Part of a trilogy entitled The Nature of Us, this is the first ensemble work by Berlin-based artists Angela Schubotand Jared Gradinger. Known best in the past decade for their duets exploring the limits of our bodies, it is our connection with nature that is at stake here in this work. The performers’ bodies are stripped of their humanness to regain a connection to nature. This cannot be simply achieved by talking to plants but requires active listening to make nature a co-creator.

Angela Schubot and Jared Gradinger's The Nature of Us
© Dorothea Tuch

Upon arriving at HAU as unwitting gardeners, we are invited to take our shoes off and are offered woolly socks to join the performers on stage. The room is mostly empty, with a white square arena illuminated by neon lights hanging in compact lines from the ceiling. A pile of speakers, like an ancient Mayan pyramid towers on one side, blocks the access to the tribune, while at the edges of the stage lies clothing encrusted with crystals and a pot of wax heating on a stove. In this unusual greenhouse, the smell of wax permeating the space, a heterogeneous group of people with ragged and dirty clothes walks aimlessly, their heads lowered, whispering gibberish. As the audience floods the space, Berlin’s eclectic fashion style does not help. Only the lack of woollen socks gives away this show’s performers from the ‘alternative performances’ of the audience. The zombies slowly lower to the ground first sliding on their knees and then rolling into one another and the audience while continuing their cacophony. As we are relaxing into an unknown space, one performer starts breathing heavily. The accelerated panting becomes a group orgasm. One performer sings her twaddle into the bottom of another, while someone unceremoniously drags someone else on the floor. Then we relax again, as the dimmed lights flicker, stars in the sky, for a very long time. This is followed by other duets, again cruising inside the audience to make it move. We see them battle and sing, while an alien baby wails desperately unable to suck his feet (Jared Gradinger). The neon lights become part of the narrative and three monkeys scrub red rashes off one another with tin lids. The show ends as the dancers invite audience members to form a circle, ritually encircling them.

The dance is a call to stop the anthropocene in its run. A dystopian dance, it aims to hit our sensory system directly. The choreographers found a quality of movement that maintains nature’s materiality without falling into ‘dance-y’ abstraction. At the same time, additional layers of associations are needed. As in Pieter Brughel Jr.’s absurd depictions of hell, the distorted bodies lose their humanness to acquire something that is raw, almost primeval. The bodies’ tonicity is exceptionally relaxed and unnaturally alien-like. The extreme physicality of the piece paired with moments of extreme intimacy form an entrenching match. We are mesmerised as bodies of different sizes roll one onto the other and we are surprised that the dancers are not hyperventilating while panting for what seemed like an eternity. The choreographers’ approach, influencing the state of the audience and its perception of the body needs time to develop but moments of radical intensity burst through. At the beginning, empathy is fostered through close interaction, the type of movement and the constant displacement of the audience. The latter is a nudge to their own embodied self in space. But especially towards the end, the suspense is killed by the empty slowness of the action. The technical apparatus is interesting in its exposed simplicity: Annegret Schalke’s ‘light-garden’ is composed of neon lights that can be lowered, and a light installation on the wall: the first one is lowered onto a performer (Andreea David) for an impromptu duet while the clumped group is perforated by several elements from the second. This is paired with Stefan Rusconi’s ‘sound-garden’. Both artists are seen operating and readjusting the elements during the show. The crystals encrusted costumes also create interesting visual effects but are left unexplored if not in their juxtaposition to the dirt.

Schubot and Gradinger have created a post-human zombie wasteland where humans crawl oblivious to any social decorum. We are appalled and appealed by these dirty, crystal encrusted creatures. They are almost the poetic materialisation of Gilles Deleuze’s body-without-organs but also of the turgid, always-on-the-verge-of-emitting-some-gore body of horror films. Some days ago, coming back from a talk on zombies, I wondered what a dance about them would look like. Well, I have found it.