an article by Rainer Hofmann

We live in times of fear and insecurity. Not only since the recent terror attacks, which showed some deep gaps in European societies. A lot of the political discussions and conflicts of the last few months stem from an insecurity about who we are or will be in the future. To be more precise: is there and will there be a „we“? And if so, what will be its character? In other words: what is holding us (?) together (?)?

There is a long list of reasons, why there is a fear of not knowing who we are, a fear of emotional and social homelessness: globalization puts us in complex and inscrutable contexts; virtualisation can make things abstract and hard to grasp; economisation pushes cultural values to the background; migration changes cities, refugees from different cultures could do more so; daily life experiences between urban and rural parts of countries differ more and more.

If we believe Wikipedia, then a third of the inhabitants of Utrecht is not Dutch, almost half of Amsterdam is not, and 46% of the inhabitants of Brussels are not born in Belgium. If people want to close borders and ask for ID checks, they act more self-reflexive than it might seem. It is not only about keeping out, but about knowing who is in. It means checking on your own identity and gaining self-reassurance.

The German-Turkish theatre director Shermin Langhoff once called her former theatre, the Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin „post-migrant“ and „an identity-machine“. But does theatre produce identity? Or does it maybe question concepts of identity? Does it have to accept the dominating discourse around ethical backgrounds, since the bigger picture is more complex?

A number of theatre and dance shows at SPRING tackle questions of identity vertically and horizontally, in terms of history and in terms of current social contexts.

Jan Martens does this on a very personal level in THE COMMON PEOPLE. He invites 48 people from Utrecht to meet each other in pairs of two for the first time during the performance on stage. Whether it will be a representative portrait of the city or not, we will see how a wide range of people who live in one city react to each other – an intimate encounter of which the audience will be part as witnesses.

Some shows go back in time and into music and dance history, a few refer explicitly to folk dance and music. Simon Mayer takes Upper Austrian folk music and folk dance as starting-point for Sons of Sissy. With great humour and technical virtuosity the dancers/musicians perform the tradition. The title suggests already that the show deals with gender roles in this tradition. Through repetitions of singular musical and dance phrases and with sweaty naked male bodies the show deconstructs music and dance and their cultural backgrounds and connotations. Power structures emerge in the relations between the dancers. Through its sheer physicality and its trance-like quality the dance becomes a ritual, which unifies the dancers. At the same time the choreography takes away (and by doing so makes visible) any ideology which might be attached to folk culture. Mayer sketches a new and ambivalent picture of the cultural tradition he comes from, he undresses it and saves it, implying much more than Upper Austria.

Nicole Beutler takes a different kind of traditional dance in 6: THE SQUARE: Square Dance, which in itself already incorporates different dance forms which immigrants brought to the US. Square Dance is a very formalized dance and Nicole Beutler reflects on the human need for order and measure. Through dance (and also visual art) history, she connects a historical perspective with a contemporary horizon, when she takes the square not only as a dance pattern and a geometrical form, but also as a central place in a city. How do we meet? Who is meeting there?

Adva Zakai shows the fragmentation of identities and individuals in Last Seen Standing Between Brackets. She is taking apart body and dance, physics and physical expression, the performer and the words. In a play with projections she takes the body off stage and out of the performance and makes the language and the words dance instead. She is creating a portrait of the contemporary human as a fragmented being, a being without safe identity, but with many skills, skills we might need to connect again with other people in a compartmentalized society.

Nástio Mosquito from Angola goes for the bigger political picture. The musician, visual artist and performance maker very often uses himself as a central figure in his work. The title Se Eu Fosse Angolano already questions identity: If I were Angolan. Nástio Mosquito is taking on stereotypes of Africa in Western contexts and reflects our clichés back on us. He defies all attempts to pin him down to an identity. I already fall into his trap as I try to catch him in a nationality or a continent implying that „we“ are European and he is not, although he lives in Belgium. It seems that every act of definition, of creating common ground is an act of excluding someone else.

So who are „we“? What is holding us together? Let’s put it like that: SPRING is not an identity-machine, but it offers various perspectives on questions of identity. There is not one answer, but many possible points of view, many artistic forms and starting-points to tackle such urgent questions: a show consisting of intimate encounters of the people living in our city, a virtuoso and humorous deconstruction of folk dance, a dance piece connecting genre history and city architecture, a stunning concert performance referring to political discourses on identity.

None of this will offer any relief to people’s fears or easy solutions to current political questions. Yet it shows how dance and performance can deal with what lies behind political issues. There is no going back from the fact, that identities – individual and collective ones – are composite, fluid, changing. These dance and theatre pieces, especially if you look at them in context, think about who we are and what is holding us together but also what is setting us apart. These differences will not be solved, they can only be endured. It’s not easy, but it might be rich and rewarding. There might even be a small utopian light in the air reminding us of a time when we sang: We are the world.

Rainer Hofmann