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Flash Review 1, 12-7: Alpha Female Asylum
Vandekeybus and the Squirm Factor

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

ANTWERP, Belgium -- There aren't many shiny, happy people in Wim Vandekeybus's world. The characters in his new evening-length work "Scratching the Inner Fields" (seen Monday at De Singel) -- all gaunt, tormented souls -- scour for sustenance, writhing and scratching themselves senseless without a moment's respite from pain. It's a dog eat dog world, a Darwinian study in survival of the fittest. No alpha males here though. Only alpha females, seven she-wolves trapped in a primeval forest. Or are they inmates in a Marquis de Sade asylum? This is dance theater not intended for the meek or tender-hearted. Vandekeybus jolts us and makes us squirm in our seats by delivering full throttle physicality and raw, uncensored emotions and desire to the point of exhaustion. Whoever said theater was safe?

"Scratching the Inner Fields" could be seen as the female counterpart to "In Spite of Wishing and Wanting," Vandekeybus's 1999 all-male piece which deals with similar subject matter -- dreams, desire, pain, pleasure and spiritual transcendence. In comparison, "Scratching" is a much more mature work, the collaging more refined, the segues between sections more clearly delineated. As well, we see a much tighter integration of sound, lighting and action, immersing the audience in storms and stampedes, making us squint to see shadows or limit the floodlights blinding our vision. And while the men in "In Spite of" danced mostly like, well, men, the women in "Scratching" adopt the forms of both humans and beasts.

Inspired by and set to "Zwellend Fruit," a fairy novel by Peter Verhelst, "Scratching the Inner Fields" probes the psyche and acts out primal urges. Discovery Channel special: The Human Animal: "Some are born with wings under the skin of their shoulders. They keep scratching at their shoulder blades to get rid of the strange itching.... Whoever was born with wings under the skin of his shoulders can scratch until he bleeds, but the itching is always worse than the pain." As wads of wet, porous membranes fall from the sky and splat on the floor, the dancers, some scampering on all fours, scurry to collect and horde the goods. They are territorial creatures who scavenge and disperse upon sensing danger. Baboons fighting over fruit.

The oddest creature of this forest/asylum is Iona Kewney, a double-jointed contortionist, equal parts wild boar and rhythmic gymnast (no joke), who practically steals the show. This is a woman held together by cartilage, not bone. She moves like a 'toon and splats her limbs on the floor as if her arms were wet towels. If you ran over her with a car, she'd probably shape shift herself back whole. Kewney wiggles and writhes with stunning elan and has a voice big enough to fill an opera house. All in a small, compact package. When she's on stage, it's hard to watch anyone else. She's that odd and that good.

Not to say that all the dancers in "Scratching the Inner Fields," aren't fine. On the contrary, the cast is stunningly agile and passionate. They form a tight-knit community of beasts and beauties. They are temptresses and seducers. One purrs, "Would you like to play with me as if I was....", smacks her lips and runs away. Another whispers, "It's in your ears, in your nose." These are the real Vagina Monologues. The raw, uncensored version.

Vandekeybus brilliantly plays the role of both choreographer and director. He uses sound effects to amplify the intent of his movement, not merely to create mood. A dancer hurls herself on the ground to the sound of screeching distortion. This is dance as a cinematic experience. In one scene, dancers dump sacks of manure on other dancers' heads as they lie prone on the floor. In another scene, amorphous writhing gives way to intricate partnering work, loose-limbed, tangled pretzel arms that weave seamlessly from one position to another. The images are breathtakingly pure and symbolic. It's the kind of dance Stanley Kubrick would have created had he been a choreographer.

Vandekeybus wants to get under our skin, make us squirm and wonder. His primal/primate creatures strive for some type of instant gratification, scouring the woods in search of an analgesic for the soul. "No more worries. No more loneliness. No more longings. Everything is just as promised."

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