The work of choreographer and dancer Jared Gradinger has always been about testing boundaries. His collaboration with Angela Schubot between 2009 and 2014, which gave rise to some of the most radical dance and performance work around at the time, began with the question of how the metamorphosis of physical bodies can be shown on stage in real time, without using any simulation techniques. A good example comes in what they are instead of (2009), their first collaboration: A Da Capo al Fine piece with an extreme bodily energy to the point of exhaustion and near self-dissolution.
Among other places, the duo’s search for techniques of bodily abolition took them on a pilgrimage to the Peruvian jungle in preparation for i hope you die soon, to try ayahuasca, a drug reputed to trigger processes in the brain similar to those experienced at the moment of death. Rather than the out-of-body experience itself, what interested Gradinger was the sharing of experience, in the sense outlined by Jean-Luc Nancy in his 2005 book Allitérations: ‘Some-one else is always some-body else.’ Seen in this light, Gradinger is interested in a kind of body-symbiosis, a role predestined by his capacity for concession – to another individual, but also to a larger framework. Besides his projects with Schubot, he has also danced for Mark Tompkins, William Forsythe and Jeremy Wade (he’s currently working with Meg Stuart) and he is a founding member of DorkyPark, a German dance/theatre company with an international profile. Recently he is part of the organizing team behind the Social Muscle Club (SMC), a bimonthly performance event at Berlin’s Sophiensaele performance space with a low threshold for encouraged participation that is currently a big hit in the German-speaking scene.
Gradinger grew up surrounded by social thinking and action, but he had to conquer dance for himself. From his home in Rochester, New York, his father campaigned for human rights alongside Russian Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov. Gradinger gained his first experience on the stage as a child activist in a globally touring peace choir. In 1989 he sang a solo for the end of the Cold War in St. Petersburg. Aged 14, while studying at Rochester School of the Arts, he saw his first piece by Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, whose early works inspired him to start enthusiastically throwing stones and chairs in his own performances. Later he was accepted to study musical theatre at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he was soon banished to the theatre department due to the alleged weakness of his dancing. This offered two career paths: TV or Broadway.
His escape route, though, was the independent performance scene. After a period at the Moscow Art Theatre, Gradinger moved to New York, where he had his initiation as a dancer in Constanza Macras’s Dolce Vita (2000) – whom he met on a trip to the Festival d’Avignon – on 9 and 10 September 2001 at Joe’s Pub in downtown Manhattan. Stripped free, he felt more ‘punk and love’ than ever before, he told me. The second performance lasted until 4am, after which he went home with the dancers from Berlin, who were staying with him. After three hours’ sleep, the first plane hit the Twin Towers.
It was a while before the Berlin members were able to fly home, an interval during which the ‘creative family’ he was to foster in Berlin began to take shape. In 2002, he moved there himself. With Macras as choreographer, he co-founded DorkyPark, trying to move beyond the stereotypes of dance (‘punk musical’ is how Gradinger describes their early style) and looking for performance spaces that had not yet been defined. Back to the Present, their 2003 breakthrough production, premiered at the empty Jahndorf department store in Berlin’s Mitte district – now a hip event space. It was with DorkyPark that Gradinger first worked with Angela Schubot. This hypersensitive dancer from Berlin turned out to be the person he was looking for without knowing it: ‘I always wanted physicality, violence, romance, but then I saw her – a person on stage who could formuate thoughts with her body.’ If identity formation is a performative act, then a joint subject might be possible – such is the premise of Schubot and Gradinger’s collaboration.
This search for physical symbiosis has also led to collaborations with artists from other disciplines. For Is Maybe (2011), they asked artist Mark Jenkins to create the very thing they were trying to achieve: the ‘two-in-one’. Using transparent tape, he designed a stage set of beings melting into one another: feet, hips and more feet – human forms with a strangely charged, vegetative presence. For last year’s retrospective of the pair’s work at Berlin’s HAU (soon you are theirs, 2014) they relinquished control of their bodies entirely, asking bondage performance artist Dasniya Sommer to tie them together and hang them from the theatre’s ceiling. At the most intense moments of their collaboration, says Gradinger, they no longer knew who they were as separate individuals.
Not wanting to be defined only by their success together, they are currently exploring separate paths. For Gradinger, this means the SMC. Founded in September 2013 by Till Rothmund and the two former DorkyPark members Rahel Savoldelli and Jill Emerson, the club might be described as a mix of performance art, flea market and community repair café. As well as dates in Berlin, this spring and summer will see SMC tour to Marseille, Munich (Muffathalle), and Basel (Wildwuchs Festival, Markthalle). In a sense SMC events can be thought of as performance versions of ‘New Sincerity’: the output of trashy entertainment culture but accompanied by attempts to make something more out of it. Sometimes queered country music is performed, or a huge inflatable penis is pumped up, or a person over 70 sings a coquettish chanson. In pauses between the action on stage, the audience members, sitting at several tables, play ‘Give and Take’ with the help of an MC: everyone writes down on a piece of paper what he or she could give and what he or she could use. Sounds easy, but it’s not, as each player must define his or her own terms: a massage, tattoo, a babysitter, a stable income, love?
Some of these are too banal and some too abstract to find a match. Yet what this practice situation is about, in the romantic sense and otherwise, is subject formation within a community and the artistic potential that is required and that develops as a result. But the SMC does not want to be Social Sculpture 2.0. Its objective – which is also Gradinger’s motto – is to create opportunities for ‘thinking differently’ and expanding the borders of what’s physically, performatively, possible.