© Danny Willems

»I want to know how are you doing? So, how are you doing? We never see each other. This is curious … till soon...« Three choreographers meet in front of their screens: they are looking for proximity. Over seven months they develop a group piece together and YouTube is their only means of coming together at irregular intervals. Where is my privacy, initiated by Mette Ingvartsen, is a kind of low-tech digital studio that stores artistic processes online and makes them public. Is it possible to form a community when you’re physically isolated from each other? What spaces do digital platforms open up for choreographic practice? Where is my privacy is from 2006. Mette Ingvartsen is frequently in touch with the times years before others. Her seismographic sensitivity to moments of aesthetic or social upheaval sometimes manifests itself at an interval of time when the real world intrudes forcefully into the choreographic space and suddenly thrusts before our eyes how her dance, which seemed darkly prophetic a few moments ago, is in fact describing what is.

Now, in spring 2021, when creative work has had to do without direct exchange or the proximity of practised teams, her on-screen sessions on YouTube have an unintended topicality. Alongside them, her latest ensemble piece, Moving in Concert, which premiered in Brussels in 2019, feels like a message from some other, distant world. People touch each other, forming a cell-like architecture of bodies and light, then drift apart again to twist themselves into a psychedelic dance together a moment later.

METTE INGVARTSEN IS FREQUENTLY IN TOUCH WITH THE TIMES YEARS BEFORE OTHERS. Marietta Piekenbrock

Mette Ingvartsen, born in Denmark in 1980, is one of the most innovative choreographers of her generation. She produced her first works while she was a student at P.A.R.T.S, the school in Brussels founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. While her immediate artistic environment explores the relationship between dance and music, Mette Ingvartsen pursues a course that temporarily leads her away from the human body. She develops a material aesthetic that we cannot at first connect with dance. In her early performance, evaporated landscapes (2009), artistic effects using foam, fog, lighting and sound release a dynamic of their own that is reminiscent of swarm phenomena. It is a »dance without dancers«. It would be out of place to describe it as a great work, because the performance only lasts half an hour. But in this brief period she accomplishes a brilliant coup that ultimately leads to her cycle of works The Artificial Nature Series.

The title alone articulates a mixture of apprehension and experimentation. At its heart lies an engagement with phenomenological effects and an exploration of the foundations of the sensual. At the same time, technique starts to play an increasingly active role. There are strong precedents for this in the history of modern dance. The American choreographer Loïe Fuller (1862–1928) created hypnotic effects with her Danse Serpentine not only through the use of abstract movement but primarily through the elaborate lighting effects that she invented herself and subsequently patented. Or the Japanese performance artist Atsuko Tanaka (1932–2005), who appeared at the first Gutai exhibition in 1956 wearing a kimono-like Electric Dress of coloured light bulbs, strip lights and cables, combining Japanese tradition with modern technology.

In her next piece, The Light Forest (2010), Mette Ingvartsen went a step further. She immersed herself deeply in nature and turned a forest into a stage: »When I was asked what I would do in Salzburg, if I would work site-specifically, I immediately thought about the proximity between the city and the nature around it. […] I was also very fascinated by the idea that a performance could use a real space as its location, interested in how to bring out the performative aspects of the forest after dark. The beauty, but also the connotations of horror and fear produced by the forest after dark, was to me exciting.« At the fall of darkness, the first members of the audience feel their way through the forest that rises up from Salzburg’s historic centre to the peak of the Kapuzinerberg. Their footsteps send out signals that switch on spotlights hidden in the trees and in the undergrowth. A fine gossamer of wreaths of light sets a magical natural spectacle in motion. The forest lights up and then goes dark again. The boundary between natural and modelled nature becomes blurred, while human beings take on a changed role. Step by step, they create an alternative landscape. Names and a terminology have yet to be found for this immigration of the artificial.

