Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus’ 1987 dance piece What The Body Does Not Remember, at Sadler’s Wells, London today and tomorrow, is a work credited with radically transforming the arena of contemporary dance. But what does this mean to us now?
28 years on, its once highly-innovative association of physicality and high emotion, (untrained dancers stomping, running around, balancing on chalk blocks, interacting provocatively, throwing themselves on the stage), inevitably seem dated; its incorporation of chance elements in a non-narrative format seem unsatisfying in an age when we expect resolution, or at least resolutions. After all, we bought the ticket!
What’s fascinating about the piece now, though, is exactly that: just how familiar it is (ironic, given the title). How many elements have been lifted and transplanted into more ‘modern’ radical works. They may be more snappy, digitally enthused, dynamic and violent (Hofesh Schechter), more quirky, pinpoint and disarmingly ‘homemade’, (Christian Rizzo), or more theatrical (Ballets C de la B), but you can interprete the language as more highly disciplined, minutely rehearsed and up-to-date development of that introduced here.
No dance piece springs out of nowhere, of course. What The Body Does Not Remember drew on the work of other prominent contemporary choreographers (Jan Fabre), as well as reflected a fashionable tendency to undermine the mass media and marketing world by parodying its stagey and manipulative qualities, while simultaneously relying on it to pull in the audiences.
It’s interesting to see how the institutionalisation of subversion has developed, with the publicity world now pinpointing and appropriating such techniques itself, (‘self-parodying’ for marketing purposes is pretty common these days). So, this once ‘brutal confrontation between art and music’ is now a slick, pre-rehearsed, carefully preserved version of the original, using highly trained dancers and musicians to bring pre-fabricated raw energy to the stage in a retro reconstruction of a once radical artwork. Which makes it all the more worth seeing, right!?