Pas de deux with domestic robot
On Earth I’m Done, that’s the name of the diptych by Jefta van Dinther comprising the parts Mountains and Islands, and it’s a sentiment that probably many can subscribe to at the moment. Some, because they will soon actually have succeeded in doing the earth in. Others, because they can no longer stand by and watch humanity proving itself to be defective by design.
The term design puts us on the right track. Because, in his diptych, van Dinther examines what might happen once we have succeeded in wrecking the planet and our current ways of living. Which is to say, in about 20 to 30 years. While Freddy Houndekindo had to shoulder the existential exposure of humanity in the Anthropocene all by himself in the solo Mountains, Islands features 13 performers of the Swedish dance company Cullberg trying out new ways of coexisting and surviving. But there is a forceful, urgent, sensual quality to this evening as well.
Out of a mystical twilight, individual figures are crawling into a narrow strip of light at the edge of the stage – very nearly a moment of creation, accompanied by driving beats. It is unclear whether they are humans or archaic creatures, golems or robots. It is also unclear how they got to this place that is detached from time and space, whether they are the crew of a spaceship on a distant planet, outcasts on an abandoned island … We know just as little about the meaning and purpose of their existence as we humans know about our own. What is clear, for them as well as for us: this existence, the living together requires a structure. The group of dancers, who first crawled into the light, is dressed in gender-neutral black unitards with a print of oxblood-red shapes of muscles and organs. Crawling towards them – threateningly, seeking help? – is a group of naked figures. Along the way, they too put on the same black-and-red unitards, only one remains naked, which makes him intriguing to the group, whose members appear not to know each other at all. Slithering across the floor, sometimes reptile-like, sometimes cat-like, the other figures circle around him, sniffing, touching, possibly even tasting him. In a haunting scene, as if in slow motion, one of the performers mounts him and sits astride him, her mouth open wide in a silent cry, at the head of an eerie procession, a gruesome retinue. The group constantly oscillates between closeness and repulsion, inside and outside, struggle and cooperation. Over and over again, one of the beings separates from the group, only to find their way back again to the safety of the community. Aggression erupts repeatedly, only to be replaced soon after by sequences where the performers imitate one another, mirror each other’s behaviour or learn from a voice offstage to articulate individual sounds. Apart from cultural modes of behaviour, however, technology is also an option: the performers turn into fascinating mechanical dolls from time to time, and the pas de deux of a naked dancer and a robotic vacuum cleaner – especially in these troubled times of ChatGPT – is certainly one of the funniest, most innocent and touching scenes ever to be seen on a dance stage. But the evening certainly isn’t innocent: it shows what it can mean to be human, both in the worst and in the best sense of the word. And that we cannot be certain that there even is such a thing as a “natural” state of being human. With this in mind, Van Dinther’s diptych is not only very existential but also quite existentialist.
Andrea Heinz was born in Bad Reichenhall in 1985. She studied literature, philosophy, art history and Swedish in Passau and Vienna. She is a research associate at the University of Vienna and a freelance writer for various print and online media.