as the Grosse Fuge towards the end of his life).

Lyon Opera Ballet perform. Pic: Bertrand Stofleth.

The evening also followed an interesting musical and dramaturgical journey in terms of instrumental and choreographic forces. Three different recordings of the Grosse Fuge were used – the first an orchestral version, the other two played by two very different string quartets; and the ensemble of dancers used by each choreographer was progressively reduced in number, while the style and intensity of the choreography and dancing became progressively heightened.

Most importantly (and in common with the Grosse Fuge itself, as well as the other works by Beethoven just mentioned), Trois Grandes Fugues is no mere academic or intellectual exercise. In terms of physical and emotional intensity as well as aesthetic form, there’s a progression from coolness and even coldness to warmth and finally searing heat. As such it has some similarities with Cold Blood (though it goes much further). Thus both works considered together provide an opportunity to reflect on the nature of that journey and those qualities in relation to any work of performance.

First cab off the rank was also the most recent work on the program, created for Lyon Opera Ballet itself in 2016 by American postmodern conceptual minimalist Lucinda Childs. This involved 12 dancers – six men and six women – dancing in opposite-sex couples. The choreography was characteristically cool and detached, even airy, involving a postmodern-ironic use of classical steps, along with the choreographer’s trademark gestural and spatial patterns and repetitions.

The work felt to me like something of a museum piece, and seemed to engage with the Beethoven on a somewhat superficial level. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring the technical ingenuity . . . and the grace of the dancers.

Set lighting and costumes designed by Dominique Drillot were restricted to shades of silver and grey. The dancers were clad in soft, loose tops and pants, and the choreography was arranged against a freestanding background structure made of some kind of filigree lace material that cast shadows against the backdrop and was reminiscent of an Arabic ornamental window screen or Indonesian shadow puppetry.

The music was recorded by the Lyon Opera Orchestra in 2016 – presumably for the work’s premiere. It was a luscious, rich, romantic reading, somewhat like a movie soundtrack, although undeniably in ironic counterpoint with the choreography. However, the combined effect was one of formalism, and even traditionalism.

In sum: the work felt to me like something of a museum piece, and seemed to engage with the Beethoven on a somewhat superficial level. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring the technical ingenuity of the work, and the grace of the dancers. Their faces, however, seemed frozen in forward-looking fake smiles, and their bodies and emotions seemed disconnected from the work and each other – one dancer in particular (as my companion at the performance pointed out) even switching off completely every time they stopped moving.

In the context of the evening, however, this opening turned out to be a palate cleanser. The best was yet to come.

After a short interval came a much more substantial, delightful and fascinating work: Belgian contemporary dance maker Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s setting of the Grosse Fuge, created for her own Rosas Company in 1992.

For this performance, the recording of the Beethoven was by the Debussy Quartet in 2006. This was an ardent, earthy and joyous rendition of the score, in total contrast with the preceding orchestral version. (I’d be curious to know which recording the work was originally made in response to, but I’d wager it was something similar in terms of energy and mood, as the choreography seemed to respond to it with such sensitivity and precision.)

De Keersmaeker makes dance in response to music (and text) that’s not necessarily written to be danced to. As someone who studied music prior to dance, she does this in a uniquely rigorous and original way. For example her choreography inspired by Bach’s Cello Suites (which I saw a couple of years ago) involves taking the musical language of the dance-movements that comprise the suites (which themselves were not written to be danced to, but rather to translate dance into music) and ‘re-translating’ that language back into her own choreography. This process of translation even includes the text of the score, for example by rendering the dance-term ‘Allemande’ in the form of actual walking.

Here the choreography involved eight dancers (six men and two women), identically dressed non-gender-specifically in black suits, open white shirts over t-shirts or singlets, and ‘sensible’ black shoes (costumes designed by the Rosas Company); the women had their hair tied back, and were gender-identifiable only by their body shapes. However their neat outfits became increasingly and randomly dishevelled, shirts becoming untucked or being casually tucked back in, unbuttoned or discarded as some of the dancers stripped down to t-shirts or singlets. Set and lighting by Jan Joris Lamers were similarly ‘neutral’ and informal, with the exception of a horizontal strip of light across the forestage, which the dancers moved in and out of in various ways.

Like the costumes, the choreography was similarly androgynous but individualised, with dancers frequently taking turns to dance in various groupings, or standing, sitting or reclining on the floor to observe each other. The movement had the appearance of being spontaneous, but (as one would expect from De Keeersmaeker) was meticulously responsive to the score and even the mood of the recording, being full of unfeigned exuberance and enjoyment. The dancers were physically grounded, and used multiple levels (including floor-rolls) and a variety of dance and movement languages (including folk dance and martial arts moves)

I loved this work, and found it a revelation in terms of the Beethoven, which is frequently interpreted as heavy and full of struggle, but here shone with all the composer’s capacity for lightness and joy – surely essential components for any revolution worthy of the name.

This was immediately followed by the final version of the Grosse Fuge by French dance theatre maker Maguy Marin, whose work is characterised by heightened emotion and grotesque theatricality, inspired by Samuel Beckett and fairy tales – as well as by her political philosophy, which might be summed up by her statement on receiving the Scripps Award for modern dance in 2003: ‘I don’t accept this world as it is.’ As such of all three choreographers under consideration she has perhaps the most in common with Beethoven himself.

The work in question was created for the Maguy Marin Company in 2001. It was danced to an intense, incisive, even abrasive recording by the Quartetto Italiano from 1968 (the date itself is indicative of the recording’s revolutionary spirit, as well as the crushing reaction that followed). The choreography involved four female dancers, variously dressed in red skirts and tops (designed by Chantal Cloupet), on a bare stage starkly lit by Francois Renard.

In a program note Marin herself invokes “the rising life-force of the female being” in response to music that simultaneously produces a ‘state of enthusiasm and despair’. This ‘bipolar’ quality in Beethoven’s music (and perhaps temperament) was here met by something wild, ferocious and even furious, involving huge leaps, ecstatic faces and outstretched arms, but also bent heads, hunched torsos, crooked legs and shuffling, almost crippled feet (fiercely embodied by the four extraordinary dancers, Julia Carnicer, Coralie Levieux, Merel van Heeswijk, and Elsa Monguillot de Mirman, on the matinee performance I saw).

In Nietzschean and Wagnerian terms, this was certainly the Dionysian apotheosis of the evening. Musically and choreographically it possessed an almost Stravinskian primitivism, and affirmed that composer’s remark about the “absolutely contemporary” nature of Beethoven’s work. I was reminded simultaneously of the Bacchae, and of the current political moment we’re living through, especially in terms of gender. At the curtain call, the dancers looked as if they were awakening from a trance, and surprised to find themselves still alive.

Cold Blood was at the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showgrounds, March 5-8; I saw the performance on March 6.

Lyon Opera Ballet was at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, March 6-7; I saw the matinee on March 7.

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