I fancy myself a fairly sophisticated consumer of the arts (I mean, I go to museums and stuff, and I’ve even been to hear Handel’s Messiah, like, four times) – but man, the German art world is whole other kettle of fish. Perhaps it would be trite to compare it to Sprockets, Mike Meyers' brilliant spoof of pre-unification German scene that used to run on SNL -- so I’ll be trite. Sprockets doesn’t even come close …
Last night, our new friends Fakher and Christine took us to a modern dance performance at the Kulturspeicher, a multi-purpose center for contemporary art and dance here in Würzburg. I was pretty excited. I love going to the ballet, and I can even appreciate some modern dance (although, I must admit that sometimes I have to stifle a laugh when the dancers are being particularly “expressive” ), but right away, I could tell that we were in for something very different, something “high concept.”
The printed program explained the different “frames” through which we were meant to view the performance, including “deprivation, self-abuse, aging, the decay of the body, fitness, and the desire to be forever young.” It asked viewers to ponder the question “What do we do with our bodies, and what do our bodies do to us?” Still, I was a little unsure how to approach this intellectual exercise. Fortunately, the artistic director and the choreographer tried to set the tone with a half hour introduction about the dancers’ “motivation.” But of course, the whole lecture was in a very high fa-lutin’ German, so the only words I could make out were “Autismus” (Autism) and “Wolfkind” (the “wolf child”). The rest was just static.
Then, faster that I could say “Casper Hauser,” the theater went dark and three very athletic women in street clothes materialized beneath a single spot light. Some generic techno music began playing over the sound system, and then, as the beat picked up and the bass deepened, the women began to abuse themselves – and I don’t mean the fun way. One girl started slapping herself across the face. Another shook her head and yanked at her hair. And a third collapsed into a pile on the floor, got up, and repeated this every 15 seconds or so.
After several very uncomfortable minutes, the performers finally ceased their flagellation and began wrapping Scotch Tape around their heads – hair and all! I can’t say for certain, but I think this was supposed to symbolize plastic surgery and the other superficial alterations we do to ward off aging, because next, our healthy young dancers grew increasingly decrepit, shaking with palsy and bending with scoliosis. And just when you started to worry that they might imitate Death itself, the aging-process reversed. The techno morphed into the 80’s classic “Forever Young,” and as if revitalized by some Elixir of Youth, the dancers started jogging in place – the picture of health. The lights grew brighter and brighter until they nearly blinded you, obliterating everything. And when the lights returned to normal, the dancers were gone.
The audience sat around very silently for what seemed like an eternity. I began to fidget nervously. What was I supposed to do? Was this intermission or something? After all, the performance had lasted only 15 minutes – half the time of the introduction. But soon the dancers returned and began taking their bows. They got a standing ovation.
“But what about the dancing?” I wanted to protest. “Where were the people in tights, doing synchronized pirouettes?” But of course, I said nothing of the sort. Christine seemed to like it a lot, and I didn’t want to insult our hosts or seem completely uncultured. But still, call me uncultured: I was looking forward to the time “ven wee dance.”