Two of the participants in our Writing Dance workshop, led by Dance International editor Kaija Pepper, share their responses to Lisbeth Gruwez’s It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend, presented by The Dance Centre and the Push International Performing Arts Festival January 22-24.
Speech Is Not Always Power
By Jillian Groening
There is a curious apprehension about witnessing a contemporary dance show titled It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. What exactly could be getting so bad?
On January 22, 2015 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver, BC, Belgian performance artist Lisbeth Gruwez enlightened the audience as to what might possibly be going wrong. Presented by PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and The Dance Centre, It’s going to get worse (2012) is the brainchild of Voetvolk, a collective involving Gruwez and composer and sound designer, Maarten Van Cauwenberghe. The soundscape for the work, created by Van Cauwenberghe, features audio clippings of sermons delivered by the disgraced Pentecostal pastor Jimmy Swaggart. The televangelist’s words, thick with a charismatic American accent, are cued live in conjunction with Gruwez’s hypnotic performance.
Beginning with the disembodied glow of a crisp white button-up shirt, Gruwez is revealed standing tall. She is dressed smartly in brown slacks, slick, coifed hair and shiny patent black oxfords that cause a satisfying click to echo throughout the silent theatre as she approaches the crowd. Gruwez fondly observes her observers, like a proud but strict teacher her smile is slightly restricted and her presence absolutely undeniable. She is nowhere but here in the stark white light. At this moment. After a very long hushed exchange of appreciation and expectation, the simple motion of Gruwez raising a flat palm appears to be the most beautiful action ever seen, expounding joy similar to the experience of releasing pressure of one’s wrists from a door frame.
Gruwez’s bones move with inhuman precision as her long liquid arms and delightfully exact wrist accents create lingering white waves against the black curtain. From whispering, windy white noise babbles distorted fragments of Swaggart’s speeches. The alien-like garbles slowly begin to meld together, revealing full words which pop and linger in the air like fireworks. Gruwez’s simple and quirky gestures punctuate the words in perfect time, suggesting that her movement language is in fact a sermon of her own. The exactitude of voice and body - combined with reverberating pauses - is chilling and repetitive, sending a calming wave through the audience like children lulled to sleep in wooden pews. The problem is that children often nod off in church due to boredom. Although stunning in their physical prowess and control, Gruwez’s monotonous movements recall the stale, robotic air released from Swaggart’s flapping mouth.
While televangelist pastors are stereotypically large, sweaty and boisterous men, Gruwez’s sleek, tight-laced and jodhpur-clad body - she engages in a minor costume change of pulling her socks over her slacks - recalls infamous dictators of the past, drawing parallels between the terrifying power public speech can have on the masses. Whether politically or religiously inclined, the human mind is all too often turned to putty when confronted with the captivating and calculated tricks of corrupt leaders.
Gruwez’s speech becomes more aggressive with toreador-esque flourishes and a furrowed brow, her arms stiffly conducting, recalling an orator gathering blind trust from their followers. “We must find an answer,” Swaggart begs as Gruwez extends her long palms to the audience, asking.
Taken from Swaggart’s sermon series released on vinyl, titled What The Bible Says About Drugs, his garbled pleads move from “we have made advancements” to “we have not made any advancement” with frank hilarity. Subtly, the racket of Swaggart’s ministry fades to a far away muffle. Gruwez is left in her harsh rectangle of light shaking, shifting on the balls of her feet like a boxer pretending they’re not the underdog.
While the work’s physical language recalls the dull yet transfixing speech patterns of politicians, dictators and religious leaders of yore, it is the soundscape which bears the piece. Van Cauwenberghe’s score is arguably one of the most poignant aspects of It’s going to get worse. Carrying the audience from peaceful sanctuary to the desperate events of the 6 o’clock news, the soundscape builds in intensity until Gruwez is bouncing weightlessly towards redemption. As violins wail, Gruwez skips towards the blinding white light and towards ascension. Her face free and beaming, the jumps radiate an infectious energy and delight.
Similar to the cynicism felt when witnessing a believer speaking in tongues, I was left waiting for a miracle. No audience members flew out of their seats, no crumpled piles of clothes left behind. It doesn’t appear anyone survived the rapture.
