What will the audience at November Music make of The Way You Sound Tonight, the show by Arno Schuitemaker that recently won a Zwaan – the Dutch Oscar of dance – for most impressive dance production? Of course, November Music audiences are accustomed to the more adventurous and experimental. But The Way You Sound Tonight, performed at de Verkadefabriek, is definitely more performance than musical recital.
When the audience enters, they can choose to sit on two rows of benches placed on two opposite sides. The show has already started: one man (Mark Christoph Klee) is already dancing, on his own, to the side of the floor. Although dancing may be too big a word. Only the upper part of his body seems to be moving, undulating slowly.
The beginning of The Way You Sound Tonight – which premiered at Holland Festival in 2018 – is also an ending. The five dancers perform two shows back to back, one performance flowing seamlessly into the next (we are part of the second ‘shift’). The dancer who finishes last at the previous performance, starts first the next. Klee has clearly already had an extensive work-out: there is a shine of perspiration all over his body. Hopes are he has had time for a quick drink and bathroom break – and a power bar. His movements start out small, his attention turned inwards, surrendering completely to a simple drumbeat (the electronic minimal music is composed and performed by Aart Strootman). Slowly, he moves more towards the center, until he is standing beneath a huge honeycomb-structured cluster of lights (made by Jean Kalman, the regular lighting designer for Pierre Audi’s operas).
Two dancers, Kim Amankwaa and Gaetano Badalamenti, slowly join the scene, starting from the corners of the dance floor. They move with the same, flowing movements as Klee, slowly rotating their shoulders, spines and hips, but mostly staying in place. As the dance becomes slightly more varied, the music becomes more layered as well, adding the sounds of an electric guitar and maracas. Sometimes the dancers are moving in sync, and at other times they seem to be following their own internal beat. During the last part the final two dancers (Emilia Saavedra, Stein Fluijt) enter the dance space. But even though they are together, they remain isolated, lost in their own world, their own experience, their own undulation. It is as if we were witnessing a club scene, but one that consists of only five dancers.
This relaxed club vibe is something Schuitemaker also evoked to perfection in If You Could See Me Now – which will return to Frascati on 19 February 2020. This was the first piece in which he experimented with the idea of a show that has started before the audience enters. It also featured dancers who were focused on themselves, while sharing a sense of togetherness, a shared glance here, a faint conspiratorial smile there. Here it remains even more abstract, more isolated. The dancers dance with their eyes almost closed, or gazing off somewhere into the distance.
But Schuitemaker is not just interested in recreating a club vibe in a theatrical setting. He is also actively looking for ways to include the audience. To him, they are not just passive bystanders, but form an integral part of the performance. Schuitemaker makes shows starting from the belief that watching dance in itself is already an active pastime. He even has science to back him up. Mirror neurons play a key part. Put simply, when you see someone else doing something, your mirror neurons activate the same parts of the brain as if you were actually doing it yourself. Which would explain a lot about the everlasting allure of porn.
It doesn’t mean Schuitemaker follows the clinical, theoretical route. The Way You Sound Tonight is a sensory experience, turned up to the max, with sound, lighting and movement all coming together. The ongoing beat and the undulating movements are hypnotic; it is impossible not to start moving a little yourself, especially near the end of the hour-long piece when Strootman enters the floor with his electric guitar, whipping up the dancers into a frenzy. On a smaller scale, in the audience, some heads can be seen bobbing, some shoes tapping – yet another dimension that is added by having the audience sit on opposite sides of each other.
The Way You Sound Tonight certainly offers a unique experience, engaging its audience in ways that don’t happen often. And as such I can really appreciate why the VSCD jury – the jury of the Dutch Association for Theater and Concert Hall Directors – awarded the piece with its highest accolade. Yet at same time Schuitemaker may have reached the outer limits of how much audience engagement you can achieve with a stationary audience. It is a fascinating sensation: the feeling of being swept up by the music and the dancers, while remaining seated. But it also left me feeling slightly frustrated. The climax near the end seems exhilarating and liberating for the dancers, but for the audience, confined to the unforgiving benches, there is no real release. To return to my earlier reference to certain adult videos: it feels a bit like watching porn with your hands tied behind your back. My brain may believe I am dancing; my numb bum says otherwise.
Seen: November 4 at de Verkadefabriek, ‘s-Hertogenbosch