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A danced ode to a Polish harpsichordist - sounds inaccessible, but Jan Martens makes it compelling #tfboulevard

I have a lot of genre in my life mash-ups seen. But I think a danced documentary about a musician was a first for me. The focus of choreographer Jan Martens in his new dance solo Elisabeth Gets Her Way is the famous harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka. The Polish left for Paris at the age of 23. There she set herself the goal of introducing the harpsichord to a large audience. Her work shows a great passion for experimentation; more than eighty composers dedicated works to her. When Chojnacka plays, recalls one of the voices speaking in the performance, you feel the emotion through the playing.

It is no wonder Martens was inspired by her. The Belgian choreographer's work also has a compelling style that puts feeling at the forefront. Martens came across Chojnacka's work while working on another performance. He used the lockdown to do research for a solo that was to be an ode to the harpsichordist. To do so, he delved into the French media archives in Paris and interviewed some composers who worked with Chojnacka.

Dance at the service of music

Martens processed the material into a performance that alternates between documentary footage and dance. At the beginning of each scene, we hear colleagues of Chojnacka talking about her, or see interviews with her. In a key scene, Chonajcka describes her collaboration with choreographer Lucinda Childs. The harpsichordist was worried that her music would be completely subordinated to the dance, "because the visual draws the attention anyway". However, she was pleasantly surprised that Childs managed to use her choreographies to bring the music right to the fore.

Martens' starting point seems to have been exactly that. The short dance solos he attaches to each documentary part enter into a symbiotic relationship with Chojnacka's pieces. Through his movements, he unravels the complexity of the music and keeps you listening intently. It makes for an overwhelming introduction to a brilliant musician. The variety of Chojnacka's repertoire goes hand in hand with her breathtaking virtuosity.

Fusion of contemporary and classical

In his dance, however, Martens also always subtly emphasises different aspects of Chonajcka's artistry. The fusion of classical and contemporary influences is regularly central to this. In selecting classical repertoire, Chojnacka always looked for "the germs of modernity". This is underlined in a performance of the 16th-century piece Upon La Mi Re, on which Martens performs an unimpressive hip-hop dance. And the video game-like tones of Phrygian Tucket by Stephen Montague elicited from Martens a veritable tour de force. In fast, short movements, he follows the music exactly, and the robotic movement language that results fits perfectly with the association with digital environments.

Cédric Charlier's ingenious costume design adds another layer. He too seeks the balance between ancient and modern. A medieval blouse with panther leggings underneath, a red going-out outfit that also looks a bit like the Renaissance. In this way, all elements play in Elisabeth gets her way interact to offer the richest possible picture of a unique artist.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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