@Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on Mon 01 Feb 2016
On first glance Close Up – the final part of a trilogy by choreographer Editta Braun – appears to share some of its themes with Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher. Here, however, the unruly side-effects of the exacting toll high culture takes on its performers take bodily (if not entirely ‘human’) form, and it isn’t necessarily concluded that the promised rewards for perfecting art – glory, love and adoration – must give way to a mere monotonous servitude.
In the note accompanying the piece, one of the dancers tells of how it made her “think of the way women sacrifice their pride, their ambitions, and their feelings in order to bring agreement or peace – a sacrifice that women are so often capable of, even when they are hurt and mistreated”. If this, like much of Jelinek’s work, seems unrelentingly bleak, the chinks of physical humour that filter through Braun’s choreography lift it to a more playful and optimistic frontier.
“The event will loom from the fog of musical half-truths.”
Sitting at diligent study of her scores, Braun’s dance piece looms mysteriously for the main musical performer, whose character provokes with her music, but who mostly cannot see the dance she unwittingly prods to life. Delicately seated cross-legged on the floor below the grand Bösendorfer piano, at first encounter she is the model classical piano student; quietly still and absorbed, subservient to her instrument and its codes. All around her, swathes of grey cubes swirl like eddied snowfall.
As fingers expertly fan weight onto the keys in a series of twinkling spread chords, buried bodies mirror the pianist to send their grey environment a-flutter, and soon these strange bodies – led by elbows and knees – invade the serene music space. One emerges across the back of the stage, using movement typical of this drama; wackily, awkwardly, spasmodically shuffling with her back to us, legs seemingly glued crossed at the thighs, jolting from shoulder to hip bone.
The bodies enact various rituals together as music progresses, all the while keeping their most vulnerable parts (faces, bellies and chests) from view. They breathe yogically, they schhlurp and gurgle, balance on one another and entwine sensually. The pianist plays, or rests her head on the fallboard, or walks away in frustration. Occasionally she appears to search for them, crouching at the sides of the Bösendorfer and using her hands to test for the unseen ghosts of her instrument.
Visually, the effect of limiting the movement to hide parts of the dancers’ bodies is both absorbing and unnerving. The richness of the imagery brings to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s human limbs, that protrude angularly from eggs and other creatures: Braun has most viscerally brought to life the deformed and fragmented leftovers of a psyche.
If the musical drift meanders, taking in minimalist repetitions with some rambunctious ostinatos, impressionistic rumblings and lengthy quotation, this suits the scene and potential time-frame. As the relationships between the dancers become more complex however, the fragments feel too frayed to follow. The final encounter and touch (between dancer and musician) is satisfying, and clearly points towards a less constrained future. A gloriously tongue-in-cheek (or butt cheek on keys) piece of surreal dance invention.