Booty Looting may be a mess, but it is one hell of a mess. Directed by Wim Vandekeybus, who rose to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s as part of the Flemish “new wave” of choreography, the performance begins with a set up that it immediately demolishes. Actor Jerry Killick (of Forced Entertainment) explains that he and the dancers – Luke Jessop, Kip Johnson, Elena Fokina and Moritz Ostruschnjak – will reconstruct artist Joseph Beuys’ 1974 event, in which Beuys spent three days in a room with a coyote. Only, you know, they’ll be much quicker. The dancers hurtle doggily about while Killick pretends to be in a tent. Elko Blijweert, on electric guitar, provides a suitably snarly soundtrack, and the whole thing is “documented” in real time by photographer Danny Willems. Killick then explains the false premises behind the original Beuys event, and they enact the whole thing again, this time in a more “extreme” version, with amped-up guitar and more ravening dancers.
So, what have we here? A faithless reproduction of a false original, recorded, with commentary, and presented as performance – twice. A post-structuralist would have field day – and I dare say that post-structuralists have organised field trips to this very show, and may indeed have helped to conceive it. Good for them! But how does it pan out for the rest of us?
part artist, part mother, part myth, part martyr
Well, that opening is a good indicator of what is to come: fabricated biographies, performances of performances, photographs and sound effects made on the fly, cross-references, ironies. The unreliable narrative congeals around a single figure, “Birgit Walter”, played by German actress Birgit Walter. She is a composite character – part artist, part mother, part myth, part martyr. At first, she dramatises the conflicts between the demands and expectations of an artistic career and those of motherhood. Preferring art, she is painted as something of a monster – though when the little monsters themselves play up (the dancers romping riotously round the set), your sympathies are with her.
Her role as monstrous mother grows to mythic proportions as she becomes identified with the legendary figure of Medea, who killed her own sons. The performance spirals towards this act of murder, but first it implicates and pathologises all its actors. The “children” express their inner selves: Fokina babbling about shopping and popularity, Johnson reciting statistical trivia, cocky Jessop being gratuitously offensive. Killick tells us that after murdering her children, Walter had begun to create artworks that imagined the life they would have had. She duly sets out her stall, part therapy room, part photo booth, where Willems takes snapshots of staged situations that are drenched in Oedipal dysfunction: Walter spanking Ostruschnjak’s bottom, blowing smoke in Johnson’s face when he asks for money, smouldering resentfully as Jessops boasts about his girlfriends. Oh yes, psychoanalysts would have a field day too.
sometimes it’s worth having your head messed with
So would cultural historians: there are references to Maria Callas (in Pasolini’s film Medea), to Maria Schneider (in Clouzot’s L’Enfer), to the photographer Leni Riefenstahl, and more. At two unbroken hours, the piece is a long haul, and a bit of ruthless cutting wouldn’t go amiss (the editor ’s dictum “kill your darlings” leapt to my mind several times). But… it’s quite a journey, and at its best when the material overpowers the ideas. The scene in which Walter murders her children – her “reproductions” – by pressing their faces into a photocopier, producing grainy images of their squashed, anguished faces, is genuinely shocking as well as clever. And the stylised expressionist portraits that Willems takes of a disintegrating Walter – documenting the progressive smear of her kohled eyes and painted face, the matting of her hair – are masterful, each one worth a thousand words. If your feelings and senses are churned, sometimes it’s worth having your head messed with.