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In Performance: Rudi van der Merwe, Trophée (Tanz im August)

Rudi van der Merwe
Tanz im August, Vierfelderhof
August 19-20

The performance space (in this case, a field at the outer edges of the Berlin city limits) becomes a site to be conquered in Rudi van der Merwe’s outdoor Trophée. At one end of the field stands a white picket fence, the audience gathered a short distance behind it. From the faraway trees at the other end of the field, three figures emerge. Their faces are blank, white; they lift their blue hoop skirts to move purposefully, with a regimented directness. Too distant to perceive the details of their actions, all we know for certain is that they are coming closer. Their slow approach instills a visceral unease (augmented by the ominous soundscape, performed live by Béatrice Graf). When we first arrived, the picket fence merely framed the playing area; now it is a charged boundary, creating an “us” and a “them,” and giving the figures’ advance a primal sense of threat.

Van der Merwe has called this piece a “choreographic crusade,” and the military implications become clearer as the performance progresses. Those blank white faces turn out to be lace stretched over a soldier’s helmet. Though the three figures never physically engage with us, they do invade our space and dismantle the fence, hoisting each segment aloft like a sword before plunging it into the earth. When they are finished, we are suddenly looking at a field of white crosses, a military cemetery. The fence, the sword, and the cross are familiar images, but witnessing one object traverse through all three functions delivers a surprising jolt. Van der Merwe’s choreography and Kata Tóth’s stunning costumes also trouble expected iconography, de-gendering the performers by combining a flowing elegance with martial severity and aggression. In Trophée, the divisions between war and domesticity are elided into a single, relentless drive to claim space, to possess.

Photo: Dajana Lothert

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Philip Wesley Gates is a director, performance maker, and writer/scholar currently based in Pittsburgh. Deploying queer, choreographic, and participatory strategies, their work proposes alternative possibilities and modes of relation. They hold an MFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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