Interview: Wim Vandekeybus - on What the Body Does Not Remember...

Thursday 29 January 2015

Wim Vandekeybus Photo: Danny Willems

Back in 1987 Wim Vandekeybus and his comany Ultima Vez stunned the dance world of the time with their new work What the Body Does Not Remember . Nearly thirty years later Vandekeybus has recreated the work with a new group of dancers. As they prepare to launch a tour to 11 UK cities, starting at Sadler’s Wells on 10 & 11 February, Lyndsey Winship talked to Wim Vandekeybus about his landmark work…

Wim Vandekeybus has some rock ‘n’ roll fans. “It was our last night performing at the Kitchen in New York,” he remembers. “We came off stage, there was applause, and then suddenly there was a guy in the audience making a lot of noise: ‘Aaahh! Yeeah!’ He was stamping his feet.” Vandekeybus and his dancers were startled by the reaction, even more so when they found out that the enthusiastic stamper was Iggy Pop. “We met him afterwards and he was, “Ah, yeah! Great! Rock ‘n’ roll!” For us it was like, what’s happening here?”

Wim Vandekeybus with dancers. Photo: Danny Willems

The year was 1987 and the thing that got Iggy so excited was What the Body Does Not Remember, the first foray into choreography for Vandekeybus, a former psychology student who had left university to tour as a performer with experimental Belgian director Jan Fabre.

What The Body Does Not Remember’s premiere in Belgium had been greeted by negative reviews, but Vandekeybus and his company Ultima Vez (Spanish for ‘Last Time’) borrowed enough cash to take the show to New York, where it wasn’t only Iggy who liked it. What the Body… won a Bessie Award, New York’s highest accolade for new dance, and suddenly critics elsewhere changed their minds. “We came to perform again in Belgium,” says Vandekeybus, “and you know what? Four stars.”

That was the beginning of a long career for Vandekeybus, who has continued to excite and provoke audiences ever since, with a blend of raw physicality, radical theatrical ideas and occasional shock tactics (UK audiences may remember the ‘frog in a blender’ incident in Vandekeybus’s Blush, which toured here in 2004).

Vandekeybus readily admits he’s not one to look back. “I’m never nostalgic about things, I’m always interested in new work,” he says, but he feels that this work is one worth reviving. “The new work is different,” he says. “It uses text. A lot of dance has got more conceptual. What we have here is pure physicality. I feel it appeals to people now, to see a piece without any text.”

Wim Vandekeybus with dancers. Photo: Danny Willems

Since 1987, many other choreographers have been influenced by Vandekeybus’s explosive physical style but he’d like audiences to see where it began. “With What the Body… we had to invent the language, the rules, so it’s the basis of everything [we’ve done since]. It’s very pure, like the alphabet.”

Although the energy of What the Body… is rough and raw, the piece is tightly choreographed to the urgent rhythms of a soundtrack by Belgian composers Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch. A succession of scenes sees the dancers acting and reacting at lightning speed and repeatedly invading each other’s personal space in myriad ways. In one section, the dancers play pickpocket, stealing jackets from their victims’ backs; in another, the performers throw bricks to each other while running across the stage, breeze blocks flying perilously; in another, dancers are frisked by their partners with uncomfortable intimacy.

This is not polite dance, this is not making pleasant shapes to pretty music, it is the rush of urban existence, the brashness of casual relationships, the disconnect of modern life from our primal instincts. But the piece asks the performing bodies to remember those instincts. “I think it’s a kind of unrefusable movement,” says Vandekeybus. “It’s where the movement has to happen. I was collecting these pictures to show to my dancers,” he says. “A woman in a burning building who has to throw her baby out of the window, for a fireman to catch it. That emotion, that instinct, where you have no choice. Where you have to save a life. You can’t be polite.” He gives another example: “If a car is about hit a child, you – bang! – push the child out of the way,” he says. And this is the impulse that Vandekeybus seeks to reveal in his movement – survival.

During the creation process the choreographer became obsessed with ideas of catastrophe and fear, but he didn’t seek to play them out as drama, instead he wanted to embody them in the dance itself. “I always said, it’s not dramatic,” he explains. “The drama is in the movement, we don’t have to play it like that. It’s very cool. In this way it has something that is timeless.”

In the years since What the Body… was made, huge technological advances in everyday life have arguably led us even further from our natural, primal instincts. As has the way we structure society, according to Vandekeybus. “You know, the world is very unpractical,” he says. “We need a lot of rules to make it function. We do need rules,” he admits, “but now because there are so many rules, over-politeness, safety – England is full of that, in England you can’t do anything – for me there is a kind of overprotection. All the adventure goes.”

After nearly 30 years making works for the stage, Vandekeybus has certainly not lost of his sense of adventure. He credits his staying power to the fact that he’s constantly working on a range of different projects. As well as being a choreographer, he is also a photographer, a father and a film director. He is currently making a feature film called Galloping Mind with a cast of 45 Bulgarian children.

How has Vandekeybus changed in the years since he made What the Body…? “I think I’m much calmer now,” he says. “Now I look a bit more before I come with a response.” But that certainly doesn’t mean the 51-year-old has mellowed. He’s going nowhere near the middle of the road. “I hate it when people can stay indifferent,” he says. “But I never think, oh, I’m going to provoke. I think, what can be interesting?” The response he’s hoping for from his audience is a visceral one. “I think it has to go to the belly,” he says. “Like when you really fall in love. It doesn’t go by the head. You have to feel it here,” he clutches his hands to his stomach. “It has to go to the gut.”

Ultima Vez – What the Body Does Not Remember is at Sadler’s Wells on Tuesday 10 & Wednesday 11 February – and then tours the UK, until 12 March 2015.
Dates & venues:

Lyndsey Winship is the dance critic of the London Evening Standard and also writes for many other publications.

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