Slovenian company En-Knap is the kind of group you don’t often see any more, at least in the UK. It has ideals. Its founder, Iztok Kovac, sees democracy and communal authorship as important principles in making art. ‘I see myself above all as a co-ordinator, as an instructor,’ he says. ‘And I think that progress lies in collective spirit.’
‘The choreographer as an autonomous subject is not relevant any more,’ he continues. ‘Not in music, not in theatre, not in dance. Which means that it is imperative to co-operate with co-workers. Here the issue of the dialogue between parties pops up… There isn’t merely one principle which could function for all individuals. Every person reads information in his/her own way.’
En-Knap’s recent S.K.I.N. embodies these ideas not simply in the diverse personalities of its performers – six dancers and one musician – but also, more fundamentally, in its composition. In collaboration with the company, Kovac and veteran (and virtuoso) British improviser Julyen Hamilton devised more than 40 ‘scenarios’, some fixed, some improvised. The individual performers can signal to initiate particular sequences, which the others can respond to – or not – as they feel suits the moment.
losing your memory, losing your confidence, losing your face, patience, innocence, marbles
But the audience doesn’t know that, nor needs to know it: the success of any piece lies ultimately in its effects, not its intentions or its process. S.K.I.N. is by its nature a diffuse, patchwork piece. Though it can be sometimes frustratingly insiderish, S.K.I.N. is also a waywardly beguiling work, constantly shifting register, tone and pace. Kovac perches stork-like on a chair. With ‘zone-making’ tape, Hamilton marks out an area on stage, like a child’s drawing of a house and back yard – a ‘war zone’ that he asks ‘Jack’ to come and fight over. Carme Renalias sits on the floor reading from her list of losses: losing your memory, losing your confidence, losing your face, patience, innocence, marbles. Gali Kaner loses his wrap-around towel, leaving him dressed in nothing but a tin-foil nappy (this too he loses). Four dancers variously swathe their heads in scarves to the sound of early Aretha Franklin, as if gagging on, hiding from or knotting themselves in her lamenting love-affair lyrics.
Between these varied and variable theatrical riffs are episodes of deftly constructed choreography, soft and sinuous duets or tremulous solos. Andreja Rauch is captivating for her fragile, coltish air, while Karmit Burian shows the most gravitas in a rivettingly self-absorbed sequence, a tai chi meditation melded with sudden somersaults, swift flips and poised balances, as intense and concentrated as a gymnast on a beam.
Though the dancers each give off a distinctly personal vibe, it’s actually the musican, Sebastiano Tramontana, who emerges as the strongest single presence, despite his often background role. His alert improvisations with percussion, voice and trombone are a breathy, burping and hiccuping accompaniment that lends a bemusing, off-the-wall accompaniment to the evening.
It’s as if Kovac has left the industrialised production of old Eastern Europe, but not yet arrived at the consumerism of the West.
But each performance of S.K.I.N. is different, though each will certainly highlight the individuality of its perfomers, the unpredictable tone and ambience of its sequences. Setting the piece against Kovac’s East European background, you could see it as a socially democratic kind of work. It’s as if Kovac has left the industrialised production of old Eastern Europe, but not yet arrived at the consumerism of the West. S.K.I.N. is pluralist, giving rein to individual differences. But since it is part improvised and different each time, it is not simply a product that can be labelled and marketed, a package that is signed and sealed by the choreographer and delivered by its performers.
But these ideas are the matrix of the work, not its message. As a peformance, it offers glimpses into diverse lives that overlap or co-exist without really connecting. And often, that intermittent, transient engagement is also the experience of the audience for this intermittently engaging piece. But if its effects are wayward, its integrity and openness are a breath of air.