2011 is a threshold year. It is the year when a tsunami triggers the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, whose effects are felt around the world. The images that reach us from Tohoku in north-eastern Japan make it shockingly clear how vulnerable our planet is, how fragile its equilibrium and how substantial the responsibility that human beings bear for this global catastrophe. 2011 is the year when the man-made age becomes an undeniable reality. The concept of the Anthropocene was introduced to the discussion around the turn of the millennium by the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen, when he improvised a name for the growing influence of human activity on biological, chemical and meteorological processes. For some time, the term would remain an enigmatic and abstract one, whose use was restricted to scientific circles before political discourse and the protest cultures of climate activists introduced it to everyday discussions of art and politics. And suddenly, it became clear what it actually means: our idea of nature is now out of date. Humanity forms nature and the consequences of its actions are irreversible. Peter Sloterdijk put it more graphically and poetically: the atmosphere has a memory.

Now, ten years later, we are also encountering these altered power relations on stage. Until a few years ago, dance and theatre were based on a world view that deliberately placed human beings, their voices, their bodies at the centre of the world. What does it mean if human beings are no longer the centre of attention? If material formations, an artistic subject, a device, a mask or a digital dance partner appears alongside them and the relationship between them is allowed to dance? The Artificial Nature Project (2012) was created in the echo chamber of these experiences. The mood of that disastrous year affected Mette Ingvartsen and the artistic direction that her work would take as a harbinger of times to come. However, she does not stop at theoretical findings; her focus is on theatricalising questions about the natural sciences. To achieve this, she develops forms of expression that are amalgamated with her earlier works, enabling the transition into a realm of altered awareness to become highly specific yet also highly flexible. She is concerned, she says, with a form of symbiosis: »What we do to things, things also do to us.« The audience for The Artificial Nature Project sees itself contrasted against an artificial landscape. Dancers move swarms of swirling silver strips with leaf blowers. Is what’s flying around foliage, sand or confetti? A vortex of accelerated particles changes from one state to the next, from a domain into matter, from fullness to emptiness, from frozen passivity to dynamism, from swirling brightness to darkness, before ultimately transforming into a meditative silence. A kind of ballet mécanique, whose beauty masks a new horror.

Mette Ingvartsen and her company were among the first to realign themselves to reflect more deeply on ecology and the interaction of human and non-human subjects. What does a commitment to using nature and resources responsibly mean for choreographic practice?

While many artists and curators turn to new parallel bodies such as avatars, androids and digital doppelgängers, Mette Ingvartsen embarks on an unanticipated counter-movement. Her initial artistic response to post-human dimensions is aggressively corporeal. In 2014, she announces a new group of works, The Red Pieces, to examine sexuality, pornography and power. The focus of these performances lies on the body and how it is presented through a range of media. When pornography became legalised from the mid-1960s onwards – in Denmark, this happened in 1967, in Germany it was not until 1975 – this seemed to promise erotic freedom and sexual equality, with far-reaching social implications. Fifty years later, pornography has infiltrated our everyday lives widely. Whether in art, advertising or in torture or military combat – the affective power of pornography is being used everywhere. The media confront us with images of bodies in intimate situations, they flash across the screens of our smartphones and it is almost impossible to get away from them. This is where Mette Ingvartsen begins.

 »I’m trying to understand what relationship we now have to sexuality – at a time when lust and desire have been co-opted by commercial economies and the boundaries between what is personal and public are more blurred than ever before.« The first two pieces in the series, 69 positions (2014) and 7 Pleasures (2015), deal with the history of sexuality and how nakedness slowly alters body images in dance theatre and performance art. In her solo performance, 21 pornographies (2017) she then engages explicitly with the omnipresence of pornographic images. Like a film director, she creates a screenplay in which every scene stages a different variety of pornographic violence. The film is never made, it only exists in the minds of the audience, where it starts to take shape as soon as Mette Ingvartsen walks on stage. She takes off her clothes, first her blouse, then her trousers and, naked, describes excesses of humiliation, perversion and manipulation word for word. The detail and slow pace with which she does this are excruciating. »I believe the dark atmosphere of the performance fits the times we find ourselves in and that are expressed in our socio-political climate. The piece examines what happens if we openly watch things that torment us, things that are brutal and cruel.« Today, 21 pornographies, which was premiered at PACT Zollverein, Essen and co-produced with the Berlin Volksbühne, can be read as the prologue to a subject that had been locked away for a long time and that had to force its way to the surface eventually. Mette Ingvartsen’s stories of the pornography of sexual violence against women have stopped simply being conversation. Their hidden reality is now tangible, since a series of scandals about misconduct and abuse plunged German theatres into the deepest systemic crisis they have ever experienced.

