The Love University (2002)

Participatory Performance, commissioned by NottDance, Nottingham, UK

 Premiere on May, 1, 2002, Nottingham

 Performers / Facilitators: Catherine Jodoin, Matthieu Burner, Laura Frigato, Felix Ruckert

 Photographer: Bernd Hartung

 Concept & Choreography: Felix Ruckert













by Ramsay Burt, Nottingham, 2002

Felix Ruckert’s work blurs boundaries and fosters connections – between stage and auditorium, spectator and performer, and between individuals. Audience members can find themselves in the performance space, being physically manipulated by dancers and given extremely sensual experiences. In some pieces they become co-performers; their intimate personal experiences and thoughts may even be used as a starting point for improvisation. Ruckert deals with these and other extraordinary ideas that challenge preconceptions about dance performance in very radical ways, but the way he goes about doing this is very straight forward and practical.
Ruckert founded his own company 1994 in Berlin where it has developed a special relationship with Dock 11. He initially trained at the Folkwangschule in Essen, as well as studying in Berlin, Paris and New York. He danced in works by Jean-Francois Duroure, Mathilde Monnier, Charles Cré-Ange, Wanda Golonka. Between 1992 and 1994 he was a member of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. His pieces include Hautnah, Ring, Schwartz, deluxe joy pilot, Sbalit, and the installation Stillen. In 2001 Stillen and deluxe joy pilot were presented in Leeds, and Ring was presented during the Nottdance Festival. Ring was also performed at the beginning of this autumn’s Dance Umbrella. In April and May this year, Ruckert and some of his dancers were in residence in Nottingham where they carried out a research project Love University with which I became involved.
Like many continental European dancers who worked with the generation of continental European choreographers that became established in the 1980s, Ruckert doesn’t usually make work for conventional theatre spaces. Most of his work needs to be presented in rooms that enable a kind of connection between spectator and performer that is almost impossible within a conventional proscenium theatre. Like other younger European choreographers, when he creates dance material he does not work at the level of a specifically defined movement vocabulary, nor is he primarily concerned with steps or with generating a personal movement style. Instead he talks with his dancers about the ideas or feelings behind a movement or particular section or event within the dance piece. But he does talk about pace and energy, about the overall time structure of the piece, or about ways of using space. His work, he says, ‘melts choreographic know-how with the intelligence of the genuine personal body language’.
Where Ruckert is perhaps different from some current continental European dance artists is that he is not at the moment interested in the kind of philosophical and theoretical debates about the poststructuralist and deconstructive ways of theorizing body and presence that, through the dance dramaturgy movement, are informing the creation of some choreography. Such works attempt to make performative interventions within theoretical discourse. Ruckert is not interested in talking about these sorts of idea at all. Nevertheless an inevitable consequence of what he does is that his work challenges preconceptions about the way we look at dance, and troubles things we take for granted about the social situation of seeing live performance. Felix Ruckert’s work can be very funny and ironic, but, unlike some recent continental European dance, it doesn’t play intellectual games. There is therefore something quite refreshing to hear some of his statements about dealing with real experience, genuine personal material, things that just are. Ruckert talks about his work with a kind of no nonsense directness.
Hautnah, which was performed between 1995 and 1999, and Ring, which his company have been performing since 1999, are the two pieces which have done most to establish Ruckert’s reputation. In Hautnah Ruckert turned upside down the idea of going to a performance venue and watching a show. The venue became a café with canned music where one had a drink and chose which dancer one wanted to see. Each had their own solo. After waiting until they were free, one agreed a fee with them, gave them the money, and then went up into a cubicle for a private, one-to-one performance. I went to Hautnah on two evenings when it was shown in New York in 1999, seeing two different solos, and talking to people who saw others. In most, there was a moment when the dancer got the spectator up on their feet to dance together. In one, the spectator had their wrists tied together. In the middle of another, the dancer put on her coat and took the spectator by the hand out into the street and made them run together round the block.
Over a four year period there were different versions of Hautnah presented in different cities with different casts. The things the spectator did — where in the room they chose to sit, how they responded to different parts of the solo — had an effect on how the dancer performed the piece. After they had been performing it for a while, the dancers became increasingly skilled at reading the spectator: they found that in most cases they knew straight away how particular people were going to react. Apparently in each solo there was always an element of improvisation that was in some way determined by the dancer’s response to the spectator. Intimate physical contact, interaction between dancer and a spectator who becomes a participant, and a very close and knowing scrutiny of the spectator — all these elements that came out of Hautnah have been developed further in Ruckert’s subsequent work.
Ring has become an extremely popular piece, performed widely in Europe, the United States and Canada, and South America. It has a large cast of dancers most of whom are recruited in each city and trained by Ruckert and a few regular members of his company in an intensive course leading up to the performances. I have seen it at Judson Memorial Church in New York, and in a community centre in Nottingham. In London it was performed at Riverside Studios. The performance venue is set with a circle of chairs facing outwards, and then seating for the audience facing these. In the circle there are as many chairs as there are dancers in the company, usually between 20 and 35. The ‘audience’ who come along can chose to participate by sitting in the circle, or they can sit out and watch. At the starts of the piece, a dancer stands behind each chair and begins first to whisper to the participant then to massage and make close physical contact with them. Later they get them up on their feet and make them move. At the end, the dancer whispers to them: ‘now you have one minute to make your own dance with me,’ and the space is suddenly full with dancers and participants dancing together. Then a second and later a third or even a fourth group of spectators take their place in the ring of chairs and become participants, until everyone who wants to has had their go.
As a participant in Ring the experience is very sensual and intense. Although it is very different when watched from the outside, there are nevertheless strongly visual aspects to it. It is performed in ritualistic unison and each dancer does the same thing at the same time. A clap from one of the more experienced dancers is the signal to stop and move on to the next participant. They proceed clockwise round the ring. There is a beautiful moment when the dancers each kneel with a participant on either side, take a hand from each and place it on their head. When this happens the effect is of an unbroken ring of arms running right around the room.
