After three weeks of intensive shows, events and talks – with up to three and more events a day – Tanz im August, the main dance festival in Berlin during the summer, is slowly coming to a close. Like last year, the Norwegian choreographer, director and dramatist Alan Lucien Øyen brings a bittersweet taste to this closure. At its German premiere, his Story, story, die. wants to interrogate what the sociologist Erving Goffman calls “presentation of the self” or how one’s gain respect and approbation among peers through manipulation. But the individual stories gone through a postmodern blender have lost consistence.

<i>Story, story, die.</i> © Mats Bäcker
Story, story, die.
© Mats Bäcker

He might not be on everyone’s lips but Øyen is definitively not a beginner. His long experience with his company winter guests, founded 2006, is complemented with the call last year to create a work for the world-renowned ensemble Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. His works are highly crafted; require great skills and timing from the performers – are they even human? – who have to move and talk. His works also rely heavily on distancing effects with drastic changes in lights and moods that constantly reframe the action. And maybe it is in this last, that lays for me a problem.

Upon entering the auditorium, we are literally greeted by the dancers coming in and out of stage while stretching, rehearsing and chatting. The space is empty apart from a door standing by itself, a megaphone and a line of chairs off stage. With a dramatic change of lights – a cone coming from downstage left – the action starts. Their words are illustrated and challenged by a syncopated and pacy mime. The words are an extension of the movement material: movements or words are expanded literally or for association moving back and forth. The bodies expressive from head to toes, bend and twist at extremes angles, ravel and unravel themselves as contortionists challenging gravity. Their movements are liquid, concise and convulsed, jarred and jammed, forward and backwards as we had a remote control. Shaky and skating, it is the aesthetic of the dance socks that allows gliding and sliding without burns or cuts. It reminds me of Crystal Pite’s (Kidd Pivot) intricate tapestry of movements and words or Peeping Tom, only faster. The performers exhibit plenty of bravura but after so many twists and turns, nothing is left to remember; nuances and associations last only a split second before dissolving leaving no clues.

<i>Story, story,die.</i> © Mats Bäcker
Story, story,die.
© Mats Bäcker

The structure of the micro-scenes is similar: with a change in lighting, we are brought back to reality and a seemingly unrelated action to the previous one start. Through repetitions, it acquires dramatic power and is undercut. There are a few moments of pure musical-like entertainment topped with cheesy music and lyrics. There are also nice images, executed in a brilliant realistic manner like the mass shooting sequence where the bodies jumped as if hit, or when a schizophrenic teddy bear (Tom Weinberger) verbally abuses and gaslights Zander Constant. These got me the chills. Memorable is also the group gathering around a self-sacrificing victim, transforming him into a skeleton with black and white paint. Death then leads the performers into a danse macabre: either by romantically slow dancing with them, transmigrating souls from one mouth to another or simply having people collapsing. Dancers perform several CPR sessions on stage and in one of them a voice squeaking ‘the end’ is associated with the pushing of the chest as if reviving a broken toy. Every tragic moment is levelled down with careless levity with the stock characters seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown or in search of an author.

<i>Story, story, die.</i> © Mats Bäcker
Story, story, die.
© Mats Bäcker

Going back to the distancing effect, it is, in fact, one of my favourite dramaturgical devices together with free associations and references. I am all for being transported abruptly into meta-realms by drastic changes of light and I enjoy surreal and absurd twists, drama and fake melodrama. In Story, story, die. there are plenty of stories, fragments, stop and go actions, and one too many frame and reframe. It is a stew, a tasty one but it does not allow for a good mouthful bite. Without (partially) whole stories – are they real ones? – the questioning of one’s own existence becomes shallow.

The piece is closely related to the one for the Bausch’s ensemble, a flood of images that brings almost to sensory overload, minus the stunning scenography and is half of the length. There were traces of enquiry on lies and truths in social interaction but most of all there were the beautiful moves of the dancers together with the good acting, along with one or the other image among the fragmented narratives or dreams. Dance seems to have had the same acceleration as action movies – John wick’s martial choreography – forgetting that at times stillness is all that it is needed.

****1