It should have been a ray of light in an otherwise anthracite wet Berlin winter, but Emanuel Gat’s SUNNY did not quite spark my nature’s fire as Bobby Hebb’s song promises from which the dance takes its title. The last premiere for the Staatsballett Berlin before Christmas, originally, programmed as the third part of last week Ekman / Eyal evening, for reason of conflicting schedules, it was outsourced to the Volksbühne. An unusual performance venue for the Staatsballett, it nevertheless contributed to bringing a new audience to see the company. In SUNNY, Gat clearly demonstrates great knowledge in all things theatrical… but for what?

<i>Sunny</i> by Emanuel Gat © Jubal Battisti
Sunny by Emanuel Gat
© Jubal Battisti

White floor, black walls on the open stage walks in a man clad with what seems a reddish Noh theatre costume. Covered head to toe and wearing a mask, the figure starts moving in slow motion with the costume accentuating his curves and arches. The group in colourful underwear soon rejoins, observing him on a distance. They then form a circle and two by two leave for duet sequences with attempts at partnering. These are dysfunctional, each continuing their programme without coming to a collaboration. The movement material is a patchwork of gestures, movements taken from sport and dancing steps. The movement quality varies from dropping on the floor to ninja moves to get in the negative space of the others, or quick sequences abruptly cut. They then form a line vertical to the audience, each continuing with their own movement material. They start shouting the movements they are doing – ‘jump’, ‘fall’ – that soon become cues for the others – ‘stop’, ‘continue’. The stage becomes dark red with only the outlines of the dancers visible. The dancers then leave to get dressed into fancy, weird costumes – a man in tailcoat but no trousers, a dancer in white with a huge pompom instead of the head – repeating similar tasks as before using the four corners of the stage with the light guiding the gaze as they are consecutively turned off leaving only sections lit in which the dancers cram. They witness to one another’s movement sequences. They then move their attention to the audience running forward to it and gift it with a few grand battements en avant right on the edge of the stage. After another change of costume – the dancers now wear athleisure – they repeat sections of the score and extended their cue giving until they are all involved.

<i>Sunny</i> by Emanuel Gat © Jubal Battisti
Sunny by Emanuel Gat
© Jubal Battisti

In the programme notes to SUNNY, Gat’s write about his work: “I don’t create pieces, I create an evolving choreographic system” and that is exactly what we see on stage, no piece but exercises that, besides being aesthetically pleasing, convey only a faint meaning. Beautiful forms, one could ask “Why? What for?” and someone else “Why not?” It is actually one of these core problems in dance: form over content or content at the expenses of form. The most famous is Merce Cunningham who threw out of the window any communicative intent whatsoever. And one could think it is a feature of modern dance forgetting that Balanchine did the same in some of his ballets. Serenade (1934) and Jewels (1967) are two such examples that are now viewed as classics in the ballet repertoire. Balanchine, in particular, devised Serenade as an exercise in stage presence for the students of the then newly formed School of American Ballet. Some will argue it is the lack of ballet steps and conventions – we see plenty of not fully stretched feet – that crosses them the most. This is not the case for me: you still have to be well trained to move as the dancers did. Falling also requires training. I really enjoyed, for example, watching the dancers repeat over and over again a sequence as in rehearsal to get the synchronous sequence correct. It is the absence of meaning or of emotional involvement that the dance produced in me that was troubling. All the right theatrical devices have been used to keep me entertained – great lighting design by Gat and the set of absurd costumes by Thomas Bradley. I became irritated as my eye moved where it was supposed and I could not find a logical reason for it.

<i>Sunny</i> by Emanuel Gat © Jubal Battisti
Sunny by Emanuel Gat
© Jubal Battisti

The last image of SUNNY is the empty space where the Noh-like costume is still hanging with live music by Awir Leon, who alternated acoustic songs to techno sounds. For me, SUNNY is a three-dimensional Rorschach test, one could see anything in it. Fluency in theatrical devices – nobody can take that from Gat – does not imply the work coming alive. Surely, the movement is fresh as there is a great use of improvisation, also a skill to be trained, and the cue giving keeps the dancers on their toes, but again, I am asking what for.

***11