The Spanish choreographer and multidisciplinary artist La Ribot, a pioneer of conceptual dance, is receiving a retrospective at Tanz im August including past work as well as new performances, film screenings, and a gallery installation. I caught two of the remounted works, Laughing Hole (from 2006, created by La Ribot and performed here by Tamara Alegre, Olivia Csiky Trnka, and Ruth Childs), and Panoramix (from 2003, performed by La Ribot), both at the stunning Sophiensæle, a former craftsman’s workshop in Mitte.
In Laughing Hole, the four walls of the large space are covered in cardboard signs, each with a short phrase handwritten in Sharpie: “DISTURBING HELP”. “STILL BRUTAL”. “PLEASE DIE”. “CLEAN HOLE”. “NO END FUN”. “KILLING WAR”. “PLEASE REMEMBER”. What seems like hundreds more of these signs are strewn across the floor, face down, waiting. Three women roam throughout the space, laughing all the while; one by one, each seizes a sign from the floor and holds it aloft for us to read as she splays her body into a distorted pose, holding this position for minutes at a time. Finally, she runs to the nearest wall, tapes her sign up with the others, dives to the floor for another sign, and repeats the whole process, still laughing. This continues for six hours.
Created in response to human rights abuses at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Laughing Hole instills a sense of claustrophobic helplessness. Though the audience is free to come and go, the exhausted persistence of the performers and their ever-present laughter (amplified and mixed live by a sound artist) creates a hermetically sealed chamber of horrors. At various points the laughter suggests desperation, madness, or an aggressive gesture of resistance; at other times, it is so mechanical as to lose any sense of intention. Throughout, the repetitious cardboard phrases are an overwhelming visual barrage, reflecting sensationalism and fear back at us from all sides and rendering refuge impossible.
I stayed inside of Laughing Hole for two hours, and I deeply regret not committing to the entire six-hour duration, as the relationship between the audience and the performers grew richer and more complex the longer I stayed. At one point one of the performers stationed herself next to me, making eye contact as she laughed. Was she mocking me? Perhaps begging for help? A question of responsibility passed between us and I found it difficult to meet her eyes. Does our witness ease the task of the laughers, or does it make us complicit in their ordeal? Whatever our participation signifies, we are not allowed to forget our physical presence: another performer charged headlong into a group of social, rather distracted spectators. Their casual conversation dissipated as she chuckled quietly in their midst. Here we are, together, in the laughing hole. How might we, together, crawl out? One moment of pure chance offered up a surprisingly clear directive. Two performers lay in the center of the space, facing opposite directions. The sign facing me read “LOOK AT POLITICIANS”. Minutes later, the other performer moved and her sign too became visible: it read, “YOUR POLITICIAN”.
A few days later, I was back at Sophiensæle for Panoramix. Like Laughing Hole, this piece is a durational event during which the audience is free to move around, come and go. (I learned my lesson and stayed for the entirety, though Panoramix runs a breezy three hours rather than six.) There are echoes of Laughing Hole in the scenography: the floor is again covered in cardboard, though instead of countless individual strips it is now a single surface that provides physical comfort for performer and audience alike. The walls, too, are once again covered with objects (attached with the same brown packing tape), but where the cardboard signs created an oppressive visual repetition, here there is a pleasing heterogeneity, even outrageousness: voluminous dresses, colorful props, a rubber chicken. This is not to say that with Panoramix La Ribot is uninterested in challenging or confronting us—the furious sense of justice and social responsibility that fueled Laughing Hole is on view here as well. But where that work’s power comes from its punishingly single-minded focus, La Ribot’s tactics in Panoramix are more varied. She banters with us, beguiles us, reprimands us, conspires with us, empowers us, even trolls us. Once again, our presence and our energetic exchange with the performer is integral.
Panoramix represents one phase of La Ribot’s lifelong project (begun in 1993) to create one hundred “Distinguished Pieces,” short live artworks that blur the line between dance, performance and visual art. Originally premiered in 2003, Panoramix reperforms and remixes the first 34 Distinguished Pieces (all solos for La Ribot; her most recent Distinguished Pieces, which are also showing at the festival, incorporate other performers) into a single evening. Each piece has its own integrity, but certain choreographic motifs, thematic concerns, and spatial interventions recur over the course of the performance, creating a steady, traceable accumulation of meaning. At the center of the experience is La Ribot’s (usually naked) body—wearing an oversized luggage tag or a sign reading “FOR SALE”, marked with oil crayon, photographed, bewigged, manipulated, measured, censored. Her images are poetic and absurd, decidedly feminist and resistant to simple interpretation.
As she moves from one piece to the next, from one part of the room to another, she removes the objects or clothing that she needs from the walls, then leaves them on the floor when that piece is over. The space begins to reverberate with memory and takes on a powerful presence of its own. In a talk I attended a day or two after the performance, La Ribot spoke about the challenges of revisiting Panoramix, the components of which range from 14 to 24 years old. To authentically reenter each piece, she said, she needs to truly become the person she was when she first made that piece; as the pieces are chronologically scrambled, she must constantly leap between temporalities. This personal journey of embodied memory is reflected in the audience’s spatial experience of the piece. As we follow La Ribot around the room, we are increasingly confronted with physical remnants of our shared past, the scattered objects charged with meaning and history.
Both Laughing Hole and Panoramix are animated by this sense of shared experience, the uncertain but tangible charge between audience and performer that grows and changes and evolves during the duration of the performance. Together, performers and audience confront the question of what is to be done with this charge, with this history, with these bodies. “If I speak of a body,” La Ribot asked us in Spanish during the Distinguished Piece Angelita, “of what body do I speak?” She recited a litany of actions this hypothetical body might perform: dance, sing, yell, play, meditate, change. She looked intently at us and repeated her question: “¿De qué cuerpo hablo?” Her words—an invitation, a reminder, and a challenge—echoed through the room. Then she pulled the rubber chicken off the wall, stared at it, muttered “I don’t know what to do with this,” and hurled it forcefully into the crowd.
Photo: Caroline Morel Fontaine