Lisbeth Gruwez | Voetvolk, Birth of Prey at Usine C


Color me confused, today. Last week (see? I’m almost all caught up on the dance. Unfortunately, I way backlogged on the art…) I got to see Birth of Prey by Lisbeth Gruwez and Voetvolk at Usine C. It’s a piece that they created in 2008. They flew over here from Belgium specifically to perform it. And then flew back. In other words this was not part of a North American tour or anything. They are also touring a piece that was created this year, called, It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. I have no clue as to why the fine folk at Usine C decided that the older piece was the one that they wanted to present. But that’s neither here, nor there.

Although now with a little bit of reflection it could be because contortion is “the new black” in contemporary dance. Earlier this season, Angela Laurier performed at Usine C. I’m never one to identify upcoming trends, so I could be very wrong on this one. After all Birth of Prey was created in 2008, which could also mean that contortion has “jumped the shark.”

If you hadn’t figured it our by now, in Birth of Prey for the most part Ms. Gruwez does a kind of 21st century contortion act. Not the 19th and 20th century type where the performer twists various body parts into positions that would make most people wince, and for the most part confined to sideshows and boardwalks. The first word that comes to mind to describe her style is “refined,” quickly followed by “discreet” and “focused.” Hers is much more about individual muscles and bones, than the whole body.

Specifically the trapezius, the latissimus dorsi, the intertransversarii and the multifidus spinae. (Are there any other back muscles? Did I miss any?) There are parts where she does things that could be considered more dance-like and more singing-like, but for the most part it was the control she has on the individual muscles of her back that fascinated me.

If you watch all 21 minutes of the video, you’ll get a real good idea of what the show is like. But please don’t confuse watching a 560 pixel wide video on your computer screen with the real thing. Sorta like confusing CliffsNotes with the original. When you take a step back you can realize that they are in fact two separate things.

The first obvious difference between the video and the real, live stage performance was that for the performance, we had to enter into Usine C using an entrance more normally used for props and actors than the audience. Normally when at Usine C, you walk up a set of stairs to enter into the large theater from the top and then walk back down to your seat. For Birth of Prey we entered at stage level and then walked up to our seats.

For those audience members who had previously been to Usine C the variation on the entry was, while not quite disconcerting, slightly confusing. Added to that was that while we entered the entire stage was completely covered in smoke, from some kind of smoke machine, and I definitely was dislodged from my normal theater performance routine. Which was as I presume, its intended effect. Making me much more aware, questioning what was about to happen, and paying precious little attention to the normal chit-chat that happens pre-show. I have absolutely no idea how full the theater was, nor if there were any vedettes in attendance – both things that I normally write down in my notes because the extent of my notes before the show started were “Enter from the side, with lots of smoke. WHY?” And the “why” was written approximately four times larger than anything else on the page.

Then we were informed that the show had started because some rather loud generic guitar/drum, not quite punk, not quite boogie, music was played. I always like dance to live music, even if the music isn’t the greatest. This music while immediately reminding me of the late and lamented Deja Voodoo

Although I am 100% positive that if you grew up in a different town, there is some other guitar drum duo that you personally remember. But I do appreciate that Dave Schroyen & Maarten Van Cauwenberghe reminded me of Gerard van Herk and Tony Dewald. I hadn’t thought about van Herk Dewald in far too long. Although now that I am thinking about them, I do remember one Deja Voodoo barbecue where my houndstooth check overcoat with a vertical slash pocket got stolen. Something like 30 years ago, man! how I liked that coat. I’m still convinced it is going to reappear (like, magically) in my life. I bought it for $2 in Schenectady, New York. But I digress…

But back to the performance; once the music started, I (and I presume everyone else) started to peer into the smoke. I knew that something was going to happen, I just had no idea what. have you ever seen a newborn gerbil? Newborn hamster?

Baby Gerbil
Baby Gerbil
Baby Hamsters
Baby Hamsters

Well that’s kind of what Ms. Gruwez looked like as she entered the stage. Although now that I think about it, I can probably come up with a bunch of other hairless tubular living things that she would also look like. It’s amazing how some theatrics, smoke and serious lighting presented by someone who knows what they’re doing can look like something else.

But, once she got to center stage, it was all Ms. Olympia all-the-time, almost like what I would imagine a performance by Iris Kyle would be like (if there were loud generic guitar/drum, not quite punk, not quite boogie music played).

And that’s the point. I have absolutely no desire to see Ms. Kyle (or anyone else for that matter) win the 2012 Ms. Olympia Championship. However, Ms. Gruwez’s manipulation of her musculature was completely and utterly riveting to the point where I was hanging on the next move of her latissimus dorsi. Go figure.

At various points she got up and attempted to sing, but whatever. I wasn’t there to hear her sing, scream or shriek. And she did scream and shriek. There were also some points where she actually looked like she was doing modern (or contemporary) dance. But just about anything was going to fail in comparison to what and how she manipulated her back.

Then, there was the point about three-quarters of the way through the show when through the smoke I suddenly saw something like a small rivulet of blood that flowed absolutely perfectly right down her spine. I think at some point I was able to see some kind of tube, but given all the other theatrical tricks it might have just been smoke and mirrors. I dunno.

There were a couple of other salient points. During the performance that I saw Mr. Van Cauwenberghe broke a string at the absolute perfect moment – in between two very different sections that were separated by a scream from Ms. Gruwez – so from an audience perspective it was just like an extended pause while he changed strings. But it did occur to me to wonder why they didn’t just travel with two guitars. I also didn’t quite understand why she started singing Helen Kane‘s signature song.

I‘m positive that there’s some kind of connection between the animal nature of the performance and the title, as in some sort of evil being born – but ultimately I think this one comes down to just how spectacularly Ms. Gruwez is able to manipulate her body, and then some sort of title, music and theory were wrapped around it after the fact.

In short, in comes down to getting a seat front row center, focusing on Ms. Gruwez’s scapulae for 50 minutes and not blinking.