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Performance on the edge of existence: Kris Verdonck’s SOMETHING (out of nothing)
— January 7, 2020

Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian changed its language policy with regard to the changing climate. Climate change became  ‘climate emergency’ and instead of global warming, it now says: global heating. The newspaper does this in order to make the urgency clear and to break familiarization – people get used to a catastrophe -. 

And the urgency is real: scientists not only establish more and more tipping points and points of no return, they themselves are surprised by the speed with which glaciers and ice plains are melting, and perhaps most of all by the active denial by some of the most powerful world leaders. Part of the climate emergency is the alarming so-called ‘sixth mass extinction’ that is currently taking place. This means that in the 4.5 billion years of planet Earth’s history, there have only been five other periods in which so many species have died out. The dubious protagonist in this story, we can see in the mirror: the human being. It is our lifestyle, our emissions, our eating habits, our urge for growth and expansion that push the planet on a certain path towards exhaustion and extinction. The solutions we come up with, usually with great hopes for technology, only make the situation worse. Whatever we do or invent, in the long run the only option is to do less, stop. We find ourselves in a kind of deadlock, in which we are already with one foot in the grave.

It is this situation, this state of being, that Kris Verdonck tries to shape in SOMETHING (out of nothing). A situation that we ourselves do not yet fully understand, that may be beyond understanding, and that we should explore more in terms of feeling, by touch. 

Kris Verdonck’s work is extremely consistent: time and again it examines the relationship between man and his environment, in installations, choreographies, and performances that all gauge the zero degree of the theatre. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, this environment has increasingly begun to be filled with technology, to the point where it is almost entirely determined by it today. Thanks to the development of technologies, we have been able to fundamentally change the landscape, the air and the soil in and on which we live. This requires us to learn to deal with endings: the end of the existence of certain species and landscapes, of lifestyles, but also to deal with the increasingly clear horizon of the end of man, and by extension: the end of our own individuals’ lives.

This shift in the world is also reflected in Kris Verdonck’s oeuvre. Whereas in the earlier works human performers were often placed in constellations with machines – such as the dancers in I/II/III/IIII that was taken up by ICK in 2017 – the more recent performances focus on the relationship between ‘free’ bodies and the environment of the theatre apparatus. That seems simpler, but the opposite is true. Whereas in I/II/III/IIII the dancers hung in armour and were able to float up and down, and from left to right, telling something about the relationship between beauty, technology and catastrophe, the context for the dancers in SOMETHING (out of nothing) is more open. On a mostly empty stage, with an ‘open’ light, four figures appear. Their faces behind masks, their bodies dressed in black velvet bodysuits, it seems as if they are almost gone. There is no reason to do anything: there is no story, there is no machine that drives them. And yet they try to do something, simple movements, a jump, a turn, some crawl around, connect two movements, follow each other: do something not to do nothing, but to perform the nothingness in which they find themselves. To make the emptiness, the despair, the boredom, the pointlessness of the situation tangible, to make it ‘happen’ instead of showing it. SOMETHING is a search for how choreography can become a performance, rather than a written movement that has a beginning and an end. ‘Something’ has to happen, namely nothing. In SOMETHING (out of nothing), Kris Verdonck searches for the performance of the thin line between presence and absence, for that state of being in which you may still be physically there, but where your existence no longer has any impact because your role is already played out. How to perform, what to dance, after everything is over? What is a choreography, after the end? 

Photo by Alwin Poiana

This performance is the next step in what has become a series of performances that explore the imminent end of mankind on the (world) stage. What started with UNTITLED (2014), a performance for a performer in a mascot suit, in which we discovered ‘nothing’ as something that can be performed, was continued in 2017 in Conversations (at the end of the world). In this theatre performance based on the work of the Russian writer Daniil Charms, we found ourselves in a space after the end of theatre. Five people were on stage together and told each other a number of stories that led to nowhere. They tried with great imagination to understand the world and death, to finally disappear into the mountains of grey snow that had formed on stage. SOMETHING (out of nothing) is a search for a step further. After the drama, after the words, all that remains is the body, the physical presence. And in times of extinction and climate emergency, this presence also starts to diminish. What remains to be done after everything has been done and said? Which movements are still appropriate? This is really about a place and a time we don’t know, can’t know because it goes beyond the limit of life – into death and the end. That’s why we’ve consulted the Japanese Noh Theatre tradition, in which a ghost is always the main character. In order to perform the suffering of this character, to make it happen on stage, music, language, costume, light, scenography and dance are used. The story is told three times, and each time the perspective shifts to a more inner experience, each time it becomes more intense. The last scene is a dance to music and text, a ritual in which the memory of the suffering coincides with the reliving of it. We also follow this structure in SOMETHING (out of nothing), in order to penetrate as deeply as possible into the darkness of the ecological catastrophe. 

Strangely enough, this sometimes leads to comic moments. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because besides Noh we also looked at the work of Samuel Beckett. The senselessness of existence and the resulting torments also had theatrical consequences for Beckett: actors and actresses were placed under a tight control, in which light and scenography play an important role, and of course the continuous repetition. Not only in Waiting for Godot, but also in shorter pieces such as Act Without Words I and II, this led to a kind of dark humour, an absurdity that reveals a deep existential crisis. It is perhaps this inspiration from Beckett that also leaves an opening for a small point of light in the darkness. No hope, but more a conclusion: they will continue, even if they cannot: I can’t go on, I will go on. The question is how to fill in our existence towards the end. What keeps us from living to the fullest in times of destruction, to prevent people from living where they want to live? What is stopping us, in this state of emergency, from throwing away the mantra of growth and just doing ‘less’? If we don’t do it for ourselves, we will do it at least for the generations of people and other animals, plants – who knows machines – that come after us. The next generation bears the consequences of the actions of the current and previous generations. We must learn to die in these times, and ask ourselves how we can do this in a responsible way. A first step is to shape the darkness that characterizes these times. 

Kristof van Baarle  is a dramaturge and researcher. He received his PhD in art sciences at Ghent University in 2018, titled From the cyborg to the apparatus. Figures of posthumanism in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben and the contemporary performing arts of Kris Verdonck . As a dramaturge Kristof is attached to Kris Verdonck / A Two Dogs Company, and he worked / works with Michiel Vandevelde, Heike Langsdorf, Thomas Ryckewaert and Alexander Vantournhout. 

Pictures Alwin Poiana and Bas de Brouwer (portrait).

— Article written by Kristof van Baarle

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