Till We Die \ Spaar ze

On 9 September 2020, all nine original members of Schwalbe danced Till We Die, a reiteration of 2008’s Spaar ze / Save them live at Theater Rotterdam. In 2020’s new normal I watched the live stream by video artist Artúr van Balen.

Legs. The first thing that strikes me is: all I can see is legs. Sitting at my laptop, earphones in, adjusting the volume to get that feeling of wanting to dance along, I wonder why the camera is taking such a weird point of view. Sinewy woman’s legs in grey track shoes and dark socks, legs in black yoga pants, bare legs beneath a bright blue skirt, and legs in baggy, washed out jeans.

The event is part of a longer project. Much longer. In 2008, Spaar ze was the collective’s graduation performance from the Mime School at the Amsterdam Academy of Theatre and Dance, directed by Lotte van den Berg. Intermittently, they performed it again, until five years ago they all signed a contract to perform this work once every five years, until the last of them dies – even if they leave the collective (which some have). The last living Schwalbe will hand the recordings of each performance over to a then living artist, who will be asked to turn these into a new work of art. The project name: Till We Die.

Watching a screen with these legs jumping up and down to a pounding hardcore techno beat demands patience and stamina. The action is stripped down (dancing and keeping at it through fatigue, thirst, etc.), the form non-narrative (time and space aren’t meant to represent anything other than tonight, at Theater Rotterdam). The screen image refusing to become a complete picture is in line with these choices. Its insistence offers time and space for the mind to roam.

Slowly, the camera pans across the dance floor, revealing more legs. As we begin to discover, they belong to eight thirty-something bodies, performing together in the same space. On a laptop screen to the side of the stage, the face and shoulders of the ninth performer (Hilde Labadie) can be seen. It’s almost a practice round for that clause ‘till we die’: she is here in spirit, because she is living with someone who is vulnerable to COVID-19. Another performer (Kimmy Ligtvoet) is visibly pregnant; instead of jumping, she is stepping, furiously pumping her forearms up and down. Will the beat reach the baby’s ears muffled or amplified? In five years’ time, will it love hardcore, will it have a younger sibling, will its mother be jumping once again to the beat?

Someone switches the music off, but soon it comes on again. On and on they go, dictated by the beat, as they have been going for twelve years, sweating, breathing heavily, their faces emptying of emotion as they tire.

De mannenphotos: Arno Bosma

Time is an aspect that is heavily emphasized in the collective’s work. They have found various ways to stretch it far beyond the 60-to-90-minute format, pulling an all-nighter for Schwalbe speelt een tijd, staying for weeks as houseguests/auxiliary staff at theatres during the 2018-19 season (even building a campsite in the garden at Theater De Nieuwe Vorst). Unable to comply with the four-year framework, they recently refrained from applying for FPK funding. To Schwalbe, all the work involved in running a theatre collective is work that deserves equal, thoughtful consideration and purposeful execution.

Here, the timespan is now twelve years, stretching to nine lifetimes – the nine lives of Schwalbe as a sampler of the human condition amid 2020’s increasing internal strife among the growing socio-economic precariat. With hairlines receding and jeans growing tighter, we must persevere, carry the next generation to term, incur injuries and illnesses, lose our loved ones and re-apply our make-up. A prolonged kiss here, a sweet song there might throw us off briefly, but then we get back up on our feet. From the global economic crisis in 2008 to the pandemic in 2020, the one thing we can count on is the body, these legs that carry us. If our instinct is to run, where should we go? We would lose sight of each other. Schwalbe has committed itself to not running. They get together, drop that beat and jump. Till we die.