WHERE WE DIRECT OUR ATTENTION IS NOT ONLY AN AESTHETIC BUT ALSO AN ETHICAL AND POLITICAL QUESTION. Marietta Piekenbrock

For her latest work, The Life Work, Mette Ingvartsen has devised a contemplative garden that is reminiscent of the Japanese culture of Zen gardens, where a nuanced drama is generated from the interrelationship between dying and flourishing nature.  One of the most beautiful Zen gardens is the rock garden of the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto which was founded in 1499 and inspired the composer John Cage’s series of prints Where R = Ryoanji (1990/91) and several pieces of music. The garden consists of fifteen stones that are arranged in five groups, so that at least one of the stones is hidden from view, no matter where the viewer is positioned. The human eye’s restricted field of vision makes it practically impossible to see all the stones at once. The garden is bordered by a wall that is treated with oil, whose red-orange surface provides a clear contrast as its tone changes with the seasons. This magical composition of rocks and moss is an amazing sight: a garden that, with its desaturated colours, seems liberated from all clichés and traditional definitions, where a new model of seeing and thinking can be discovered in its austere beauty.

Similar finely-tuned structures of perception also underlie The Life Work, which operates at the frontiers of dance. In an age in which progress and mobility promise to expand our horizons and make our lives richer, Mette Ingvartsen has created an artistic environment based on the principle of staying put, repetition and reduction. The mixing of technical and natural elements is an extension of her long-standing investigation of fleeting phenomena and aggregate states. In the darkened space of the museum, the visitor enters a densely composed spectrum of sensory, optic and acoustic stimuli and shifts: the changing colour of the light, the cool floor, the presence of the bodies, the shade of a tree that revolves robotically, the shafts of light cast by spotlights. Whenever someone crosses the fields of light, their shadows become part of the kinetic drama. Female voices recall a disaster, their arrival in Europe, pictures of Fukushima and the lonely silence after the deadly storm. Where are the bodies that belong to these voices? The Life Work (2021) is Mette Ingvartsen’s first work for a museum, a commission by the Ruhrtriennale. It accompanies the exhibition Global Groove at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, which recounts the history of modern dance as a cultural history of contact. Frequently, it has been encounters between cultures, spontaneous communities or migratory movements that have paved the way for new expressions in the arts – transcending political, language and colour lines. 

Where we direct our attention is not only an aesthetic but also an ethical and political question. Only once we have perceived something does it become reality. It will no longer remain abstract. We are particularly fortunate that this summer, with The Life Work and her new solo, The Dancing Public, the Ruhrtriennale and PACT Zollverein will present a kind of double portrait of a choreographer who works like an engineer, like an environmental activist, like a cognitive psychologist and like an anthropologist.   Her aesthetics are practised from a holistic perspective. Unlike many specialists, she doesn’t just view the world through a tiny keyhole. She doesn’t look for a section, but for a panorama. With prophetic intelligence she glides from one phase of work to the next, in order to intimate and rethink the differences between bodily, animal, plant and mineral modes of being and Western traditions of thought. Her dance is an appeal for a »vital materialism«, a term coined by the philosopher Jane Bennett for the vitality of our environment. Material, says Bennett, is nothing passive or dull. Everything that surrounds us – the leaves in the forest, the rocks in the garden, the bodies of a community, heavy metals in the earth, viruses, fungi and winds – all these things are part of a great chain of being. We live in a complex and interwoven fabric. Awareness of this is constantly trickling further into our collective consciousness. For dance, this means asserting one’s level of freedom and combining that with the existential themes of this new ecology.

MARIETTA PIEKENBROCK is dramaturg and co-curator of the exhibition Global Groove. Art, Dance, Performance and Protest.The Life Work, Mette Ingvartsen´s new work, commissioned by the Ruhrtriennale, was created in this context.

Translation: David Tushingham