Rule of Three is a piece for three dancers: Steven Michel, Julien Josse and Courtney May Robertson. NAH makes the music live, the lighting is by Jan Fedinger and there are some lyrics by Lydia Davis. Rule of Three was released last month at De Singel in Antwerp, and its Dutch premiere is today at the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. It deals with the same issue as Martens' previous play, The Common People: how do we interact with each other when we are constantly online and our perception is trained by a deluge of infotainment, and we are directed in our attention by Facebook, Instagram and Google?
Unlike The Common People, a hushed work with over forty participants, Rule of Three is a rather wild piece, in which Jan Martens breaks haughtily from his existing approach. Is that really the case? An interview on what makes Rule of Three so different.
People say Rule of Three is different from previous work, more complicated, less sensitive?
Well, there are more things, it's fuller. The editing is really very different. In terms of light and sound, it's more complex and precise than I ever did before. Light cues didn't have to be deployed so precisely before, because they were often very slow transitions that sometimes took up to 5 minutes. Now we jump from one scene to another in 0 seconds. I like slow, visible transitions. But what if you start working without any logic? If there should be absolutely no line of development in a piece?
Why was there allowed to be absolutely no logic in it?
I wanted, as a sequel to The Common People, to create a piece that is choreographed, but which is also about the lack of concentration and attention, about zapping and constantly switching channels and platforms, jumping back and forth, constantly pulling in apps, etc., etc., etc. How people deal with information, no longer know how to differentiate, become addicted to the impulses, find 10 minutes of work in a row already a lot, impose restrictions on themselves, buy old phones again or go camping for a weekend without a phone, like I just did.
And to show this addiction to impulse, you had to work without logic, haphazardly?
Most of all, I had to overcome an aversion at first (laughs heartily). Eventually I settled on giving new impulses every few minutes, and then sometimes none at all.
Some kind of punishment?
Well, it has become a disordered whirlwind. This is contrary to my previous performances where you always get a lot of time to watch. I also wanted to give the dancers a certain freedom now. Almost all the dance material is theirs. What I do choreographically doesn't really matter that much. It's mainly about contrasts and the diversity of the different languages, the performance quality and focus needed for each language, and then colouring that in with light and sound.
Are you quoting all the time?
No, idioms come along and a lot of my previous work.
Put through the shredder?
You might say. Well, I learned to work with contrasts. All transitions are hidden, or rather, there is basically nothing, except cues and disparate material, from dramatically danced scenes to Cunningham-like abstraction. From very, very short moments to dance scenes lasting more than 10 minutes.
I finally found a certain radicalness in jumping from one thing to another. I am now using classical dance things like solos and duets and trios for the first time. That's weird and conservative, but it is radically deployed, there are so many different languages, it also throws you out as a viewer. Programmers say it is my most accessible and most difficult piece ever.
Light and sound and the many transitions make the performance complex?
Look normally I choose 1 thing and then I work a whole rehearsal period with that starting point. In Dogdays, for instance, it's the jumping, and what it does to the dancers if they keep that up for an hour. And then, of course, at a given moment that weird cabaret comes in - but that is inserted very slowly. As a spectator, you really get to see all the steps. With Sweat Baby Sweat, the change comes through the cushion.
First you were shown so many steps that as a spectator you almost lose track of the transformation, now there is stupidly no transformation?
I don't know. But I always mapped out a process very carefully until now, and worked with what came up in the process, and always showed the transformation too, showed everything if I could. I hate blackouts, fussing with costumes, light shows, musical effectec, etc.
And now you only do that?
Yes, it is bursting with layers of darkness, with changes of style of dance, of music, of light, all in one piece. But only for this performance, because the concept called for it.
Why do you use lyrics by Lydia Davis?
Davis has written wonderful short stories, to be envied. Many are ultra-short. You turn such a story over in a page. As diverse as the work is, you still feel her through it all. I love the plotlessness and the participation she asks of you as a reader. The emotional interpretation really has to come from the reader. The texts I chose are explicitly about disintegration, the fagmentary, and how to get it back together.
Are you sceptical? Is Rule of Three about self-criticism in times of postmodern emptiness?
The last text I use from Davis is definitely about that. About stopping writing and going about your life.
Do you recognise that?
Sure. I am concerned with art and with humanity. Sometimes you wonder what the carrying capacity is for art. And sometimes art becomes so formal that you wonder what people should do with it. And we live in a time when, between all opinions, people no longer distinguish between the threat of a third world war and Celina Gomez needing a new kidney.
An idea of responsibility for the public domain lost?
If you go to a website now as a 15-year-old, everything is mixed up. I need an information stop.
Turning things off is not enough?
Doing your own bit is not enough if the ground stream does not change. There were 30 students in Ghent, who did not let go of their mobile phones during the performance. Not only were they taking pictures, they were constantly checking their accounts. There really is a problem with lack of concentration and addiction to impulses.
Distraction online is nice!
It's nice, but I know it doesn't do me any good, that instant gratification.
It once started with television, the zap culture ...
Constantly changing channels means you end up not being able to pay attention to anything.
Has it become a literal performance?
No, not at all, but theatrical.
You've always been theatrical, haven't you?
For me, expression comes from a form normally, and now it comes much more from the dancers.
Apart from living in a time of too much impulse and distraction, we are also stuck with a lot of literal representation, hyper-realism, we run ourselves continuously in the many screens. Is there a lack of avant-garde interventions? Why is abstraction so important?
Abstraction gives much more room for different possibilities in terms of perception. Rule of Three is not a performance where after five minutes you think, "ah this is about the information society". It has not become a moralistic story. Each part of the performance has its value, just as a news report about Gomez's kidney also has its value. Some see a conservative set-up there, others see the radicalness of it.
What is nice about working with form and mathematics?
That you don't work with imposed intentions. Both for the dancers and the audience. That the content comes out of the form. Like in Dogdays: for me, that long persistence is emotional, but the dancers are not doing that, they are stupidly persisting. It's a form of architecture, how you choose the proportions, place the dancer in space and time, see de Keersmaeker, Vanrunxt. You abstract the stakes of the dancer. Through repetition, constraints and mathematics, the dance really starts to resonate in space.
Are you more abstract now than before?
I don't think so myself. I always have a theme and find the right form to go with it. It's nice, though, that I dared to colour it so nicely bold, with music that at times drowns out the dancers, or let Courtney go so far in theatricality.
That sound like punk and kitsch? Always was. Is it grosser now?
Earlier, I chose one language, and I stayed within it. The slow transformations sucked you in, took you along as a spectator. Rule of Three is really an untamed thing, however super-clean the individual pieces are. I wondered, are we really going to do this? Playing hide-and-seek with the audience. I did things I didn't like, but needed to. Normally, during my performances, spectators become aware of the manipulations I do, through transparency, through showing the many steps. In this performance, there is no room for that at all.
Rule of Three, Jan Martens/Grip, can be seen tonight and tomorrow night at the Rabozaal, Staddschouwburg Amsterdam. Rest playlist and further info, see Grip. See also this interview With Jan Martens and NAH in Something Currated.