Mette Ingvartsen hands out headsets to four volunteers. What they hear is a musical score of orgasms, the moans, squeals and cries of which they are supposed to replicate. Hesitant at first the quartet does a great job, performing three climactic waves with varying dynamics. Ingvartsen’s most recent piece 69 Positions is her first foray into active audience participation and she doesn’t hold back.
69 Positions (premiered in 2014 at PACT Zollverein Essen which recently travelled to the Centre Pompidou in Paris) is staged inside a cage of images. A frame with rails for pictures and video stills forms a space through which Ingvartsen navigates, telling a story through words and movement like a three-dimensional hypertext. The ‘69’ of the title acts as trigger, connotation and date. The first images in the piece are drawn from performances and demonstrations from the 1960s that used nudity as a political tool: Richard Schechner’s pioneering costume-free production of Bacchae, Dionysus in 69 (1969), a scene from Anna Halprin’s ‘immoral’ Parades and Changes (1965) and Carolee Schneemann’s orgiastic Meat Joy (1964).
Starting from these references (and with no fear of omissions) Ingvartsen choreographs her way into the present – with sketches on public and private rules of nudity, on allowed and forbidden elements of sexuality and on obscure and normative aspects of desire. A loose affinity with queer and body discourse is apparent. For example, Testo Junkie (2013), Beatriz Preciado’s self-experiment with pharmaceutical testosterone gel gets a scene but the FEMEN activists don’t.
The orgasm scene is also a self-quotation from an earlier work, To Come (2005), which, together with excerpts from other earlier pieces, forms the second part of 69 Positions. It includes Manual Focus (2003) which sees Ingvartsen crawling on all fours, her head held erect and positioned so that it obscures the audience’s view of her genitals. On the back of her head she wears a pallid, fleshy mask of an old man – as if fused into a Janus-like being.
For years Ingvartsen’s studies have focused on affect. One of her watchwords is ‘affective capitalism’, she tells me when we meet at a café in Paris. She says this with a mixture of resignation and defiance – the methods of a political system built on satisfying desire are not so different from those of theatre. When Ingvartsen came to dance in the late 1990s, such parallels drew little interest. French conceptual dance, the dominant form of the time, took as its point of reference Yvonne Rainer’s rejection of theatricality, No Manifesto (1965). As a student of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker at PARTS in Brussels, Ingvartsen responded by publishing a YES Manifesto in the performance magazine Fraktija in 2004. Rainer’s ‘no to virtuosity’ is answered with a ‘yes to redefining virtuosity’; her ‘no to transformations and magic and make-believe’ countered with a ‘yes to conceptualizing experience, affects, sensation’.
With evaporated landscapes (2009), a piece without performers, she took conceptual dance to its utopia, ignoring taboos of using technical trickery (illusions via light, sound and effects). In the centre of a dark space the impression of a polar ice cap, made from real ice, gently melts away, surrounded by sparkling peaks of soap suds pocked with blotches of colour. This scene is accompanied by a soundtrack so seductive and lyrical that by the time those watching think to lift their belongings to safety from the floor the bottoms of their bags have already been soaked.
The crux of the piece, however, is less about abolishing the performer and more about choreographing perception. This theme in Ingvartsen’s work, pursued alongside her interest in the dancer’s body, continues in the participatory dimension of 69 Positions – with its choreography for both performers and audience. ‘What impact does stimulation of the imagination have on physical reactions?’ Ingvartsen asks herself. She is referring to the ‘pseudo-public space of online pornography whose standardized images of desire millions of people resort to for their daily orgasms.’
The exchangeability between performers and audience when it comes to sexuality is something the artist has explored in several preliminary studies, most recently as part of Boris Charmatz’s Expo Zero at Berlin’s ‘Foreign Affairs’ festival in the summer of 2014 for which Charmatz invited dancer-choreographers to offer insights into their practice. When I asked Ingvartsen about the lecture performance she presented at Berlin’s Uferstudios as part of the Expo Zero project, she mentions an email exchange with Carolee Schneemann concerning Schneeman’s 1964 piece Meat Joy. Ingvartsen wanted to reconstruct the work with its original cast which would have meant using performers devoid of their former youthfulness for the explicitly orgiastic piece. Schneemann replied that the original performers were either dead, demented or otherwise engaged, and that if Ingvartsen wanted to work with old people she’d be better off working in an old people’s home.
Ingvartsen took this as a invitation to do it herself, and in 69 Positions, which after an extended tour finally comes to Berlin’s HAU at the end of May, she includes scenes from Meat Joy: four women lying down in a flower petal formation; corpses of chickens and fish as sexual fetish objects and other props hinting towards the medieval practice of tarring and feathering. The scenes are contextualized in spoken descriptions, and when narrative reaches its limits, the story is continued through movement, juxtaposed with video documentation of the original Schneemann performance. This method is the key to 69 Positions. For quite a while, I wondered what it constitutes as a whole. A patchwork, perhaps, whose parts flicker and dance together. And maybe that is the very experience the piece offers: despite the myriad rules and power plays linked to sexuality on stage, it can be a game where one can join in.
Translated by Nick Grindell