Conny Janssen Danst’s latest offering KIEM, which premiered on 29 November at TR Schouwburg Rotterdam, offers one of the most striking opening scenes of the season. In its potent simplicity it even surpasses the opening act of Cathedral by Scapino Ballet.

First, the nine dancers are lying foetus-like on the ground, on a square patch of something resembling overturned earth (the stage design is by Thomas Rupert). The stage goes dark. When the lights go up again, the dancers are standing huddled together, their faces turned up towards the light, their necks craning. With their feet planted firmly in the earth, they make tiny, fractural movements with the rest of their bodies. They look like a group of young seedlings, captured on camera and then replayed in fast forward mode, gently swaying and straining towards the light. But in this case, it isn’t the light they are after, it is air. Their mouths make gulping motions which makes them look like fish on dry land, trying to swallow small pockets of air only they can see.

KIEM is a natural progression from Janssens’ previous work, BROOS, which was about the fragile nature of life. Both pieces are, in part, about Janssens’ ailing mother, who suffers from dementia. In KIEM, Janssens faces her consequent feelings of helplessness head-on. A sense of oppression prevails, of being stuck. KIEM is a ‘performance about resilience, the will to live and the urge to break free,’ as the leaflet tells us.

Which doesn’t mean the release of victory comes easy. For the longest time, the piece is suffused by a dark, brooding energy. The dancers’ movements are compulsive, nervous, strained. Ominously lit by designer Remko van Wely and set against Thomas Rupert’s backdrop of clouds that forecast an upcoming thunderstorm, they are the embodiment of an overly stressed society. When the dancers aren’t busy being caught up with themselves, they form obstructions for one another, physically holding each other back, or forcing each other in directions they clearly don’t want to go. Likewise, in the early duets, every embrace is a chokehold intended to rein the other in, to make sure they both stay right where they are.

The gulping motion is a recurring motif. It makes the struggle palpable. It is really hard to thrive when you are constantly searching for your next lungful of air. But not everything is as concrete. The sense of oppression is quite an abstract emotion and in a way, BROOS, about the frail nature of life and the fragility of the human body, offered a more recognisable movement palette.

Slowly, very slowly, the dancers begin to make the space their own. The dirt is scattered everywhere. Still, after watching the dancers drudge around in the mud for such a long time, the ending feels a bit sudden. One moment the nine dancers are all dancing doggedly on, propelled by the music by Budy Mokoginta and Mark Schilders. And the next, they are free, Hiro Murata leading the way, like baby chicks breaking through their shell, or seedlings breaking through the crust of earth out into the light. Now life can begin.


Seen: November 29, 2019, at TR Schouwburg Rotterdam.

Photo: Andrea Terlaak. 

Choreography: Conny Janssen I dance: Adi Amit, Tu Hoang, Yanaika Holle, Maud Huizing, Martijn Kappers, Hiro Murata, Youp Scheffer, Remy Tilburg, Liza Wallerbosch I musical composition and performance: Budy Mokoginta, Mark Schilders I stage design: Thomas Rupert I lighting design: Remko van Wely I costume design: Babette van den Berg I dramaturgy: Judith Wendel.