Sum of us
There is an inevitable side-effect to calling a performance ‘inclusive’ – meaning it involves both disabled and non-disabled dancers. If you are going to define your work as such, people will be looking which dancer fits which category. In Sum of us, which had its world premiere Friday 31 January during Holland Dance Festival, choreographer Jasper van Luijk has found a clever solution: he places it front and centre. Or so it seems.
Five dancers are standing shoulder to shoulder, front stage, at Korzo Studio, gazing at the audience. To be more specific: four are standing, one male dancer (Lo Walther Boer) is sitting in a wheelchair. When the first duet starts, a woman (Elianne Speksnijder) crawls onto his lap, draping herself around him like a blanket. Near the end of the duet she sits perched on top of the chair, moving the wheels with her feet. Then, suddenly, the man stands up, and Speksnijder takes his place, claiming the wheelchair as her own.
Right from the start Van Luijk slyly subverts our expectations, and forces us to look at the pervasive and lasting impact of first impressions. These impressions are hard to shake, especially with Lo Walther Boer, who, after relinquishing the wheelchair, keeps holding on to it for support, with his legs trailing behind him. Only in the next scene, in a duet in which Boer plays leapfrog with another man (Mees Meeuwen) and hoists him onto his shoulder like a log, I reluctantly had to acknowledge that, no, this probably wasn’t his wheelchair after all.
Photo: Sjoerd Derine
The wheelchair itself has been organically incorporated in the rest of the performance. Instead of being an obstacle to be overcome, it is an asset. The wheelchair is used in many different ways besides the most obvious one; one moment it is turned sideways, with a dancer spinning around on its now exposed wheel, the next it is used to do a handstand. Its movements are incorporated in the choreography as well. Even when the dancers (besides Boer, Speksneijder and Meeuwen also Pauline Briguet and Annemieke Mooij) perform high swirls and kicks, their movements keep returning to the circular motion a wheelchair would make. Another recurring motif is the way their lower bodies sometimes seem to fail the dancers. Near the end, four of them are moving unsteadily forward, as if their legs can’t fully support them, while Speksnijder briskly glides by in her wheelchair.
The performance is divided into different segments, each functioning as a reset of sorts. But what serves as the connective tissue in this piece is not disability (or non-disability); it is support. Each dancer in a way is looking for support, be it slumped against a wall, holding on to a wheelchair or sitting high on top of somebody else’s shoulders. In the end, it doesn’t really matter who supports who, as long as the support is there.
The piece could have done with a bit more cohesion, a narrative arc to tie all the different parts together, but the way Van Luijk forces us to reckon with our own prejudices, and compels us to look again, is invaluable.
Seen: January 31, 2020. Holland Dance Festival, Korzo theater, The Hague.
Choreography: Jasper van Luijk | dramaturgy: Isabel Meloen | dance: Pauline Briguet, Annemieke Mooij, Lo Walther Boer, Elianne Speksnijder, Mees Meeuwsen | music: various artists | light, sound and video: Sanne Rosbag, Jasper van Luijk | costumes: Asalia Khadjé.