As last year’s winners of the coveted Berner Tanzpreis (Berne Dance Prize), the Belgian duo Sara Olmo & Victor Launay, and the Taiwainese choreographer Po-Cheng Tsai, were invited to create works for the Konzert Theater Bern dance company this spring. Together, they chose to focus their works on the person and thinking processes of the great Albert Einstein, whose years in Berne (1902-1905) were marked by some of his most ground-breaking ideas about physics. 

© Philipp Zinniker
© Philipp Zinniker

Alluding to the time between the two Great Wars, Sara Olmo & Victor Launay’s C’est Relative is set as a small-city’s nostalgic street scene whose trees are strung with flickering light bulbs, and where a cyclist periodically pedals around the stage. The dancers in the piece interact easily, whether as pairs, a troupe of women, or one or the other hopeful suitor. The sense of longing is underscored several times by one or another’s gesture of leaning towards – but never actually picking up – a flower at the base of the large tree stage centre. The figure of Einstein himself, (Toshitaka Nakamura), who sets himself apart by his loose-fitting two-piece suit, stands alone downstage with a quizzical expression of the unanswered question written on his face. Behind him, six couples engage in various everyday vignettes, often to accompanying music that recalls the slippery ease of French chansons and, as such, is highly likeable. 

The piece is clearly an illustration of Albert Einstein the man in his own historical era. The unbroken flow of spinning and dancing on the stage might well be called a meeting of light, mass, and energy, reflecting Einstein’s scientific pursuits. That said, the language of movement was largely repetitive and predictable; what felt like endless hoops of raised arms and downward retreats gave us precious little in the way of contrast or grip. Here was an egalitarian approach to the cast of characters, an expression of human foibles and predilections notwithstanding. And while it may have been intended as a glimpse into a chapter of life as Einstein witnessed it, breath-taking it was not. 

By contrast, Po-Cheng Tsai’s more abstract Inception held my rapt attention from start to finish. The opening visual alone is well worth the price of admission. Facing a broad wall of regularly-spaced, half-rounded columns, each one glowing as if illuminated by some inner force, a single figure (Tsung-Hsien Chen as Einstein) stood upstage centre, his back to the audience. Between him and us, a round cluster of dancers lay on the stage. Their heads, shoulders and hips all assumed different angles, but palpitated and gyrated as the flesh-colored mass began to morph into a single, upright body. In light of Einstein’s avid musical interests and gift for the violin, Mozart’s Ave verum corpus (Hail, True Body) accompanied the birth of this emerging creation, perhaps foreshadowing the prolific body of Einstein’s own revolutionary ideas. 

The digital music that followed nicely underscored the quick and impulsive gestures of the dancers once they separated. All twelve appeared in trench coats but took them on and off again throughout the piece. While that confused the who-is-who when all were dancing together, it likely alluded to the ways the “detective” in Einstein took up a search to explain aspects of the physical universe. In any case, Po-Cheng Tsai’s work bridged the dancers to various realms; one pas-de-deuxwas almost insectile, another configuration seemed a tribute to Punk rock. And out from under the trench coats, Catherine Voeffray’s costumes were a wonderful mix of textures, colours, transparent gauze and daytime gear that worked perfectly with the pumping scores. In short, here was energy unbounded, precision, and insight into what defines the human body, each one of them being  an attribute the choreographer tapped in Inception to reflect Einstein’s true genius. No doubt he’d have welcomed the tribute.