Three women on all fours. It’s not what you think, but they definitely go there. Slowly ticking their hips left to right, what starts out delicate and sweet quickly becomes sexually charged. These three women in their identical white skirts all have a craving… and they can’t contain it. Co(te)lette is a 60-minute uninterrupted piece by Ann Van Den Broek, and the 2008 winner of a Zwaan (Swan) award for the most impressive dance production of a season. It has also been made into a movie, winning a number of awards in this form. Co(te)lette is captivating, seductive and deeply disturbing. It touches on carnal desires and examines the place of women in modern society. It sucks us in with showmanship, then imprisons us with a raw social critique.

Co(te)lette © Maarten Vanden Abeele
Co(te)lette
© Maarten Vanden Abeele

Three beautiful women swinging their hips seems harmless enough, but an uncomfortable squirm passes through the crowd almost from the get-go as one of the women is wearing her skirt backwards, revealing more skin and underwear with each sway. The swinging turns into figure eights and big bounces, involving the whole body now and happening perfectly in sync. One by one, each of the women break away for short solos, inevitably rejoining the group and the repetitive booty-shaking motion.

A single light illuminates the stage with a stark white crispness, so bright that it hurts the eyes. It reflects off the white floor, white drapes on the walls, and the women’s white skirts and skin. Plastic smiles – whenever we do get a glimpse of the women’s faces – complete the clinical scene. Finally standing, the three dancers move in perfect unison, as feminine as ever as they flip their hair and show off their assets. What was originally enjoyable to watch now seems to be watching and judging us, the crowd, for being entertained by this superficial gender representation.

These three dancers make up a diverse sample of female body types. From the hourglass doll to the petite muscular frame to the thicker, broader woman, we are confronted with our skewed perception of women by the sheer fact that they actually come in all shapes and sizes. Through multiple costume changes and scenes of total nudity we are confronted by the female body as something that doesn’t fit in a neat box. Nor does it fit in neat ideas of sexual submissiveness.

Two women strip the third naked as the lights dim to pink. Completely vulnerable, the naked woman is thrown around and slammed on the floor. Matching the lighting and the new costume of pink shirts and blazers, her skin gradually turns pink and raw from the beating. She never objects.

Passing from the country club to the red light district to the bedroom and the streets, these women cover the range of contradictory representations of females that plague our society. One woman is emptied from the effort of trying to fit in the mold. Another is enraged at the role imposed on her. A third rebels and shows us her body as we’ve never seen it before. As a gooey sound plays overhead, she makes her body undulate like Jell-o, moving so fast it’s hard to imagine that she is actually still in control. We are lost in the hypnotizing waves of her body until a spotlight captures another woman taking a huge leap in the background and falling into pitch darkness as the show stops short.

Co(te)lette is surprising in that it combines fantastic and original choreography, based on often unquestioned stereotypes and routines. It imbues them with a multi-layered feminist reflection, capitalizing on women’s ability to be equally fragile and bold. Unlike many contemporary pieces that get caught up in the message, here the medium of dance is clearly and beautifully articulated. Strong technique and the willingness to experiment with bodies and symbolism make this a standout piece.

*****