Jonge Harten Festival

‘What is the body?’ It is a question that keeps returning during this year’s Jonge Harten Festival in Groningen. On Thursday 21 November I saw three shorter performances that were all billed with #thesensorial and address the question in very different ways.

‘What is the body?’ is a returning mantra uttered by ‘The Fool’ – also known as dance maker Connor Schumacher – during our ‘embodied’ audio tour of the Groninger Museum. The Fool is a character, or alter ego, created by Schumacher, one we first encountered in 2015 in an eponymously named solo. The Fool is a human robot that walks, talks, cracks jokes and looks upon the world with benign wonderment. During the Jonge Harten Festival he takes this same curious gaze with him into the Alessandro Mendini exhibition at the Groninger Museum (which in itself was designed by Mendini). It is not the first time The Fool ventures inside a museum: last year he also visited De Garage Rotterdam and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Dressed in brightly coloured spandex and equipped with a small pouch, a speaker and a telephone, he starts the guided tour, pondering questions such as ‘what makes a chair, a chair?’. The Fool is continually in motion, his arms punctuating everything he has to say. He tries to engage his visitors in a more tactile way than is usually the case. At one point he even has us navel-gazing at the straight lines in the wall paper (‘there are no straight lines!’), ignoring the actual art that is right behind us.

Mendini (1931-2019) liked to mix and match styles. A good deal of Mendini’s artwork seems to possess almost human qualities. One of his most famous practical designs, Anna G. – a cork screw he made as the artistic director of Alessi – has the face and body of a woman. Our guided tour ends with a painting of a group of refugees, huddled together in a dingy lifeboat. Why is it, the Fool wants to know, that while we so readily notice and pay attention to bodies in art, we overlook the bodies of actual people all around us?

‘What is the body?’ The question returns in the wistful dance performance I am a Poem made by Lunatics and Poets. The bodies of the two dancers are obscured behind their thick padded coats (which reminded me of the painting of the asylum seekers at the Groninger Museum). It is impossible to see which is the back, which the front. Even when the coats are removed, the uncertainty remains. They are standing in front of us, bent over forward, revealing only their bare backs, their hair tucked away beneath red caps. Are they male or are they female? It is impossible to say. I am a Poem begs the question: what happens to a performance when the bodies disappear? When all that remains are anonymous, moving shapes? Do we still identify them as human? Can we still be moved?

The body in The Journey is a battleground. Anna Luka da Silva created the solo for her final year at the Institute of Performative Arts in Maastricht and won the TAZ-KBC Jongtheaterprijs with it at Theater aan Zee festival in Ostend, Belgium. The scars this body wears can’t be seen, but can definitely be felt.

We first see her hands peeking through the black velvet curtains at the back of the stage. Skittishly she enters the floor, in a shapeless grey dress. Her eyes are closed, but a second pair of eyes is painted on her closed eyelids, creating an eerie, otherworldly illusion. All her movements seem stiff, constrained, as if she were barely able to get them to function. Even her vocal cords refuse to work, initially. Only guttural sounds escape. But once her first words are uttered, the rest comes tumbling after, in rhyme. ‘Why do I do everything in rhyme? / Why do I think it adds something to express myself in mime?’

She starts revisiting her childhood memories, memories she would rather forget, but her body cannot. She recounts her innumerable abominable encounters with her father (‘There is my daddy once again/Isn’t he a dirty old man.’), who wants her to call him ‘uncle Jimmy’ and who promises that she won’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to, really!

The Journey is not a comfortable watch. How could it be? Da Silva does manage, working with director Nora Ramakers, to create a little distance by using rhyme. It forces her ugly truths into a more soothing cadence, although it is still hard to find comfort in a sentence like the following, uttered by ‘Daddy’/’Uncle Jimmy’: ‘No stay…./You only know how to smash that junk of clay’. The rhyming also fits in with the other regressive elements in the solo: the childlike rhymes, her high pitched ‘Daddy’, her too-bright smile (which feels even more fake than her painted-on eyes).

The solo doesn’t offer any sense of resolution – it is called ‘The Journey’ after all – but it is a powerful and unflinching portrait of personal trauma and of the continuous battle of breaking free.

The Fool. Seen: November 21, Groninger Museum.
I am a Poem & The Journey. Seen: November 21, Grand Theatre, Groningen.

Photo I am a poet: Dragan Perkovski