Boukje Schweigman likes to concentrate on a single movement motif and builds her often disorienting worlds around this one determining element. She did it to mesmerising effect in shows like Wiek (Rotor) and Spiegel (Mirror). For her latest, Val (Fall), she centres the movement vocabulary on the notion, yes, of falling, and uses the height of the theatre’s fly tower to create suspense, which she does successfully for about two-thirds of the show. Val premiered at Stadsschouwburg Utrecht on Saturday 21 September.
After the single white strip light has slowly been flown out of sight, the darkness is deep and lasts an eternity. The woodwinds of the Calefax ensemble, scattered across the auditorium, deepen the audience’s sense of floating through an unshaped vastness by seeking out the highest of high notes and the very lowest registers in a composition written by Yannis Kyriakides. The lowness is sustained by some amplifying entity that appears to lurk deep within the bowels of the theatre building. And then, at last, from the blackness of the tower, a figure comes tumbling.
It is difficult to fathom what is going on as the figure is lit only by a narrow beam from a blacklight – scenographer Theun Mosk designed the lights as well. The figure squirms in slow motion, splaying its arms and legs like a newborn baby whose Moro reflex is being tested. The single figure becomes two, then three, and then the birth connotations are further intensified as another figure appears from above, dripping with a slow, shiny red liquid, dropping unevenly formed, gleaming, shivering clots of it as she descends in a corkscrew tumble.
The suspense all the while is in the question: will they or won’t they? Drop to the hard black floorboards below? The moment is dangled in front of us; it becomes a necessity, we want it; when, when will it come? But Schweigman& play with our need and do not give in. Like life itself, the show is what happens while you’re doing other things. While I sit there waiting for the thud, and frankly let my mind drift with the numerous associations, the musicians take up their positions towards the back of the stage. A performer comes staggering backwards towards us. And shows us that the floor was never the bottom line. Below the bottom is a mighty pull. The thud of his bones landing is amplified from the depths that welcome his body.
All the falling so far has been towards life, towards coming upright and using feet and legs to move along the surface of the earth, to act, to confirm the living, flowing stream of human existence. Now all the effort is immediately swallowed by death lurking just below the edge of the stage. Some go with a struggle, some must be helped, others, poignantly, are young and full of life’s energy, yet long for the descend, need it with a passion. The performers, Hidde Aans-Verkade, Erwin Dörr, Koen van der Heijden, Francesca Lazzeri and Goda Zukauskaite, jump, sag, crawl and dive over the edge; willingly, or struggling against gravity, old age, sickness, some deep longing. A mad procession trails piping and rejoicing along the ridge, like something out of Hieronymus Bosch.
But something strange happens. The repetition of the bodies plunging into the orchestra pit somehow doesn’t quite add up. The suspense, which in a show is that wave that you ride as you watch it, which gathers momentum from underneath you, crests and crests right before your eyes and crashes onto the cold wet shore with you caught in the frothing mess of it, has been resolved at some point without my noticing.
The Calefax musicians are turning circles while playing their instruments, adding an eerie, haunting effect to their tune winding down. I know the end is coming very soon, the signs are clear, I can see it and hear it, but it doesn’t feel quite right. Will it be like this when I die? The show ending all too soon and everyone around me leaping to their feet? This review is me hovering among the crowd like a searching, pale ghost. I wasn’t ready to let go. I would have liked a little more life.
Seen: September 21, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht.