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.