Both Hautnah and Ring have ‘rules of the game’ printed in their programmes informing spectators about the ways in which they can participate in the performance. Both blur normal boundaries between performer and spectator. In Hautnah, a dancer showed me to a seat, drew a chalk line between me and her, but almost immediately crossed it to whisper in my ear. In Ring the participants were as much the object of the audience’s gaze as were the dancers themselves, and, at the end of the cycle, they initiated the movement, not the dancer. Both pieces opened up new possibilities for experience, or redefined and made explicit aspects of the audience performer relationship that are usually tacit or invisible. I found it embarrassing to have to discuss with the dancer in Hautnah how much I was going to pay to see her perform. Do we remember when we buy a ticket for a show that our money helps pay the dancers? To get a seat in the circle in Ring one had to be quick off the mark. One had to take a risk. In both pieces and during the Love University project in Nottingham the dancers had learned how to break down participants’ inhibitions by establishing an often surprisingly intimate contact with them. They then used this intimacy in ways that did not necessarily allow people just to do what they wanted, but pushed them into taking risks.
Love University was one of a series of choreographic research projects that the Dance4 National Dance Agency are running. In it Ruckert and some of his company members worked for about four weeks with a core group of dancers from the Nottingham area, giving a series of evening showings of work in progress. They explored new ideas and developed new choreographic structures that Ruckert intends to take further with his company at a later stage. Some of the work in progress they showed early in the project resembled Ring. In one, there were two chairs and four dancer, and participants were invited to sit in a chair. The dancers closed the participant’s eyes, and began with massage and stretches. They then got participants to their feet, still with their eyes closed, and led them through a dance around the space. As a spectator one watched two trios which came in and out of unison with each other. Towards the end, while one dancer worked in physical contact with the participant, the other improvised a solo around them, adding, Ruckert later said, a spatial and dynamic component by reading the others’ duet. The last evening showing during the project was entirely different. When the audience entered they found chairs arranged in twos and threes all around the room. Dancers were already sitting on some of them, and the audience sat on others. The piece began when dancers came and sat or stood with participants, and made some physical contact with them. The improvisation seemed entirely unstructured, but many of the things that transpired drew on work done earlier in the residency, or had been prepared that day. Without any choice everyone participated, and after a while it became unclear who were members of the core group of dancer and who had just come along that evening. At one moment Ruckert and two of the male dancers undressed completely and lay one on top of each other in great, soft piles of bodies.
At the beginning of the project, the structures underlying improvisations seemed to have quite clearly defined rules. Gradually, as the dancers became more experienced in his way of working, the rules seemed to fade away. I remember a discussion at the end of one evening showing early on in the project when Ruckert questioned whether it was necessary to tell people the rules. They’ll find them out, he said. By the end there was no mention of rules at all: the dancers had become adept at responding to and working with whatever situations arose, able to read and influence what was taking place. Ruckert’s research was not just about exploring material or developing dancers’ skills, but also an investigation into how people who came in the evenings and became participants responded to the situations Ruckert devised. Every showing I attended ended with a discussion with the people who had come along that evening: while Ruckert answered questions about his intentions, he found out about their responses to the evening’s activities.
In his proposal for the Love University project, Ruckert wrote that he considered physical love itself a valuable work of art as long as it applied choreographic tools: awareness of time, space, and form. The caring attention I have received as participant in every piece by Ruckert I have attended has been honed by this awareness of time, space, and form. Ruckert teaches his dancers how to watch out and find opportunities to intervene during improvisations, and how to give clear signals through the way they interact with participants. And he tells them to make their minds up decisively and to go for it. In effect he teaches them techniques of a theatre of seduction.
Ideas about what constitutes an intimate, interpersonal exchange have radically altered in recent years. The AIDS epidemic created enormous anxieties about the permeability of bodies and potential dangers in exchanges of bodily fluids — things that had not previously seemed in any way risky. The growth of cyberspace has created new ideas about personal space and virtual identity and presence. In a very different way DNA testing has also changed processes of identification. Ideas about what constitutes a violation of privacy have therefore been undergoing radical redefinition. It is in this context that the intimacy of choreographed encounters in Ruckert’s work are meaningful. His dances eschew what Barbara Browning, in another context, has called ‘a nostalgic desire for the organic integrity of the individual’, and exemplify instead ‘a newly complicated notion of morality in an intimate, complicit world’, through forms that exemplify ‘a new kind of bodily closure, which acknowledges people’s and populations’ interconnectedness’.1 Both the dancers and the participants in Ruckert’s work seem vulnerable because the situations in which they engage require an openness that obligates them to the responsibilities of this newly complicit morality. It is in this context that the sometimes shocking intimacy of some of the material is significant. The risks that participants have found themselves taking, together with the unconventional and radical erasure of distinctions between auditorium and stage, performer and audience, afford opportunities to discover what these new kinds of bodily closures involve.
We say love is blind, because however intensely lovers look at one another neither really sees the other with much objectivity. The desire to be loved is the desire to be seen in great particularity, not just as anyone, or as another, or the other, or the Other; but as someone in particular who is quite unique and individual. It is this recognition of individuality, it seems to me, that is at the heart of Ruckert’s current work. The pleasure of participating in his pieces is the pleasure of receiving an intense, intimate, caring attention that is analogous to the attention of a lover. The pleasure of watching is the pleasure of recognizing the revelation of another’s particularity and individual uniqueness with an intimacy only usually experienced with someone one loves.

1. Barbara Browning. Infectious Rhythm Routledge, 1998 p. 129.