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Flash Review, 10-21: Wapping Grimm
Fairy-tales in the Power Station from Maresa von Stockert

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2004 Josephine Leask

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LONDON -- You can't ask for much more in dance than wildly imaginative choreography performed in a sensational venue. Wapping Hydraulic Power Station in London's East End evokes awe. A power station until 1977, the building has been converted into an emporium for the consumption of visual art, theater, music, dance and food. With the original machinery still in place and much of the space unchanged, it is a challenging and inspirational place for dance performance, especially dance which is adventurous and installation-based.

Choreographer Maresa von Stockert, whose reputation and work has been flourishing recently in London, was commissioned by Wapping director Jules Wright to make a dance theater piece using the architecture of the building, for a three-week engagement, September 13 - October 9. For an independent choreographer such a length of time in a theater is almost unheard of, but Wright in her inquisitive way wanted to see if there would be an audience for this sort of work. With her discerning eye for quality and unusual art and penchant for risk-taking, Wright hit the mark. Von Stockart's "Grim[m] Desires," seen October 6, was sold out for every night of its run.

"Grim[m] Desires" was performed in the Power Station's Boiler House, a vast, damp, dark cellar and a very uncompromising space with iron wrought pillars and several smaller chambers leading off it. It is a cold and eerie place and entirely appropriate for von Stockert's black but humorous reinterpretation of a selection of the Brothers Grimm's famous fairy-tales. Every recess is imaginatively used. Both the vertical and horizontal axis of the walls are performed on by the dancers with the aid of safety harnesses enabling them to walk down walls, glide along them or suddenly spring up from the floor like in an aerial ballet. This multi-dimensional surface adds a very magical flavor to the piece.

As we enter and take our seats, which are generously equipped with blankets and hot water bottles, it is like walking into a fairy-tale setting even before anything happens. A light shining on some trees outside the windows makes them seem impossibly green; we could be entering an enchanted forest, or even the cellars of a giant's castle. Through the gloom, some of the dancers can be seen perched on ledges high up in the ceiling, attached to safety ropes. The sound of a pre-recorded voice is heard, the narrator reading in a dry, sardonic fashion -- making what he says seem even more captivating and extraordinary. The dancers gradually descend or appear from all corners of the huge room, embodying the various characters from the fairy-tales "The Frog King," "Snow White," "Rapunzel," "Bluebeard" and "Cinderella." Through the narrative and choreography each tale flows seamlessly into the next to become one impressive story.

Von Stockert teases out the twisted psychological subtexts of each original Grimm's fairy-tale with an uncanny synthesis of wit, humor and irony. For example, the Frog King ends up squashed against the wall, Rupunzel suffers pathological problems as a result of having her hair cut off, Snow White's Prince who comes to her rescue turns out to be the murderer Bluebeard, and Cinderella's Prince develops a fetishistic obsession with shoes and forgets about her. Some of the narrative sounds like social commentary and the characters are portrayed as if they belong to contemporary society. Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella could be Diva celebrities from the descriptions of their behavior, while the other characters show a range of other familiar dysfunctional attributes.

The movement is gaspingly daring, violent at times, gestural, highly expressive and erotic.

Bodies are flung through space, against walls, crumpled into fractured postures, suspended upside down, or locked together in intense partner work. Six strong performers with the stamina of oxen show no sign of fatigue, but only the wear and tear of performing in a space which has hard stone floors and brick walls. Their bumps and bruises merely add the final touch to their gothic costuming.

Each story leaves us with unforgettably disturbing images, body parts, movement or props. We see the feet of Cinderella's ugly step-sisters appearing out of the darkness through windows, dripping with blood from being squeezed into tiny shoes. Snow White's wicked step-mother is forced to dance to her death when she puts on a pair of red stiletto shoes, the upside-down bodies of Bluebeard's wives are slowly lowered down a wall and vast quantities of hair in Rapunzel's tale are thrown aggressively round the room.

For me, and for many others, "Grim[m] Desires" was the dance performance of the year. Von Stockert has offered a highly original, gripping and stylish work which has been laudably nurtured and supported by the Wapping Project.

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