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Conny Janssen Danst could turn the whole world into a dance set

I actually experienced it once! In the middle of a theatre performance, an elderly lady, who had nothing to do with the story, walked onto the stage. She must have got lost in the interval and ended up behind the wings through a door that was accidentally open. While the actors with a deeply serious Hamlet were in progress, she came sauntering laconically into the set, a solid lady's bag of shiny leather swinging from her hand. Her totally unsurprised look made me doubt for a moment that she was not part of the play after all. But she sought the steps at the side of the stage, descended into the auditorium and, causing some swell, wriggled to her seat in the middle of the row.

Lost on stage

Meanwhile, the actors continued their play professionally, as if no real person had passed by, or at most a ghost. But on the audience, vicarious shame descended like a suffocating blanket. In that mood, there was no room for anyone to realise that this lady had experienced something unique. Something that perhaps held great potential. More than anyone else, she had been allowed to experience the play from the inside.

Wandering around in a theatre performance. You have to be a creative mind like choreographer Conny Janssen to see groundbreaking possibilities in this. As part of an exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of her dance company, Janssen and her team have created an installation in which they come as close as possible to this idea. In a black box at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, nine screens are set up in the setting of the choreography Inside Out. Nine dancers, each projected more than life-size on screens, dance simultaneously and in a ceaseless loop the opening scene of this choreography. Visitors can stay there as long as they like to experience the dance and, more importantly, the proximity of the dancers, from any spot they choose.

Intoxicating heartbeat

The installation plays on all the senses. The set, a forest of hanging ropes, enhances the sense of wandering. The lighting focuses sharply on the dancers. You can hear the rustling of the costumes and the gasps of breath. It is all so pure, you really feel like you are in the middle of a live performance. And then there is the intoxicating heartbeat of the music by iET and Budy Mokoginta. How close and intimate can you experience a performance, is the question Conny Janssen experiments with.

I feel physically totally absorbed in the darkness of the black box even at the first step. Next to the theatre spotlights, the darkness feels thicker than it does just at night on the street. Between the purple-shaded ropes, I walk from one dancer to another. I let my gaze travel diagonally and straight across the space. In this way, I see the nine simultaneous dancing figures from a different angle each time. I walk between them. Deliberately, I stand as close to them as possible. I want to defy them. Although I know I can't, I relish the tantalising idea that they suddenly care that I am there after all. The imperturbability of their movements passes me by with fascinating force.

Explosive energy

Their energy seems to push against me. I feel like a stranger because I am standing still. Joining the dance is impossible. What I am experiencing may evoke the same explosive energy in my body that the dancers have. But I cannot express myself physically. Do I even have a body?

Apart from proximity, there is also an unbridgeable distance. I feel like an angel among the living. I imagine that I am the screen projection and they are the real people. Two worlds silently coexisting. Loneliness, but of a wonderfully poetic kind.

After leaving the black box, I still feel the dance physically resonating in me. It was indeed special not to look at it, but to be surrounded by it. I also see others entering the black box. Everyone does his/hers/hare with what happens there. Playing with the illusion. Silently looking up to bodies full of power. Experiencing a maze. Letting an intoxication rise, carried by the music.

INSIDE OUT | Installation during the opening night on 8 September 2017. Photo: Fred Ernst

Dance as augmented reality

I am reminded of the latest developments in augmented reality. It will soon be possible to use an app on your phone to populate the environment you are in with creatures you choose yourself. The app will project them at exactly the right size, in the right perspective, in the right lighting and with correct shadows in, say, the shopping street you are walking along.

Conny Janssen has created many location performances. With the idea of these screens and the beautiful recordings by Davide Bellotta, the concept of location can be extended to the limitless. Wherever you are, on your phone you can give dancers a location.

It could make the world a much more beautiful place

It is at your fingertips. Dancers as augmented reality. On the street, in your room, in the office, wherever you are. The world infused with dance. A choreography with the globe as its location. It's fake, of course, but it can make the world a lot more beautiful. Over the next 25 years, Conny Janssen still has a lot to do.

Tranquil performance

Another notable part of the exhibition is a performance for which the full set of choreography Home is set up at the Kunsthal. It is an immense grey-white space in which a dancer can be seen. She does not dance, but 'is'.

Being present, that is the mission with which she resides in the setting. Conny Janssen wants to explore what the concept of 'home' means. I look at the woman in the large space. What questions and thoughts come to mind? What is it like not to be distracted or claimed by the world outside the space called 'home'? What is it like to have no purpose beyond this confined space?

It takes concentration to do anything with this performance. Taking your time is a requirement, just as the woman in the set takes her time, or rather does not seem bounded by time.

Photo: Maarten Baanders

Tasting the space

What the woman's concentration evokes in me is that she does not discover space, but tastes it, materially, with all the senses. This is slow. Life in this setting is slow. Everything is languid about the woman's movements. There is no purpose. So why damage tranquillity?

Gazing, thinking, reading a book, sitting on the bed, lying under it, secure as an unborn child for whom this 'home' is still too big. The woman does whatever strikes her. On the wall are mysterious signs. Are they letters? Nothing is certain. The woman studies them, puts her ear to them listening.

Transparent captivity

Lost in thought, she laid her head in her arms on the tabletop. Would she really keep her thoughts within this space? Above her, a bird cage hangs motionless on the wall. Two birds in a transparent captivity.

The uprooted tree on the bed is an image that detaches you from your everyday life. It is of a surreal clarity. The tree has lost its soil, its 'home'. It lies in bed. Sick, cosy? Dreaming? At home without needing another bottom?

Glow

Voices and snatches of music waft around. In part, they come from other parts of the exhibition. But here they evoke the feeling of a silent centre surrounded by a restless, fragmented outside world. My feeling tilts. I notice that the benevolent calm within me is also loneliness. That I want to float away high above the scenery. A longing for the glow of colourful city life.

I'm going away. What do I take with me? The loneliness? Or the feeling of home?

Blank

At the exhibition, in addition to many large-format printed scene photographs, models of sets and trailers from the 25-year history of Conny Janssen Danst, the documentary Blank on view. Filmmaker Sonia Herman Dolz gives a nice picture of how Conny Janssen creates new work with her dancers. From her gaze, you can see how she concentrates on her body and draws her ideas from it. And in one stream through: how she shares these impulses with her dancers.

Apart from being an interesting documentary Blank in itself also a work of art. Wonderful the way she plays with moving figures, space, direction, mirrors and fracture surfaces. Dolz is a choreographer with the camera.

Good to know

Photos: Maarten Baanders

Interview with Conny Janssen: https://cultureelpersbureau.nl//2017/09/hoe-intiem-choreografie-conny-janssen-danst-jubileert-expositie-kunsthal/

Exhibition Conny Janssen Danst 25 - Kunsthal Rotterdam, until 1 October 2017 

Maarten Baanders

Free-lance arts journalist Leidsch Dagblad. Until June 2012 employee Marketing and PR at the LAKtheater in Leiden.View Author posts

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