Going to the opera is always a pleasure, especially if at the Komische Oper Berlin. The juxtaposition of the core building in the classical style, enclosed into a modern box with its dramatic red foyer upstairs, besides being so fascinating, also draws a parallel to what happens on the stage itself, with the restaging of classical works in a contemporary frame. Jefta van Dinther’s Plateau Effect, premiered by the Cullberg Ballet in 2013 and performed here by Staatsballett Berlin, is instead a contemporary work dealing with a question as old as when humans started living in groups: that of social interaction in view of a greater cause.

<i>Plateau Effect</i> © Jubal Battisti
Plateau Effect
© Jubal Battisti

The work starts with seven dancers lined up, standing against a curtain covering the stage. A woman starts lip-synching the voice of a man singing. The dancers sink deeply into the folds created by the draping (scenography by SIMKA) and slowly the movement of the fabric becomes more and more intense, creating waves that literally envelop the dancers which disappear one by one while the soundscape by David Kiers is pounding at a heartbeat rate. The storm in a “theater”-cup continues with the curtain taking different bulging shapes until the structure to which the fabric is attached slowly descends on stage, revealing a wooden back wall and the rest of the ten dancers, who detach the cloth and gather it into a lump. As they observe it, the cloth starts to move across the floor: one dancer hiding underneath it. They then start pulling it apart to fold it and attach it with ropes to hooks on the back wall and ceiling. Pulling these ropes they create an ever-changing panorama of forms. The action grows wild in its urgency, with the dancers screaming wildly to organise themselves pushing and pulling, and jumping over ropes, entering the first rows of the auditorium over racing techno-basses and on changing green and red lighting (designs by Mina Tiikkaine). At this point, the curtain has become a hanging Kinbaku lump and the dancers start to take it apart. Pulling the drape again on the surface of the stage, they rolled and tighten it closed as if putting it away. In a half-awaken, half-zombie like state, they instead hang one side on the wall while the other end is suspended in mid-air. The piece ends as we are blinded by the lighting from above and everything becomes dark and silent.

<i>Plateau Effect</i> © Jubal Battisti
Plateau Effect
© Jubal Battisti

In general, the dance is extremely physical and requires great attention – the dancers run back and forth pulling and avoiding ropes – and there are several interesting moments. For example, the drape movements fascinated me as all of the dancers were behind it. It looked like those computer animations where fictional bodies merge into something else. The fabric became a screen upon which my imagination or hallucination could project images. In the rope section, there was a fleeting moment when the dancers seemed to be steering a boat through a self-inflicted storm. What fascinated me was the dysfunctional approach they had in the task as a representation of the concurring forces in society and the result created by their convergence. Dysfunctional interactions also create something, and that is generally beyond the power of the individual to control. The rest of the dance was less impressive. Relatively free of narration (not that narration is needed), the action in the sections seemed to stall – so to reach a plateau – going on for too long but not long enough to overcome the lack of action and entering into the trance zone.

<i>Plateau Effect</i> © Jubal Battisti
Plateau Effect
© Jubal Battisti

Kinaesthetic empathy, and the anti-dualist Baruth Spinoza and his world in which bodies and emotions are also governed by cause and effect, were invoked as important aspects of the dance. Unfortunately, there are limits to the powers of the body…. running aimlessly. I got the dancers purposelessly “acting busy” all too clearly (especially before the ropes section). In the last part, the focus was more on the movements of the dancers – three-quarters of the work was centred on the poetics of the curtain folds – with a quality between Spinoza’s somnambulist and the Romero’s zombies. Constantly unstable on their feet, they seemed to be governed by an external will.

Van Dinther’s experiment of erasing the dancers’ body from the stage did not totally convince, but I salute the idea together with staging the startling results of dysfunctional interactions. The work did not elicit a strong emotional response in me, but it did made me think about a better way to illustrate the workings of complex systems in a time when easy solutions to fix social problems are being sold as a sure thing. I am really curious to see van Dinther’s next challenge to theatre conventions and apparatus and hopefully experiencing those modifications of the body that Spinoza called emotions.

***11