The music stops and Gruwez looks out at the audience, confidently and calmly, before turning and walking offstage. Enough said.
Witness the Movement
By Gemma Crowe
Right from the start, this performance was moving, without really moving much at all. A rainy Friday night spent at the Scotiabank Dance Centre signified a very different kind of performance experience.
Right from the start, Lisbeth Gruwez was undeniable. She was the one sole who assumed a position on stage that night for It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. Beaming, in pristine black patent shoes, her body was erect and confronting. She stood in the front quarter of a rectangle of light drawn on stage. She looked at the audience expectantly, as something palpable hung in the air. A prickly alertness grew the longer she stood. With the same effect as a long pause in speech, the lack of movement was most provoking because she turned the attention back on the audience. Her stance was still, but charged with energy that seemed to cycle through her body. The sheer mite surged up her legs, lifting her kneecaps, pushing up her chest and tipping her chin. As she looked coolly out at the audience she let the energy pour back down her shoulders and along her rigid backbone. She contained her energy, holding her power until the audience was ready to receive it.
As she began to move sparingly, calculated, a gestural quality emerged. The movements were decidedly direct, clean, clear and definite. The forward orientation and a repetitious return to a lifted, held posture allowed these movements to be received individually but to emit from, and return to, the same place. These were not gestures. They were not recognizable and could not be linked to any word or phrase. Gruwez’s movements were gestures in the sense that each movement could be understood on its own. Each had an individual impulse and was fulfilled separately. Similarly, the music throughout the length of the show compiled the smithereens of a sentence, assembling and reorganizing it until it made sense as language. Even fragmented, the movement reinforced the ideas of that very first image on stage, constantly returning to that invincible stance.
Like a gesture, the movement was telling. Devised live, by Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, the audio track slowly revealed snippets, sounds, fragmented words and eventually full phrases plucked from a speech by American televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. The movement collided in time with these sounds, but as they became words, the coinciding motion was not exactly derived from the word’s meaning. The move that corresponded with the word “advancement” was aggressive, but ironic because with all the force that she threw forward, jabbing flat wrists and fingers forward, she was actually moving backward. It was with this contradiction that I considered the difference between what the audience was seeing and what she was doing. When Gruwez moved, her body could be heard viscerally, and each move read like words of a different language. When her stance started to change the movement that came out of it was altered. Exhaustion was apparent as she no longer reigned in her energy, she threw it all out towards the audience until she finally lowered to her knees and descended to the ground. A new kind of, empty, stillness consumed the stage.
From the moment Gruwez stepped on stage assuming that stance with a subtle smirk, I saw a dictator. Considering the audience that Friday night, and the spectators of leaders Gruwez was channeling, the similarities were chilling. It seemed as though instead of simply showing an embodiment of the dictators she had researched, she replicated the experience. With similar tactics and theatrics, she used her body to convince her audience of who she was. The audio recordings had ceased with the movement and as she laid on the stage motionless, the theatre was silent. The absence of any shuffling, coughing or creaking of seats not only indicated the audience’s respect for the tender moment, but most importantly their full attention.
The complex audio track, the spatial design, lighting and costuming created a very specific environment, one where Gruwez, and everything she did, was most effective and convincing. Leaving the audience with the image of Gruwez repeatedly, tirelessly, jumping high into the air certainly instills at least a sense of awe, if not arousing conviction she may be super-human and capable of great feats. To successfully orchestrate the elements that focus a number of people on one thing, collectively, is a true science. The performance qualities of leadership that make up this science are more convincing and even more prevalent than we realize, differed only by intention. Swaggart’s words are integral to this performance but almost as a catalyst for the experience. Taken out of context the words lose power and being further rearranged and repeated the eccentricity is highlighted. Against this disembodied voice, Gruwez appears as the truth.
Right from the start, measures are taken to zero-in on Gruwez, to focus all of the attention on her so as to witness her confidence, strength and determination. From this, I would follow Lisbeth Gruwez into anything.
Did you see It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend? What did you think of the performance? Share your comments below!
The Dance Centre’s Global Dance Connections series continues with Faustin Linyekula | Studios Kabako January 29-31 and MACHiNENOiSY February 4-7, both presented with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
Photo by Luc Depreitere