Choreographer Marcos Morau knows how to make an entrance. With Cathedral, which Morau made for Scapino Ballet Rotterdam and which premiered on October 31 at Theater Rotterdam, it is no different. First there is the music by Arvo Pärt, performed live by Sinfonia Rotterdam. Then there is the setting (set and costumes have been made by Silvia Delagneau). A woman (Dalmo Dolman) is being wheeled across the stage in a box, half phone booth, half isolation chamber. She is anxiously clasping a baby to her chest. It is hard to say which is more disquieting: the fact that she is locked in a padded cell, or the elaborate headwear her handlers are wearing, with cameras for eyes and pieces of piping on top.
Once she is carted off, a male dancer (Dario Minoia) starts investigating a mysterious rock standing in the middle of the stage. Is it a fossil, a meteorite, or what is left of a car once it has been crushed into a cube at the scrapyard? The man dives headfirst into an opening in the rock, his feet still dangling outside, while below the upper body of another man (Lorenzo Cimarelli) appears. But wait, it gets even stranger: two cosmonauts appear, with big see-through bubbles on their heads, as if they were stand-ins for the actors in Alien. Luckily for them, once they reach into the mysterious rock a human baby appears, instead of a Facehugger.
Meanwhile two dancers are sitting opposite each other at a huge elongated table. A disembodied voice (Jozefien Debaillie) is recounting her last memories (in Dutch). ‘I remember I was driving…a man tried to start the car, maybe I knew him…’ It is all said in an affectless, eerily detached, manner. ‘I am tired…the lights go out…I cannot sleep…’ The moment reminded me of a scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where android hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is interrogating Rachael (Sean Young). She is an android, or ‘replicant’, though she doesn’t know it herself. (Deckard himself may be one too, but that is something for a different kind of article).
The android reference isn’t too far-fetched. The dancers’ movements are decidedly other, thanks to a dance vocabulary Morau himself has coined KOVA. According to Morau, KOVA is not just a dancing technique, but a ‘state of mind’, in which any form of organic movement is to be avoided. The head has to be in control at all times, making every moment a conscious decision, exactly calibrated and isolated. That way every part of the body becomes its own agent, which makes it look like one part of the body doesn’t know what the other part is doing. It gives the dance an unnatural quality, and makes it highly recognizable. Maybe not as distinctive as the obsessive-compulsive hummingbird-like movements in the works of Marco Goecke, also a familiar face at Scapino Ballet, but coming close.
It is also really fascinating to look at. You can almost hear the twelve dancers whirring and clicking as they go from staccato movement to staccato movement. Morau has described the dancers as broken-down toys in a playroom. To me, they resemble malfunctioning androids, stuck in a world without human life – maybe the rock has wiped out humanity? – and now pretending to be humans themselves. They may even believe they are human, just as Rachael did in Blade Runner.
Some of the most intriguing scenes are when they are pretending the hardest, as is the case in a tortured dance scene that shows Minoia and Maya Roest playing house. Contorting, they move under, over and through each other, all the while holding a baby doll. They are oblivious to the skittish lady (Dolman) stalking the room with a kitchen knife. It can be seen in Bonnie Doets’ character, a secretary, head mistress and dominatrix rolled into one, who is far too attached to her purse. Or in a group of businessmen huddled together, spurred on by the sound of a typewriter.
The group pieces, with everyone moving as a single organized machine, are mesmerizing. You could watch them over and over and over again. These also make an important point: Cathedral doesn’t really need all the extravagant frills. Sometimes the costumes seem to be weird just to be weird, as with the two dancers who are all costume and no head. Some also seem a bit arts-and-craftsy. The simple touches work best, as with a T-shirt dotted with small green lights, as if the circuits of the dancer are exposed.
In Cathedral, atmosphere is everything. And if there is one composer who knows how to do just that, it is Arvo Pärt. His compositions – which include Fratres, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel – add pathos to the dancers’ continued struggles, trying to connect, trying to be something they are not.
In that sense, the ending of Artificial Intelligence: A.I. by Steven Spielberg also springs to mind. All of mankind has disappeared, but the robotic boy David (Haley Joel Osment) wants only one thing: to spend one final day with his human ‘mother’ (Frances O’Connor). That is, after all, what he was programmed to do. The dancers in Cathedral are similarly looking for purpose. And they will keep on looking, until their batteries run out.
Seen October 31, Theater Rotterdam.